a word about BLACKWELL
written July, 2002
in the time I lived there -- 1960 - 1973 -- was a town of
about 10,000 working class Okies huddled around
a huge zinc smelter, breathing in its sharp, burning
smoke and depending on its economic blood. Notorious
for its racism and its yearly
flirtation with destruction by
tornado [so nearly successful in 1955] Blackwell is
indistinguishable in my memory from the dying town in
"The Last Picture Show," populated by people who
seemed like the folks from "Pleasantville" cross-bred
with the ones in "Deliverance."
I don't remember Blackwell in color.
It was black and
white -- except in terms of demographics,
in which case
it was strictly Whites Only. According
to local legend,
a fierce sign reading "The sun
doesn't set on a nigger in
Blackwell" was posted on
the bridge over the Chickaskia
River well into the sixties.
Did I ever see that sign?
It's there in my memory, but maybe
what I recall is the
sentiment. I do recall hearing of
Martin Luther King's
assassination by way of a kid just older than I chortling,
"Martin Luther Jig got his ass shot off !" -- an announcement
greeted by more joy than shock from his friends, including
my brother. Whatever sickness poisoned
that town, it was
most clearly manifested in the intense and often jubilent
hatred of black people. Maybe that's part of the reason that
after a lifetime of rambling, my hateful
father found Blackwell
the place to live out his final decades. He had found a place
that agreed with him, where his bitter Klansman's heart felt
Even when I was in grade school, I remember guys
talking about what we'd do if a nigger ever came to Blackwell
-- the unfettered afntasies of torture
and vigilanty violence.
Most of us had never seen a
Black person except in movies
and on TV. It didn't
matter -- they were who we hated, just as
we might hate commies
and homos. It was the thrill of the
hating. All my playmates who would excite
pornographically violent stories of stabbing nigger's eyes out
and staking them naked on ant hills -- would they do less to
me if they knew that I was a faggot?
That's where I learned
my true identity as an outsider, and for that I thank them.
They taught me how hate works. That's how I remember
my Home Town --
Town without pity.
It was, I suppose, identical to a thousand other ugly
towns of its size and its time. Maybe it has changed;
I wouldn't know. I haven't been there for twenty years.
Only recently did I begin to talk again to people from
the years I lived there -- first Jim, then Tommy, Carla,
Joan, Ann, Launa and recently Teresa. I was surprised
that they do not remember it as the crushingly bleak
hell of my recollections.
In the novel of the same name, the little New England town
of Peyton Place is described as a town where every kid
in town leaves as soon as he can get the money for a
bus ticket. How often, as we "dragged Main" -- drove that
endless loop from the Sonic to the
Safeway parking lot --
how often we talked about escaping, getting out of that
town. Most of us did, if only to Oklahoma City or Tulsa.
It took me a dozen years to get from Blackwell to the
San Francisco Bay Area, and certainly no one wanted
out more than I did.
I toy with the idea of going back. I intend to go back, but
I talk myself out of it with little resistance. Who knows.
Maybe next year...
I went back to Blackwell on August 10, 2002
Read more about it on the Back to Blackwell page.