By Harry Louis Williams, II, a.k.a. O.G. Rev
(OG Rev will be speaking in conversation with Randy Shaw at the Writing For Change: Worldwide on September 9. For more information, please visit the Writing For Change: Worldwide website. Or register here.)
The newspaper masthead reads August 6, 1945. Its a sunny day in Nagasaki, Japan. You sit down at your favorite coffee shop before work as is your daily custom. You greet the friendly new waitress with deep set dimples with a friendly nod. You notice that there is no wedding ring and you wonder if she’s married. Your coffee comes from the kitchen steaming black, just the way that you like it. Flipping through the newspaper you turn to your daily column. A curse word slips from beneath your tongue as you realize that the editor has butchered your column in order to make room for a hack piece on a kitting tournament. Just then, the sky grows black. There’s an ear splitting explosion. The walls of the tiny cafe collapse. Thick, acrid smoke rises from the furnace that has consumed your piece of the planet. In minutes, the world you once knew explodes beneath the weight of a nuclear warhead.
Your newspaper office has been consumed by fire. Your house is a pile of ash and rubble. The only things that you own now are the suit on your back, a yellow notepad and the set of ball point pens in your white, plastic pocket protector. You sit by the side of the road and as the tears drip down your dirty face, your write. This moment must be captured with all of its agony and its anguish and its sorrow. It must never be forgotten. Future generations must live this moment with you. Set pen to paper now for you are a witness.
James Baldwin defined his calling not as author but “witness.” At the height of the civil rights movement, he traveled through the southern states sitting at the dinner tables of courageous men and women who were risking their lives in the struggle. His job was to see, to capture the fear, the humor, the love and the loss. As a witness, he framed the stakes and described the gambles that need be taken. A witness is our set of eyes that makes another world spark alive in our imaginations.
This evening, I realized that it was my turn to be a witness. Nightly police vans and protesters clog the streets in front of me. Who will tell the story from my vantage point if I don’t reach into my briefcase for my long yellow pad? Will the story just blow into the ether? Will it be mangled, mythologized or propagandized? These harsh and dramatic times call for firsthand truth tellers. These times call for witnesses. What have you seen? What have you felt? Where is your yellow pad? Where are your pens?
Harry Williams was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Asbury Park, NJ. He holds a B.A. degree from Kean University and a Master of Divinity Degree from Palmer Theological Seminary. Currently, Reverend Williams (known in the community as OG Rev) serves as a community minister/activist in Oakland, California. He is also the Interim Minister of Compassionate Care at the historic Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. He has written 9 novels and nonfiction books. His latest is entitled: Taking It To The Streets: Lessons From A Life Of Urban Ministry.