“BACKROADS…”: The Writing Journey


William “Duke” Smither


“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”
Richard Wright (1908-1960; Mississippi-born Writer, Novelist, Poet)



The journey in writing Backroads to ‘Bethlehem’: Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior” has been so much longer than the writing process itself– perhaps, as far back as the 4th or 5th grade. That’s when intuitive student teachers from across the road, at Kentucky State University, would sometimes share interesting stories from what they themselves were learning in Black history, or from kitchen table discussions back home. And, they came from all over the world, including Africa.

An Odyssey of Sorts

Of course, none of the storylines or speculations came from the hand-me-down classroom history books we received from area white schools. These were the early 1950s– the waning days of school segregation– and Old Jim Crow was still living large.  The stories which made their way across the road, through the cow-crossing tunnel, to Rosenwald Elementary School were not only impactful, they were often punctuated further with comments or observations by caring and accomplished black teachers.

But, listening to African and Caribbean folk tales, poetry and myths from elder “street corner historians,” grandparents and/or other relatives was “icing on the cake.” And, I always looked forward to the passionate family chronicles from my “Aunt Ada’s” occasional visits. She hailed from Coastal Lowcountry Georgia and her take on black history was often frightening, as well as colorful and informative. The drama was even better than sifting through old, tattered “colored newspapers” laying around neighborhood basement barbershops, or attending a student-drama presentation at Kentucky State. I was never sure of her accent. But, she spoke and laughed with musical flavoring.

By the time I joined the Navy, especially while visiting Caribbean ports, and later home-ported in the Mediterranean basin, I was ripe for hobnobbing over warm, homebrewed beer with many of the Africans and “French Algerians” I came to know. Two years of high school French classes (though far from speaking fluently) and being stationed in Villefranche-sur-Mer only whetted my appetite even further.

Socializing with my foreign-born “cousins” after soccer games, or over flavored spirits like Pastis and Ouzo, and listening to “their side”(foreign born “cousins”) of some of the myths and fables passed down through their families, like “Duppies,” “Jumbie Trees” and “Obeah Magic”only spiced up the conversations even more. It wasn’t just the Africans and French Algerians I found interesting, it was the Spaniards, Portuguese, Jamaicans, Cubans and Moroccans, as well. It was a treasure trove of cultural cues, clues and context that you’d never find in classroom books.

After Military Service

Yet, it was after my military service, during my freshman year of college, in 1968, when it dawned on one of my history professors (who was also my advisor) at Virginia Commonwealth University that I had a strong dislike for the way World History classes were taught in America (I was a journalism major at the time). He even politely listened while I tried to explain why. At the time, I was also working part-time for the Richmond AFRO newspaper and the AFRO managing editor I worked under, the late Raymond H. Boone, was himself a history lesson by osmosis, akin to the AFRO archives.

But, perhaps even a little “full of myself”  at the time, I informed the professor of my negative take on Eurocentric perspectives on history; then, boldly shared that I was tired of the boring manner in which all American classroom history teachers seemed to teach. He actually listened further to my short-sighted, unenlightened rambling about being fatigued with having to memorize so many dates just to pass his Eurocentric tests and exams. Well, he didn’t exactly like my answer… at least, he didn’t show it; but, his response shocked me to the bone.

He agreed with me! Then, he suggested, strongly, that I simply buckle down with my studies, but challenged me to seek information on Black history outside of my VCU coursework. It was some of the best advice I received. I did so through independent, off campus studies at another school, but had exams proctored on campus. And, I’ve always appreciated how this special history professor allowed me to vent in such a narrow-minded way, perhaps knowing that someday the bright light of self-realization might yet still appear for the young, headstrong student which stood proudly before him.

Over the years, I came to appreciate Dr. William Blake as one cool, insightful and wise professor and I’m grateful for his guidance. He was the epitome of professionalism and excellence. And, over the years, his influence has been just as provoking as the works of other professors I studied during my independent mug ups, namely Dr. John Hope Franklin (Duke University), Dr. Edgar Allen Toppin, Sr. (Virginia State), Dr. Chancellor Williams (Oxford & London) and Dr. Quintard Taylor (University of Washington, Seattle). Certainly, there were times I wished I had switched to a history major, rather than to business administration.

C’est La Vie

But, at the end of my freshman year, with the birth of our first child, I switched to VCU’s evening college program, changed majors to business and, eventually, to hasten closure on the evening college journey while continuing my career at Dominion Resources-Virginia Power (now Dominion Energy), switched over to the St. Paul’s College Continuing Education Program, as a senior, graduating with a B.S. degree the same year that our second child, our daughter, graduated from high school. Afterwards, while still working for Dominion, I was able to separately continue some of my independent studies in history (auditing Ancient African History at Virginia State), as well as post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration, at VCU, more appropriate for the remainder of my 28 years at Dominion.

After retiring, and being active in a local community theater for Afrocentric, faith-based productions, our eldest son– the one born during my sophomore year at VCU– asked me to consider resurrecting some of my old writing experiences by posting a few articles for his music services blog.  I helped out for about a year; then, about seven years ago, I began “Backstreet Djeli’s Blog” to help me find my writing voice, again.

But, the manuscript for “Backroads to Bethlehem…” only began in earnest toward the end of 2015, after suffering acute respiratory failure during a routine doctor’s office visit. The whole experience, including the long hospitalization and rehabilitation, for pneumonia and other issues, was the kind of shock to your soul, sense of mortality and sense of purpose which reorders your life. Learning to walk all over again, coupled with initially being confined to a wheel chair for many weeks, reminded me of how God himself must have pre-directed our steps. He just hadn’t told us about the process. But, I also imagine that many of us clueless mortals are little more hard-headed and stubborn that others, like myself.

“Life is a journey, not a destination…”

I also imagine that, if she was alive, my Pentecostal-evangelist grandmother (and farmer’s wife) might be feeling a little better about her “little heathen” grandson finally realizing that the journey toward self-actualization is a very long journey– without a real end point. But, to reach it, you still have to find ways to expand your elastic horizons as a human being… not black, not white… just another soul, a mere mortal, a member of the human race.

It’s a journey we all take, one way or another. And, perhaps, within these pursuits of happiness, it’s a voyage that we first have to seek, at minimum. Seeking happiness is many things to different people.  To some, each moment can be a journey and an acute awareness of an excursion into the profound presence of something spiritual or divine… like God?

But, over the years I have learned to truly appreciate the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882, American poet and essayist) which says, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”  The way I see it, so is writing…

Yes, a release date for “Backroads…” is still pending. But, another manuscript for yet another “journey” is already on the drawing boards. I hope you’ll be around for both. God willing… I hope I am, too.


2 thoughts on ““BACKROADS…”: The Writing Journey

  1. “… the journey toward self-actualization is a very long journey– without a real end point” no truer words were spoken. Life and the many rolls and responsibilities of hose rolls often seems to both hinder and contribute to that process.
    Always find your stories enlightening and inspiring.

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About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.