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Justice, Anger, Laughter and Racism: A conversation with John Booth, Part 2

Tom Stafford
John Booth said when deal with race, he just deals with it bluntly. He "don’t soft-shoe."

Part 1 of Justice, Anger, Laughter and Racism began with John Booth fending off the N-word and other racial insults of his childhood with fearlessness, fists and anger. In this concluding segment, the poet, musician and spoken word artist talks with WYSO reporter Tom Stafford about how he has worked to continue a generations-long family fight against racism.

Stafford: Nearly 50 years ago after knocking someone cold with a punch and narrowly escaping a felony charge, John Booth made a promise.

Booth: I promised myself I would never let anyone get me angry enough to hit them again.

Stafford: A more accurate version might be this: That when someone did make him angry enough to strike out, he would stop himself.

Booth: A lot of times when I react to anger, it backfires on me. You’re gonna have emotions, and It doesn't make any sense to not feel your emotions. But you have to know how to react to your emotions in a positive way that doesn't hurt you. That’s why I'll write about it, might grab a guitar and put on a distortion pedal. You know, run that anger out of me..

Stafford: After doing that for a time, he went to step two.

Booth: I’ve tried not to be angry.

Stafford: And not just about race.

Booth: One of my best-known poems nationally is I’m a Angry Black Man. And the irony of that is I talk about everything but race.

Stafford: Booth says managing his anger has allowed him to stay out of his own harm’s way and use his fearlessness in the more important fight for equality.

Booth: And I think that’s part of what the legacy of our family is. We've been pioneers in different things where we just didn't let fear or the possibility that you couldn't do it be an obstacle.

Stafford: That tradition goes back to his great-great-grandfather, Addison White, who escaped slavery just before the Civil War and – with the help of others – evaded re-enslavement. Booth said a similar courage is called for now.

Booth: When I deal with race, I just deal with it bluntly. I don’t soft-shoe. People try to say racism is a thing of the past, and it's actually having a resurgence. And it's something that my youngsters, even here in this paradise of Yellow Springs, have experienced.

Stafford: Because of that, Booth wanted them to gain experience in how to resist it. He saw their needs ane the needs of the cause come together when police  killed a Black man in a Beavercreek Wal-Mart.

Booth:: When John Crawford was killed, and my son, in particular, was expressing fear of law enforcement and I said, you don't need to be afraid. And, so, as a family, we participate in a protest at Wal-Mart

Stafford: Booth served as the family guide.

Booth: And at a certain point, you know, there were sirens and threats …. And the kids were saying, “Daddy, where do we need to go home? When is it time to leave?” And then they just started arbitrarily arresting people … “Okay, it's time to go.” But they had that experience.

Stafford: And then came George Floyd’s murder.

Booth: Then my daughter was a big participant in the long running rallies and marches that were going on here … lasted for almost a year. And her artwork has been used in some protests. So, yeah, we're continuing our legacy.

Stafford: The story of that family legacy is told in fictional form in a new Mad River Theater Works play “Freedom Flight.” At a pivotal moment in the play, a high school girl asks an escaping Addison White a disarmingly simple question: How do you stop people from hating you who don't even know you? White says it’s not possible. Booth has come up with his own answer.

Booth: That’s one thing I've learned over the past. If someone openly hates me, I'll take the time to get to know them. And, so you can't hate me anymore. You know, you might not like some of my thoughts, my beliefs or whatever, but you can't hate me.

Stafford: When paired with his disarming laugh, Booth’s openness – and fearlessness – has more impact than any punch he ever threw. In Yellow Springs for WYSO News, I’m Tom Stafford.

John Booth’s family inspired the Mad River Theater Works play, “Freedom Flight.” WYSO will broadcast the play at 7 p.m. today (Friday).