EVERETT — When Bennie Walthall left tiny Linden, Texas, at age 18, he had hoped to forever leave behind the segregated schools and the few opportunities to get ahead that blacks had there.
But, as Walthall, 66, will demonstrate during a poetry reading today in Marysville, rural east Texas will always remain a part of Walthall.
Many of the poems in his new collection, "Imaginary Lines," are infused with the vernacular and traditions of black east Texas culture, and his reflections on what he learned there.
"My desire was to escape the stigma that might have kept me from advancing educationally, socially and economically," Walthall said as he sat in his south Everett living room on a chair draped with a cloth from Ghana, Africa. "But I can never forget the negative influences that might have overcome me as an African American in east Texas."
Segregation often sapped the initiative of blacks, even those who had the drive to become successful, he said.
Walthall recalled how he visited Linden after a year at Prairie View A&M University and saw a friend lying under a tree.
"I said, ‘Milton, man, why are you sitting here in Linden?’ " Walthall said. " ‘Get out of this little town. Even if you don’t go to college, go to California or something.’ "
Walthall recalled that Milton’s response was, " ‘Well, Joe, it’s just as well that I be lying under a shade tree in Linden as lying under a shade tree in California.’ He had lost all motivation to go further."
That conversation and the circumstances surrounding it led Walthall to write "Sleeping Under the Cornbread Trees Until the Biscuit Bushes Bloom":
No matter how I try
Things just keep getting leaner
Like that grass on the other side of the fence
I know damn well it’s greener
I’ve been down for so long
The bottom looks like up
I’d love a sip of champagne
Even from a plastic cup
Well, I’m not going to fret about it
Or make my move too soon
I’ll keep napping under this cornbread tree
Until the biscuit bushes bloom
Not all of his poems are serious. Others are about how "marvelous" it is to be bald, the small battles between the neat and orderly Walthall and his clutter-loving wife, Shirley, and a phone call in which his daughter reminded him that it was his wedding anniversary.
Walthall has been entertaining people since he was in grade school, when he acted in a variety show. He worked most of his life as an urban planner, architectural designer and transportation official with the federal government, but he’s been writing poems on the side for years.
He decided several years ago to put his poems together in a book, but it took some prodding from Shirley Walthall to make it happen.
"When we had company over, people kept asking him to recite something, and everyone seemed to enjoy it," Shirley Walthall said. "I kept saying, ‘You need to put it down on paper.’ He finally did."
Reporter David Olson: 425-339-3452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.