"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind" ~ Rudyard Kipling
I have been pondering the concept of “writing to save a life” ever since I read, earlier this year, John Edgar Wideman’s outstanding book with those words as its title. Part novel, part investigative report, part memoir and part social commentary, this compelling story tells of the short, violent life of Louis Till, who like his son Emmett, was killed for being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wideman is the same age as Emmett who was brutally murdered in 1955 at age fourteen for the alleged crime of whistling at a white woman during a visit to Mississippi from his native Chicago. Emmett’s murderers, who later bragged about the killing, were acquitted in a southern trial that made a mockery of courtroom justice. In his unusual book, the author describes how Louis, a young World War II soldier with a troubled past, was hanged for the rape of a white woman in wartime Italy after a sham military trial in which the flimsy evidence introduced by the prosecution made it clear that Till was being railroaded into a quick conviction for a crime that he likely did not commit. Since Louis was of the same generation as Wideman’s own father, the author highlighted the issues and challenges they faced as black men and fathers by using a riveting writing style that incorporated an almost a stream-of-consciousness communication between the generations of fathers and sons.
Like all great literature, Wideman’s book creates new awareness while prompting thought and introspection. Clearly, his book brought to life one of the many untold stories of injustice visited upon citizens of color by a nation that has still not completely cured itself of the poisonous remnants of its original sin, slavery. The awful truth of how men from two successive generations of the same family could suffer similar unjust treatment and betrayal from their own country adds additional meaning to each of their own tragic lives. Including his own father into the narrative allowed for a comparison and contrast of the two fathers, an exercise that makes both men more understandable.
Since I had recently written a book, A Place near the Front, based on the life of my own father, Wideman’s writing about fathers and sons and his effort to save and restore the memory of a father that had been unfairly consigned to the scrapheap of failure resonated powerfully with me. My book tells the story of my father’s arrival in the U.S. in 1915 as a merchant seaman from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and his journey, as an illegal immigrant, to find his place in the promised land of America. His voyage takes him through the streets of Harlem, the halls of learning of Howard University and eventually to the trenches of World War One where he serves as a second lieutenant with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division and earns his citizenship on the field of battle.
Since he went on to a successful married life and a long career as a dentist, my father’s reputation did not need to be saved in the same way as did Louis Till’s. What he needed, I felt, was to be saved from being forgotten. Thus my goal in writing my book was threefold. First, I wanted to tell the exciting story of a life well-lived, an inspirational life of a man who achieved great things against great odds without losing his sense of humility and humanity. Second, I wanted to create a testimony and memorial to a father who passed away when I was only eighteen, before I could look him in the eye as an adult and thank him, man-to-man, for being a great father and role model. Third, I’ve long known that my father, like most of us, was only a few generations away from obscurity, soon to be forgotten and unknown even to family, reduced to no more than a faded grave marker or perhaps a tattered photo in an old album buried in somebody’s basement. He died so long ago that none of my own children or grand children ever knew him. At this point, there are only a handful of people still alive who ever met him. Since I thought he deserved more than that, I wanted to write about his life in order to save it and his memory from completely fading into oblivion.
Although I acknowledge how writers can salvage, restore and sustain lives of those they write about, as perhaps I did for my father in my book, and although I recognize that writing can be energizing, inspirational and that the creative process can be life-enriching, I never thought much about how writing could save or sustain a writer’s own life until recently. In an increasingly unstable and dangerous world run by unstable and dangerous leaders who do not take the actions necessary to protect the planet or the civil liberties and well-being of its inhabitants, one could easily adopt a jaundiced or fatalistic outlook on life. Combine this with the many challenges, highs and lows we all face in our personal lives and the situation is even more daunting.
For me, writing is an escape from the nihilistic attitudes that can build in such a troubled world, attitudes that can rob one of the will to survive the burdens of the mortal coil. Starting a new book and telling a new story, as I’m doing in my new historical novel, The Bones of Louverture (to be released in early 2018), is a hopeful and encouraging process that nourishes my enthusiasm for living and makes me look forward to each new day and writing session.
The U.S. got more than it bargained for when it organized two “all-colored” combat units and sent them to France to fight the last year of World War One. While our nation was slow to recognize the great contributions of its “men in bronze,” fearing the impact on American culture of empowered black veterans returning at the end of the war, the French immediately fell in love with the dusky fighting men, embracing them not only for their fierce combat skills, but also for their unique cultural gifts, especially in music. The one hundred-piece band of the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters Band” became an instant favorite of the French. Accomplished musicians when they entered the army, and led by the incomparable ragtime and jazz composer, arranger and bandleader James Reese Europe, they captivated European audiences with their until-then unknown jazz music. Audiences created an international demand for the new and distinctly American musical form.
