Author William Greer Publishes “Walker’s Way”: How the Black West Was Won
TOP William Greer
Above: The cover of Walker’s Way
By Jonathan Gramling
While William Greer made his living in the world of counseling and therapy, culminating as the CEO of the Mental Health Center of Dane County — now Journey Mental Health — he always had a passion for writing, fueled by his love of reading as a youth. And while most of his writing as an adult was professional in nature, Greer would still write short stories and novellas on the side to share with family and friends — never to publish.
“People would say, ‘You should publish some of this stuff,’” Greer said. “I wrote a lot of poetry. I dabbled in different styles, which helped me develop my own style. Sometimes something would happen and I would say, ‘I have to put this down on paper.’ And so I would write it in the form of a poem or my thoughts about it. Back in the day, it would have been a poem or a blog I guess. I just kept all of these little journals. As I got a computer available to me, that’s where I store it all now.”
But his work was never for the world to see. In a way, it was for Greer to be able to see his inner soul.
“Writing is good for one’s mental health,” Greer said. “It pulled me through a lot of tough times, just being able to escape from what was going on in the real world by writing about something that was fictional that had emotion to it and helped me work through some of the things that were going on inside of me. I found it to be very helpful. I always encouraged my clients to do that, to journal, to write down their feelings, to sometimes write to people they were having particularly difficult emotions or feelings about. They found that to be very helpful. It is a gift that we have as human beings. Stephen King describes writing as the art of telepathy. I can be here in my room in Wisconsin in the United States and communicate my thoughts to someone on the other side of the planet. It’s pretty special when you think about it.”
And yet Somewhere in the back of his mind, Greer felt that a manuscript lingered. Three things happened that led Greer to write his first novel for publication, Walker’s Way. First, he retired giving him the space and time he needed to write. Second, he performed in Richard Scott’s plat “Buffalo Soldiers,” which illuminated the role that African Americans played after the Civil War in the U.S. Army. And third, he wrote a short story for his adult son.
“Walker’s Way started as a short story that I wrote for my son Nathan on his birthday,” Greer recalled. “He was in his 40s at that time. Growing up, he was an avid comic book, sci-fi, adventure story reader and watcher. The two of us would do a lot of that together. He’s a huge Star Wars fan. And growing up, I was a huge western fan. And all Star Wars is a western set in space. I wanted to give him something out of the tradition ‘I go out and buy something that I give very little thought to and this is your present.’ I wanted to give him a piece of myself. So I wrote this story about an African American bounty hunter. I sent it to him and said, ‘Read this and tell me what you think. This is your present.’ He said, ‘Are you going to do some more of this?’ He loved it. He really liked the read. And he encouraged me to keep going.”
Three years later, Greer finished what proved to be a first draft of the novel. Greer hadn’t taken any formal creative writing classes and had always been a cut to the chase king of person. Well Greer was in for the lesson of his life when he hired The Cadence Group out of Chicago. Greer sent his novel to them and realized the writing process had only just begun.
“After I basically got this story put together the way that I wanted it, they said, ‘No, you’re going to have to have what’s called a developmental edit,’” Greer said. “You have an editor who reads your story. And then they tell you everything that’s wrong with it. You then basically start recrafting the story based on their professional input. The editing process — the copy editing, and the developmental editing — took another year. I paid them to critique my book, even if it was painful. Family and friends despite how objective they try to be, they don’t want to hurt your feelings. I needed to know from an objective source that this was something worthwhile and they gave me that input. And they didn’t pull any punches in terms of saying, ‘You need to get rid of this. You need to flesh this out. You need to go into more detail here.’ It was a tremendous educational experience for me.”
What resulted was Walker’s Way, a 373-page book, published by Greer’s company Tidewalker Press last summer that can be found on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Walker’s Way has a bounty hunter as its main character as he makes his way in the pre and post-Civil War era.
“It is almost How the West Was Won from an African American perspective,” Greer said. “And it deals with the dilemma that all free enslaved people faced. They were free and at first, they felt exhilaration. And the next feeling was, ‘Free to do what? Free to be whom? Free to go where?’ Having nothing and essentially being behind enemy lines in the South, how are you going to make it? The thing about this character that I wanted to underscore was that he was not willing to stay in his place. He was going to find a way to be really and truly free.”
The title character, based on the real-life person Bass Reeves, a bigger-than-life U.S. deputy sheriff from that era.
“Joe Walker starts out as an enslaved person,” Greer said. “He works to try to free himself by running and resisting, but he’s up against a whole system. The Civil War comes along and it’s a cause and a group that will help him attain his freedom. And so he joins the Union Army and becomes a soldier. He fights through the last two years of the war. He is sold into slavery as a child, so he’s been separated from his family for the good part of his coming of age years, his adolescence. Part of the theme of the book is his trying to regain that part of himself that was lost, to literally reconnect with his family and figuratively find his identity. He becomes a bounty hunter because of the skills developed as a soldier, as a cavalry officer translated very well to that profession. Plus as a Black man, there were very few things that he could do to get him the kind of money that he needed to have his own ranch, support himself and his family, and live a life that was similar to the lives of the white people around him. So it was a way of building wealth. He would go out on one trip and bring home $1,500. It was out of necessity. It was out of his desire and his code of conduct to protect the weak from predators. It filled two needs that he had.”
Writing Walker’s Way was important to Greer to help him make sense of where African Americans and America are today. Sankofa is an African term that says humans make sense of the present and future by looking at the past. Writing the book gave Greer clarity.
“I wrote this book because we are going through some tough times now,” Greer said. “Racism is still virulent in this country. But it’s not as bad as it has been. We have faced tougher times with fewer resources. And we have been able to prevail and overcome. And I think we as a people need to be reminded of that whenever possible. I particularly want my children to be reminded of that and people who look like me to be reminded of that. Writing this book, my whole sense of hope was revived and my own pride in who I am and where I come from was revived. I hope that people who need it, no matter what the color of their skin is, will get some sense of that. We have been here for 400 years. Every aspect of this country, we have had a powerful impact. We went from being property to being anything and everything this country has to offer. And no other group of people in this country has done that. It is something that our history books don’t tell us. Our classrooms don’t tell us. And so we are often left to believe that we contribute little if anything to America and the American Way when in fact, we have been the embodiment of America and the American Way in spite of everything this country has taken from us and done to us. We still believe in the promise of justice and freedom for all. Over and over again, we fought for freedom even though we were not free.”
African American history is American history. Just ask William Greer.