Burn Baby Burn?

William Wayne Weems

2017 by William Wayne Weems

Photo of two shotgun houses.

So I was called during a back and forth debate with Facebook comments. I am aware of the present loose use of that slur, and the contention among some folk "of color" that it is impossible for them to be racist while those of "white" skin are by their very culture necessarily prey to such attitudes. But naf that I am, I thought my participation in the Civil Rights restaurant sit-ins during the 1960's would somehow insulate me from such a charge. Moreover, when unexpected and adverse circumstances some twenty years later left an elderly black woman without either shelter or her prescription medications, spouse Sue and I drove her to drugstores and let her use the guest bedroom in our house until her daughter could leave the hospital.

But I have alluded to a prior incident that may show the depth of my racism, and it is with considerable relish that I take this opportunity to expand that tale here. A glance at the photo above will give you some idea of the front of the "shotgun" type homes involved in this tale....except the two houses were not joined together. When I glanced across the street in c.a. 1961, I noted the right hand house was on fire.

Yes, I knew "colored folk" lived in those houses, but there didn't seem to be anyone around, so I raced across the street and knocked on the right hand door. A glass pane in the door shattered at my touch from the heat, so I knew to use my t-shirt to guard my hand while trying the doorknob. It was locked, so there was likely no one home. I went to the left hand door and banged away. The roof on that house was catching fire from falling embers and the entire wood siding was smoking from the heat of the blaze next door.

I could see through the door glass a woman leave her kitchen and approach the door.. When she opened it to inquire about my purpose, I gestured to the right hand house, where bursts of flame were now beginning to engulf the front porch. I advised her to leave at once, she said "Lordy!" and quickly complied. By this time her front yard was filling with other folk of color and the wail of fire department sirens could faintly be heard in the far distance. Suddenly the woman stiffened and said "Maddie! Is Maddie still in there?" She bolted for her front door and dashed inside.

I quickly gave chase, but halted at the front door entrance. The interior of that house was now full of hot, swirling smoke, and it seemed to be getting thicker. Suddenly a black man elbowed me aside and dashed into the house. I could hear him find the woman and lead her forward, but the smoke was now so thick they were blinded and colliding with furniture.I quickly realized that if I proceeded into the house there would be three of us thrashing about, since no one had any protective gear.

I didn't know about the Fire Department term "flashover" but it was obvious the interior of the house could erupt into flames at any second. Nevertheless, I grasped the door frame, stepped inside and extended my arm as far as it would go, shouting "Come to the sound of my voice! Come quickly! I repeated that shout three times until I felt another hand touch mine.Levering against the door frame, I pulled the three of us outside. While another black woman reassured the distressed housewife her Maddie was safely down the street, I watched as flames swirled over the left hand house.

Not once had I considered the shade of anyone's skin.

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