Story & Photo – Joseph Boyle
The day I arrived by motorcycle in the southern town of Clarksdale, Mississippi I checked into The Shack Up Inn, which is a historic cotton plantation. I spent a week living in a rustic sharecropper shack on the plantation. The shack was named Legends after icon Bluesman Buddy Guy’s Chicago Blues Club known by the same name.
While the shack was rustic, it was clean and neat. It gave me a taste of how sharecroppers and slaves lived as they worked the cotton.
My friend Drew and I rode into downtown Clarksdale passing through the mythical Crossroads to the Blues Museum.
As we were leaving the museum, a man approached and asked if we were going to the jam. I told him no.
At this exact moment, a breakdown in human communication, human relations and race relations almost occurred. The Harley riding man, dressed in motorcycle riding gear is black. Drew and I are white. The rider’s name is Kevin.
When Kevin asked about the “jam” I thought he was talking about a group of musicians getting together at someplace like Red’s Juke Joint to hang out and play some Blues. My answer to his question, “No.” was accurate based on what I thought he was asking. My answer, based on what he was truly asking, was not accurate.
As we continued to talk he mentioned the term jam camp. I then said, “Oh! Jam camp. Yes, we are going to the jam camp.” He then asked if he could follow us to the camp so he could find his way. We said, “Certainly.”
Do you see what nearly happened? Even though it would have been simply a misunderstanding, Kevin and I could have ended up at the same one-week jam harmonica Blues camp together. We would be together all week after I had told him “no I was not going to the jam”.
The one missing word, camp, could have made such a huge difference in communication and human relations. It might easily have looked like I was brushing him off and being disrespectful for all kinds of reasons including the obvious, negative race relations. Not wanting to be a hater, especially based on race, this near-miss bothered me.
As it turned out, we really hit if off. Kevin is fun, accepting, intelligent and kind. Kevin lights up a room. We supported each other during our efforts to learn the Blues harmonica. Our first communication could have ended up in a human relations disaster.
On a Sunday, after our one week class was over, Kevin met me in front of Legends at 6:00 a.m. The two of us rode our Harley’s north. He was heading north towards Highway 55 back to Minneapolis. I was heading east towards Memphis to meet my pal, Tom Canary, in anticipation of riding The Tail of The Dragon.
After riding north a few miles, we stopped in Tunica, Mississippi for breakfast at a famous diner called Blue & White Restaurant. It is a great spot with interesting history dating back to 1924.
Now is a good time to weave my title, Black & White Vs. Black & White, into my story.
Parked outside the diner was a fancy patrol car, which is sometimes referred to as a Black and White. Black and White is an old term for police cars which came about because police cars used to be predominantly black and white in color.
What happened next is something I have never experienced before, probably for two reasons. One, I have not spent much time in the South. Two, I am not black.
The white officer, who was way across the large breakfast room, stared at the two of us the entire time. He did not look at us and then look away. He stared at us. He did not look us over and then go about his business. He never looked away; ever.
Thank goodness he did not walk over and engage us in conversation. He just stared an evil stare like he wanted to “bust” us up with his police baton. It was a hate stare. If looks could kill, Kevin and I would be dead.
I asked myself, was it because Kevin is black? Was it because I am white and having breakfast with a friend who is black? Was it because he does not like “bikers”?
He had that, “You are not welcome in my town and don’t come back look!”
Only the officer knows the real answer. We finished breakfast and left. I kept checking my mirrors to see if he was going to follow us in his black and white as we left town. I was truly concerned he wanted to work us over when we entered his favorite desolate spot that could be used as a beating zone.
He did not and we rode away free.
The officer gave me at least a hint of what it feels like to be black in a world sometimes hostile to minorities. I did not like the feeling. We hear about blacks being treated in a discriminatory manner. We read about discrimination. We watch reports of discrimination on television. For those of us who are white, reports of discrimination are generally academic in nature. As white people, we normally do not experience what African Americans try to describe to us.
I calculate I have enjoyed 25,641 breakfasts in my lifetime. In all but one, I was simply a white guy eating breakfast. It is only this one breakfast in Tunica, Mississippi where I was given a hint of what it is like to be black and the target of discrimination. I did not like the feeling. The cop’s treatment attacked my sense of safety and value as a human being. He attacked my feeling of equality. With cops like this in the world, it is easier for me to understand why some people hate cops.
I possess the requisite courage necessary to challenge the officer by asking what his problem might be.
I lack the requisite stupidity to want to make a bad situation worse, so I did not challenge the officer. We will never know the true story of Black & White Vs. Black & White.
For me, it was a nightmare of being locked into the old Southern time zone of hatred and brutality.
Before I die, it is my hope that I can be witness to the South embracing the truth that both the Civil War and slavery are over. It is now time for all of us to live life without hatred and prejudice.
Stewart McMahand says
That’s too bad you felt uncomfortable while eating breakfast. I have traveled all over the world and have been the subject of prejudice, not so much me being white, but because I am an American. I grew up down south and still love the south over every other part of the country. There is a certain charm in the south that you cannot find elsewhere. Its hard to tell why the cop was giving you the stare down, maybe it was not the white person eating with a black person but because you were strangers. Tunica only has a population of around a thousand people and everyone knows everyone else. It has been my experience that people in small towns tend to be somewhat suspicious of strangers. I have found this to be true all over the United States, just not in the south. Bottom line is, there is no way of knowing what the cop was thinking, maybe he was just having a bad day and had a lot on his mind, only he knows for sure. Don’t judge the south by one bad experience. Southerners overall are very friendly and will bend over backwards to help you if need be.
The war of northern aggression is another matter all together. I think the war was more about states rights, unfortunately slavery was the primary states rights they wanted to protect. While a main issue, slavery was not the only reason the south succeeded. That said most of the people fighting in the south did not own slaves and did not want slaves. There are those in academia who will say the south was about the people who owned slaves and those who aspired to be slave owners, but this is far from the truth. The fact of the matter is that when northerners stepped foot on southern soil, many southerners took offense to that and many took up arms to protect their homes. There are so many misconceptions about the war that the history books do not cover.
Ok, enough talk, I guess what I am trying to get across is don’t judge a people by the actions of a few, there are good people everywhere and it seems the actions of a few tend to overshadow the true nature of the majority.
Sharli McCollum says
That’s quite a poignant story, Joe. Having grown up in Reno, we have no idea how race affects the lives of so many people. We just viewed the movie, The Butler, and while it is not such a great film, it does tell the story that we did not live. It definitely is “time for all of us to live life without hatred and prejudice.” Thanks for sharing.