How To Defeat White Racists Using The Only Language They Understand
M y father, Herbert “Big Hub” Dyer, Sr., was a tall, broad-shouldered — “strappin’” — brown-skinned Black man. His canyon-deep bass voice served him well as leader of a gospel quartet called, eponymously, The Gospel Tones.
Born in thoroughly segregated Louisiana in 1922, Big Hub was also a World War II vet. After the war, he stayed in the Army and served his whole hitch in an entirely racially segregated unit right up until the day President Truman issued his Executive Order Number 9981 in 1948. That Order finally desegregated the US military.
How did he end up in the Army? Just weeks before Pearl Harbor, he and his two brothers had literally been run out of Louisiana by white racist planters and like-minded citizens because “the Dyer Boys” had finally refused to continue sharecropping and tenant farming (as their parents and grandparents had been forced to do since the end of the Civil War).
Because of sharecropping, Big Hub achieved only a third grade education and was therefore functionally illiterate. Throughout his life, his literary “skills” extended only as far as his ability to sign his name to his weekly paycheck for his “position” as a laborer in a dark, hellishly hot and filthy iron foundry in Michigan City, Indiana. That place was so dirty that before he could enter the house after work, my mother made Big Hub undress down to his underwear. (When I was in college, during the summers I went through the exact same routine because he made sure I got hired there and worked right alongside him in that damn factory. During our two ten-minute breaks and twenty-minute lunch, we would step outside into the 90 degree heat to cool off. He wanted me to know first-hand, he used to say, what awaited me if I didn’t “get my education”).
Thus, Big Hub insisted that his five children get the best education available in the marginally less racist state of 1960’s Indiana.(Indiana was only “marginally less racist” as evidenced by the fact that the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan began, indeed, was headquartered and flourished in “the great state of Indiana”). As Big Hub’s first born, and with his and my mother’s (Willie Lee Dyer’s) tremendous help and sacrifice, I eventually earned both a bachelors and master’s degree in political science.
Big Hub was an avid fisherman and hunter. He devoted half of his two-car garage to his love of the outdoors. There you found a beautifully appointed 18-foot fishing boat (complete with a tiny galley), a dazzling display of fishing tackle, poles, rods and reels — and, crucially, a small arsenal of weapons: shotguns, rifles and pistols, together with whole cases of ammunition.
Big Hub’s Response to White Supremacy: An Object Lesson
Big Hub did not just talk about, but showed me and my siblings how to deal with racist white folks, white supremacy and their operative tool — white racism.
One sweltering, humid-as-a-wet-blanket July day in the early ’60s, Big Hub was almost fired from his laborer’s job for “talking back” to his white foreman in the foundry. Instead of being fired, though, he was sent home and docked a day’s pay.
Later, in the early evening right around dusk, a group of five, young, drunken white boys, one of whom was the son of my father’s foreman, drove right up to our front yard in a “souped up” ’54 Chevy pickup truck. The three in the cab got out and two others stood up in the truck’s bed. All were waving Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans in one hand and shotguns in the other.
“Come on outta there, nigger!” they yelled. “We got somethin’ for you boy!”One aimed his weapon at our living room window and pretended to shoot his weapon.
Another said, “ Hurry up, nigger! We ain’t got all day. Gonna teach you how to talk to white folks!!”
My old man had been peeking through the curtains since he heard them first drive up. He turned his head back toward his family, and softly ordered Mama and us kids to the basement.
Last in line, I pretended to follow them down, but turned my head at the top step just in time to see Big Hub tip-toeing back through the kitchen and out the back door. I heard him unlock the back of the garage; so I got down on all-fours and crawled back into the living room up to the window. I raised my head just high enough to peek out of the front window.
I watched the white boys still standing next to their truck — laughing, cursing, drinking, smoking.
I heard the front of the garage door slowly creaking open at first. And then…., in one loud WHOOSH!!, the front of the entire garage flew wide open. I could not yet see my father.
But then…I saw him. Big Hub walked the few short steps from the front of the garage to the front door. His front door. In front of the house, the home which he himself had built with his own two hands. The home in which his family now cowered in fear. That’s when I saw how he had transformed himself.
He stood there, ramrod straight, and did not say a single word. Apparently he didn’t have to, for he stood before his home draped in a criss-crossing bandoleer filled with serious-looking rounds of ammo. On his right hip was a holstered World War II-era .45 caliber pistol (a prized sovenier from his days as a soldier).
But the real peace maker was cradled in his arms — a long, totally black, scoped 30.06 rifle.
I was completely awed. I had never seen my father like this. I had never seen this steely-eyed, dead silent determination, this do-or-die, this I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-happens-to-me stance.
And then…he “locked-and-loaded” the rifle. The rapid, loud, unmistakable “click-click-clack” of the weapon as he worked the bolt, slid an unseen but heard monster round into the firing chamber. That sound seemed to bring the whole entire scene, the whole neighborhood in fact, to a dead standstill. No traffic. No birds. No wind.
And no more sound from the white boys.
Instead, they stood frozen in place, staring open-mouthed, at Big Hub….their eyes shining, bulging.
Then….all hell broke loose at the truck: Those white boys began a frantic scramble, almost falling, bumping into each other, and then over themselves as they piled back into their truck. I couldn’t tell if they were throwing or dropping beer cans as they squeezed themselves in. That old truck screeched and huffed and puffed and smoked as its tires burned through the still hot pavement. For a second, I thought it was actually on fire as they roared away.
I learned an invaluable lesson that day: It’s not what you say, but what you do that matters. Mister Dyer drove those white supremacists from his home without uttering a single word. It was what he represented and presented, again what he did, that convinced those guys that they had picked the wrong Black man to try to hassle and intimidate that day.