Jim Reese Europe was the leading figure in the African-American music scene of New York City in the early 1900s. Years later, Eubie Blake who also played with the 369th band called Europe the Martin Luther King of music. In 1912, Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra made history as the first band to play jazz at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Presenting a program entirely of the music of black composers, the performance made the city’s cultural elite aware of negro music for the first time. Of the event, Europe commented, “We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s the product of our souls; it’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race.”
In 1918, Europe and the 369th band saw combat and traveled over 2,000 miles in France performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as French civilians. The Hellfighters made their first recordings in France for the Pathé brothers. Their first concert included a French march, the Stars and Stripes Forever, and the Memphis Blues, which, according to band member Noble Sissle, “… started ragtimitis in France.”
At the end of the war, the 369th returned to New York City, and on February 17, 1919, paraded through the city with its famous band playing and leading the way. The day became an unofficial holiday for all of Harlem, and many school children were dismissed from school so they could attend the parade. 250,000 people lined the streets to see the famous regiment and its band. The parade began on Fifth Avenue and 61st Street, proceeded uptown past crowds of white bystanders, turned west on 110th Street and then north on Lenox Avenue, marching into Harlem where proud black New Yorkers packed the streets to see them. The parade became a marker for African American service to the nation, and was a frequent point of reference in civil rights discussions.
Sadly, after surviving the deadliest war in world history to that point, Jim Europe did not live through the Hellfighter’s national tour. A member of the band, angry over what he considered poor treatment, fatally stabbed Europe on May 10, 1919 ending his amazing life at the age of only 39. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake assumed leadership of the band which successfully completed its tour and continued performing for many years.
I am a military veteran who usually stands for the national anthem and the flag, but I salute NFL players of all colors, owners and other professional athletes who join in unity to protest unfair police practices and other abuses directed at citizens of color. Our freedom to express such views in peaceful protest without fear of reprisal is what makes this country great. Those who took the knee did so not to disrespect the national anthem or the flag but to protest, in the strongest terms, a situation they deem deplorable, one that had again drawn national attention a few days ago when the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a video-taped traffic stop last year, was found not guilty of manslaughter.
An angry segment of America has expressed outrage and resentment toward the NFL protesters. Many believe they should be punished for using their first amendment right to freely express their views. The most vocal among them, U.S. President Donald Trump, went so far as to call the protesting athletes “sons of bitches” who should be fired for disrespecting the flag and the veterans who fought for our country. Strange comments indeed from someone who dodged Viet Nam military service through repeated (and questionable) deferments declaring that avoiding STDs was “his own personal Viet Nam.” More recently, the courageous and inspired leader turned a blind eye toward violent, Nazi-sympathizing protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia commenting that many ” fine people” were involved in the protest.
It isn’t the flag or the national anthem that makes this country great. Just as America is stained by the original sins of slavery and the theft of its land from native Americans, many of its treasured artifacts are also flawed. The national anthem was authored by a white supremacist, Francis Scott Key, who was a proponent of African colonization — exporting free blacks back to Africa — and an opponent of the anti-slavery movement. Let alone the fact that the third stanza of that anthem, the part that you never hear, goes like this:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.
As Charles Blow pointed out in his great NY Times piece today, this stanza is thought by some to be an excoriation of the Colonial Marines, a mostly black unit composed primarily of runaway slaves who fought for the British during the War of 1812, on the promise of attaining their freedom. The unit humiliated Key’s own unit in battle.
To me, what makes America special, is that despite its flawed history and the lingering inequality still faced by many of its citizens, is that it is a nation where I and my family and many other families like mine have enjoyed great opportunities and a standard of living better than most other options available to us. And although there is still much work necessary to make America a land of truly equal opportunity, we enjoy the freedom to protest and advocate for the changes necessary to get there. That Colin Kaepernick and other athletes can take a knee to exercise that right or that Lebron and Steph Curry can, so eloquently, call out the president for his hypocrisy is what makes America great.
In the summer of 1918, the all-black 92nd Infantry Division was training at several U.S. military installations in preparation for shipping out to France to fight in World War I. Because some of these training sites were located near U.S. cities where segregation was strictly enforced, military brass was concerned about what might happen when soldiers not used to segregation visited these cities. Because, at that time the U.S. military itself subscribed to many racist attitudes, it did not take a principled stand against the segregationist policies of these southern cities. Instead, on March 28, 1918, General Charles C. Ballou issued the following shameful order:
Headquarters 92nd Division
Camp Funston, Kansas, March 28, 1918
- It should be well known to all colored officers and men that no useful purpose is served by such acts as will cause the ‘color question’ to be raised, It is not a question of policy, and any policy that tends to bring about a conflict of races, with its resulting animosities, is prejudicial to the military interest of the 92nd Division, and therefore prejudicial to an important interest of the colored race.
