My grandfather (may he party in eternal peace) served in the United States army for 3 years. He was stationed at an air force base in Georgia where he worked as a cook and received distinction for his prowess as a thespian. (Now I know where I get my flair for the dramatic from.) He was discharged as a sergeant, but never saw combat overseas. World War II was after all a “white man’s war” – and though Great Britain and France reluctantly conscripted soldiers from their colonies in Africa and India to serve among their ranks on the front lines, America was even more reluctant to do so. America has a long and well-documented unease with arming people of color, Negroes in particular. It fact, it had taken 25 years of effort before the first Black military pilots, now famously known as the Tuskegee Airmen, would be activated in 1941.
That my grandfather served in a menial capacity does not surprise or shame me. He was a farm boy, a strong man and a hard worker. However, in numerous studies sponsored by the United States military, Blacks were classified and deemed unfit for combat. They said we were cowardly, unruly, couldn’t swim and lacked the cognitive abilities required for soldiering.
I doubt these long-held attitudes had changed by the time of my grandfather’s honorable discharge from the 2109th Army Air Forces base unit in 1946. The majority of enlisted Black men at the time served in support capacities like this and when they did serve overseas, it was in racially segregated combat units. Jim Crow was very much alive, well and the order of the day in 1946, so I imagine that it must’ve been difficult to understand what his role as a Black man was fighting a war to end fascism and xenophobia in one continent when the country of his birth was entirely wedded to those same ideals where he was concerned. Given that his base- the 2109th – was just south of Albany, GA, there can be little doubt that he witnessed (and very possibly experienced) the very finest that Southern racism had to offer. At the end of WWI, fewer than 30 Black people were registered to vote in the city. If Montgomery, AL was the “cradle of the Confederacy”, Albany, GA was its play yard, a city that took pride in controlling its Negro population.
Albany was important as a shipping port and later became an important railroad hub in southwestern Georgia. When the war ended, it was a major disembarkation point for service men returning from overseas. About 500 German prisoners of war were kept in Albany, and whether my grandfather encountered them or not, I will never know. What I DO know for certain is that many people of color, men like my grandfather who served faithfully in the armed forces and many of whom were discharged with honor, were treated with less respect and more contempt than captured enemy combatants from a nation that the USA had expended thousands of lives and millions of dollars to vanquish. The contemptible Nazi (and ideologies to match), in effect, was certainly not as detestable as the law abiding and long-suffering African American citizen; whiteness being the only ‘virtue’ that separated the two and gave societal preference to one by default.
The film Hart’s War highlighted the bigotry that was rife in American culture during WWII. Arnold Krammer is a historian at Texas A & M University who has written several books on the prison camps in the U.S. He said:
There were numerous occasions when German POWs, especially from the many camps located in the Jim Crow south, were allowed in stores which denied access to black Americans. When buses filled with German POWs went south, the occasional black MP guards had to move to the back of the bus, while the German prisoners remained in the seats of their choice. German POWs, debating with their guards, regularly used the issue of segregation in America to defend their treatment of the Jews. How tragic.
A handful of Black American soldiers have documented their experiences in memoirs following the Second Great War. The details are damning to the values of equality and brotherhood that to United States has long espoused over the centuries. So hypocritical was the United States position on race and racism that Albert Einstein was compelled to address the scourge in a scathing essay entitled The Negro Question. He called racism America’s ‘worst disease’.
Looking at the events in Charlottesville, at the sitting president who refused to condemn the acts of neo-Nazi fascists and avowed white supremacists, and the responses from online commenters who comfortably side with the idea that “both sides” are responsible for the unrest following the horrific events that took place in Virginia over the weekend, one has to wonder just how much has changed in America over the last 71 years. There can be no denying people of color have made significant advances in American society, but fundamentally, America remains a nation that abhors the presence and existence of Black people. From perceptible micro-aggressions to flat out discrimination, we are made to feel a sense of spurning, daily. Still, I had to wonder what veterans might feel about seeing the flags and emblems of an eternal adversary proudly marching through a historic American city.
As you might expect, there was outrage among some in their ranks.
Nevertheless, there are some who feel that these neo-Nazis have a right to express their “opinion”.
This is the heart of the matter. These are the people ought to be the most horrified by what unfolded in Charlottesville (and will continue to unfold in the coming weeks) as those we have entrusted to uphold America’s truest values. But when citizens – such as Harvey Lentz and the current POTUS think that demonstrations of racial bigotry that inspire and call for violence in the form of extermination are mere “opinion” that has a right to be expressed- how America ever cure itself of this disease? The short answer is, it can’t. I cannot explain it, but too many people are comfortable living with this bane. Like King Henry and his festering wound, America is not yet ready to have a serious and honest look at wait ails it. It stinks. It’s too horrid a sight. But we are forced to ignore it because America has anointed itself the “shining city on a hill” and like that mercurial British monarch is (supposedly) above reproach.
But there’s no hiding from this. There’s no denying that this cancer is eating away at the body of the country. Loving and wishing it away is not going to solve a centuries’ old sickness. The sad part is, none of this surprises people of color. It’s what Dara Mathis called the nightmare we never woke up from, a thousand yesterdays on loop, always reoccurring.
America, the America that has chosen blissful oblivion, you should know that your slip (or sheet, rather) is showing.