My Young Stand

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 1.49.34 AMI was thinking about something earlier today, figured I’d share.

Back in the early-to-mid 1990s, when I was starting my career as a features guy at The Tennessean, the newspaper had an excellent film critic named Gene Wyatt. He was an older man, who shuffled around the office and smelled, often, of alcohol. I was told on more than one occasion that Gene was a local newspaper legend who, over time, was overcome by booze. “He’s a drunk,” me editor said. “It’s sad.”

Regardless, I liked Gene. He had a soft soul, and I think he took mild pleasure in my New York-born snark. One day, I saw Gene in the newsroom and asked, innocently, what he thought of Spike Lee, whose “Crooklyn” had recently been released.

“Just another nigger director,” he said before walking off.

I stood there, stunned. Speechless. Disgusted. Gene was an experienced journalist who—pre-film critic years—covered much of the Civil Rights movement. I was a kid. He was locally famous, I was locally, well, no one. Still, I couldn’t just let that slide. I couldn’t. Hence, I wrote Gene an e-mail (I guess this was a tad cowardly. But I was a coward), explaining how offended I was; how I completely disapproved of that word and its usage. Was I nervous? Hell, yes. But I would have felt like a complete tool doing nothing.

One day later, I was approached by an editor, who was furious. “Gene did not use that word!” he said. “I’ve known the man for 30 years, and he would never say such a thing.” He went on and on and on and on, and I sat and listened—knowing the truth. Knowing what had been said.

Gene and I didn’t speak much after that. I’d still see him shuffling through the newsroom, but our dialogues ended. Once I left Nashville in 1996, we never saw one another again.

Ten years ago, when I learned of Gene’s passing, I thought back to the word and that day and the smell of alcohol oozing from his body. I never held anything against the man; never damned him a racist.

But I’m glad I said something.

4 thoughts on “My Young Stand”

  1. Jeff, don’t condone the use of the word, but why name him now, when he’s not around to defend himself? The post carries the same weight without naming him.

      1. I did not mean to say that Jeff should name any one. He did name the critic how ever. Jeff never said in this piece that he didn’t want to name any one. Just wondering why he wouldn’t be believed about what he heard.

Leave a Reply