- To avoid such conflicts the division commander has repeatedly urged that all colored members of his command, and especially the officers and noncommissioned officers, should refrain from going where their presence will be resented. In spite of this injunction, one of the sergeants of the Medical Department has recently precipitated the precise trouble that should be avoided, and then called upon the division commander to take sides in a row that should never have occurred, and would not have occurred had that the sergeant placed the general good above his personal pleasure and convenience. The sergeant entered a theater, as he undoubtedly had a legal right to do, and precipitated trouble by making it possible to allege race discrimination in the seat he was given. He was strictly within his legal rights in this matter, and the theater manager is legally wrong. Nevertheless the sergeant is guilty of the greater wrong in doing anything, no matter how legally correct that will provoke race animosity.
- The division commander repeats that the success of the division, with all that success implies, is dependent upon the goodwill of the public. That public is nine-tenths white. White men made the division, and they can break it just as easily if it becomes a troublemaker.
- All concerned are enjoined to place the general interest of the division above personal pride and gratification. Avoid every situation that can give rise to racial ill will. Attend quietly and faithfully to your duties, and don’t go where your presence is not desired.
- This will be read to all organizations of the 92nd
By Command of Major-General Charles C. Ballou
This post was extracted from my historical novel A Place near the Front, a story based on the World War I exploits of Gordon Herbert, a bronze warrior who lived through many events such as the one described above.
Today, the burden of defending our nation is carried by an increasingly smaller segment of our population. Even though all Americans benefit from the protections provided by the military, only 1 percent of the American population currently makes the sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country. Far too many are being forced into repeated tours of duty, sometimes as many as six deployments. This repeated combat exposure to our troops is why 25 percent of America’s active duty military personnel suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is why the Army’s current suicide rate is far above the civilian rate at 22-per-100,000. The rate for the Marine Corps is even higher.
When I served in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, the total number of active duty soldiers was 1.5 million. In those days, new recruits were brought into the service either by the draft, or by volunteering, as I did. The draft ended in 1973, leaving today’s army and all other branches of the military as all-volunteer. Today’s army numbers approximately 500 thousand, one third the size when I served. And even though we are currently engaged in the longest running war (now more than ten years with no end in sight) in the history of the nation, we are fighting with the smallest army in the nation’s modern history. This means that fewer and fewer troops are serving in more and more deployments. Because of these multiple deployments, these troops face greater odds of being wounded or killed in combat, or of returning with some form of disability than ever before.
In recent times, with the U.S. facing persistently high unemployment, the military has become a major source of training and employment for many Americans. And since non-white Americans experience a higher rate of unemployment than do white Americans, the composition of the army as well as the rest of the military has seen a marked change in its racial composition. As a result, Americans of color bear a disproportionate burden of the fighting and dying simply because opportunities in civilian life are not available to them.
For this reason and many others, the U.S. should institute a system of universal service where all young people must perform two years of national service, either in a branch of the military or in a civilian program such as the peace corps or AmeriCorps, a network of nonprofit community organizations and agencies that take on assignments in the fields of education, public safety, healthcare and environmental protection. Countries such as Mexico, Finland, Switzerland, Brazil and many others around the world have already implemented such programs.
As U.S House of Representatives member Charles Rangel, himself a decorated Korean war hero, points out in his Universal National Service Act, originally introduced in 2003 after his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the legislation provides an opportunity for all of our children to be able to say with dignity that they honorably served their nation. He notes that for the civilian service, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch, but instead building on the current community service infrastructure that we have through national programs like AmeriCorps or other local initiatives. From helping to rebuild New Orleans, providing security at our nation’s ports, or working in areas of extreme poverty in this country, there are plenty of jobs that will not only help our young adults learn about their country, but also provide them with invaluable experiences and training that will enrich their lives. Just like the Peace Corps, but for our nation, the universal national service would a positive bonding experience for an entire generation to give back to their country.
Most importantly, participating in a universal service program would not only mature our children, but it would give them an enhanced sense of community or “skin in the game,” an important element missing in the empty rhetoric of so many self-proclaimed patriots and flag-wavers, many of them in positions of national leadership. If all of our elected leaders knew they and their families had to have skin in the game and couldn’t dodge heir responsibilities with endless service deferments or fake claims of injuries and disabilities, you can be sure they would not be so inclined to get us into so many unnecessary wars.