May 21, 2013
Posted on Nov 11, 2009
Author’s Introduction: Of War and Race
This Veterans Day reminds me when I was growing up in then-South Central L.A., I’d occasionally hear from my dad Dikes about his experiences in World War II. I knew he’d seen combat in an all-black squad at Guadalcanal and encountered racism both there and when he was in basic training in the Jim Crow Army at Fort Huachuca in southeast Arizona. My uncle, his older brother Norman, had seen mop-up action at D-Day and was among those black expatriates who’d remained in France after the war. Their younger brother, Sam, had been stationed in India, and my uncle on my mother’s side, Oscar Hutton Jr., I never knew. He was a Tuskegee airman and was killed in plane combat over Memmingen, Germany, in July of 1944. I have the Purple Heart awarded him posthumously.
But the experiences of the black soldier was missing from movies like “The Battle of the Bulge,” “The Longest Day” and “Patton,” a film with only a small part for one black actor, James Edwards (who had strong roles as a soldier in “Home of the Brave,” Sam Fuller’s “Steel Helmet” and “The Manchurian Candidate”), as the general’s valet. But where was the story about the 761st all-black tank battalion under Patton’s command? Where was the story of Patton writing of that outfit, “… I have no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race.” (See “Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes” by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton.) And what about the amazing story of Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Eddie Carter, half black and half East Indian, who fought bravely with the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade, in the U.S. Army in WWII, and with Chiang Kai-shek’s army? (My source here is “Honoring Sergeant Carter: Redeeming a Black World War II Hero’s Legacy” by Allene Carter and Robert L. Allen.)
With big-budget movies like “Pearl Harbor” and “Saving Private Ryan,” as well as miniseries such as “Brothers in Arms” and the upcoming “Pacific,” the black GI still remains nigh invisible. Admittedly there have been efforts such as “Miracle at St. Anna,” from James McBride’s novel “A Solder’s Story,” from Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Soldier’s Play”; and HBO’s “Tuskegee Airmen” cable movie (and going way back, there’s also the generally well-done ABC TV Movie of the Week from 1970, “Carter’s Army”). Yet the preponderance of the WWII stories still being told in film and prose are from the white viewpoint and usually lack black central characters.
My novel “Freedom’s Fight,” which interweaves real historical figures and situations in its fictive narrative, is not meant to be the catch-all answer to the dearth of black World War II stories. I hope it’s an entertaining read that also tells aspects often overlooked from that period. The book not only focuses on the black soldier’s struggle, but also on the debates various civil rights groups had about the war stateside. Why should we fight and die for freedom overseas when we don’t have it at home? Through the eyes of Alma Yates, a young black woman reporter for the black weekly newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, the reader is given a take on the war not explored elsewhere.
May 1943 – Harlem
“Is not the Negro’s blood the same as the white man’s?” The stentorian voiced man asked rhetorically from his seat in the conference room. “Hasn’t Dr. Charles Drew already proven that it’s all the same with his plasma and transfusion breakthroughs?” The speaker, the barrel-chested, silver-maned Reverend Carter Jervis Hardune of the Second Ethological African Methodist Church on Amsterdam Avenue—and 38th Degree Prince Hall Freemason—underscored his point with the slap of his palm on the table.
“Don’t get too heated, Hardy, you better save something for Sunday.” Virgil Crimpshaw, a big man in a big suit said jocularly. “We got a long way to go before we lie down.”
Hardune lifted a graying eyebrow at his compatriot. “How well I know, Brother Crimpshaw, how well I know.”
Alma Yates moved her hand in front of her mouth to hide her smile. Was it small wonder the negro movement for betterment was in the state it was in? Not that the men, and save for her, all the other occupants of the room were male, didn’t mean well. Their past and current efforts were fine examples of their sincerity. It’s just too bad the very tenacity and courage that made them so valuable to the cause, also contributed to them having heads too big for their hats.
“All right gentleman, and lady,” Ferguson Mylo, cut in, nodding his head at Yates. “Let’s keep on track, if we can. This has been a productive meeting so far, and I believe we all agree the joint letter we’ll deliver to Mrs. Roosevelt will be the decisive blow to break to dismantle the racial barricade.
Crimpshaw laughed hollowly. “The light of your optimism touches us all, Fergie.”
The crisply attired Mylo cleared his throat and poured himself some water from one of the decanters on the long table. “I’m simply trying to present the whole picture, Virgil. It’s not as bleak as you always make it to be.” He sipped soundlessly, the product of proper upbringing at Mrs. Stamphill’s School of Etiquette and Manners still on 111th Street.
“Nor as cheery as you would have it,” Crimpshaw retorted. He pivoted to look at Yates. “And you can quote me, if you like, miss.”
“Don’t you get your name in the paper enough?” Jerome Lindsay of the Double V Committee sniped.
“Which of course is synonymous with the interests of A. Philip,” Reverend Hardune intoned. It was unclear whether he was being sarcastic, insightful or both.
Mylo went on. “What we have to do in this letter, is logically and irrefutably poke holes in the War Department’s arguments for not activating the colored soldier. Latrine duty and smoke detail has its place, but that is a place we can’t allow ourselves to occupy as our only contribution.”
“Tell that to that guts and glory cracker General Patton,” Lindsay chimed in. “He’s been quoted in the white and black press stating the negro does not have the intellectual capacity to handle the complicated machinery of a tank.”
“But some huskie from Iowa who’s only shoveled shit is over-qualified, huh?” Crimpshaw bellowed contemptuously.
“Your language.” The reverend inclined his head at Yates. “This is not a meeting of your sleeping car porters playing tonk in the back of the freight car.”
“My apologies, but I’m sure Miss Yates has heard a lot worse.” Crimpshaw touched a finger to his brow slick with lotion. “But these are not times for polite letters and petitions, gentlemen. This Administration may have brought in the New Deal, but we’re still getting the discards.”
For the first time since the meeting had been underway, Yates detected irritation behind the calm facade of Mylo. She resumed taking notes.
“No one respects Phil Randolph more than I do,” Mylo began. “And while there were many factors leading to the President signing into effect Executive Order 8802 last year, all of us around this table acknowledge that his threatening to pull off a March on Washington added the needed push to get the order signed.”
Crimpshaw leaned forward. “You didn’t ask me here as a representative of the Chief to laud our praises. We’ll take care of that,” he added testily. His blunt index finger tamped on the table for emphasis. “I’m here because like it or not, you in this room can’t ignore us, though some of you disapprove of our methods of agitation and confrontation. Well gentlemen,” and I exclude Miss Yates because she’s here in her capacity as a reporter, the fact remains the order was signed and it was directly because following a meeting Roosevelt had with Mr. Randolph, he understood he wasn’t dealing with go slow Walter White.”
Yates let her smile show this time. This was getting good.
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