John Warner Smith



No one might ever say what I am about to tell you. When strong men die, you don’t bring up their dark pasts. So years ago, when I eulogized your Great-Great Paw Paw Andre, I didn’t say that he had spent eighteen months in prison for killing a man. The year was 1943. He was 25 with a wife and three baby girls. The oldest, your Great Granny Mary, was four years old. It was Saturday night, a poker game the backroom of a gambling shack in Broussard. Suddenly, an argument, a fist fight, a wooden bench slung at Andre’s head. The blade he pulled, smaller than his hand, quicker than his thought, sunk into a man’s heart as if Andre had played magic to make the knife disappear. Named for African slaves, bound on three sides by the murky Mississippi River, Angola Penitentiary had been cut out of cane and corn fields of South Louisiana plantations. The scorching sun bent iron and melted men’s spines. Shovels and sledge-hammers of the farm and quarry pulled flesh from men’s hands. A good meal was raw potatoes, bread, and water. A good night was one lived My portrait of King looks much like theirs. A finely fitting black suit and tie. A stiffly ironed white shirt accentuating the piercing whiteness in his eyes. Cocoa smoothness of his face gleaming
against the backdrop of a royal blue canvas. As I gaze into his brown marbled eyes, King’s dream and mountain top vision still ring loud, and, I dare say, are still much larger than the America I see.


As a young man, I had close encounters with death and imprisonment: blue lights flashing, the life ahead of me unreeling, told to step away from a car, show my hands, a cop’s finger pointed at my face, his hand on a holster. One frigid Saturday morning just short of my turning 19, Cousin Donald and I on a Harley, daredevils tunneling wind drafts of the wheelers, got pulled over by a trooper onto a lonely gravel road at the mouth of a cane field. He said you boys but we heard “niggers.” Slam the door on his leg, Donald said, and I’ll reach in and grab his pistol. Scared but angry, I looked down at the trooper seated behind the wheel, pen and ticket book in his hand, driver’s door open, his foot on the ground. I felt a hand leave my body, and for more than a second I reached for the door. Something, I don’t know what, pulled me back. So when I say that any goodness in you and me is penance, I mean that the life we think is ours is not. Strong men cry us into existence, and prayers of good women are answered.