American AfroSurreal Series (Pt. 1) — USMC Bootcamp, 1957
In a feature article from the December 1969 issue of Ebony magazine, “How Blacks Upset the Marine Corps: ‘New Breed’ Leathernecks Are Tackling Racist Vestiges,” Steven Morris writes:
In the late 1950’s, black Marines were not rewarded with preferred or high-visibility assignments, such as embassy guard duty and guard duty in the nation’s capital. By 1960, full integration of the races had been completed by the USMC, but racial tensions flared up through the next decade, a period of civil rights activism in the larger society.
My father enlisted in the Marines and attended boot camp during the first phase of racial integration. In his boot camp graduation picture, among a group of about 100 recruits, my father is the only African-American.
Regarding black Marine recruits’ experiences in boot camp immediately following integration, Morris says this:
The first shock of enforced conformity (during boot camp haircuts) does not erase black Marines’ suspicions about the last military service to admit blacks. During first eight weeks of boot camp, isolated from the outside world, each recruit learns rudiments of killing, conditions his body for war’s demands, and the black recruit is promised that the Uniform Code of Military Justice will do what he knows U.S. Constitution has not done-give him the same chance as white Marine at his side.
Albert, age 18
US Marine Corps Base-San Diego, California
As Albert soaped up, he had the feeling someone was staring at his back. The barracks showers were just a long line of shower heads along one wall. No individual stalls, not even curtains to separate you and the next guy. It went without saying that you kept your eyes to yourself in here. He faced the wall and shot a quick glance over his right shoulder. Sure enough, Jenkins was looking directly at him, obviously confused.
“What, you never seen a black man before?” Albert yelled with his back still turned. As he thought about it, he realized that Jenkins probably had not been in the same room with a black man before joining the Marines. Jenkins was from a small town in Mississippi, so far into the deep South he truly might not have heard about integration before he got here.
“Well…I…I…uh”, Jenkins stuttered. “You funny or something?” Albert asked. Back home he never would have made such a comment to a white man, but the drill sergeants made it clear to the new recruits that they would all fight together, and die together, as equals. He felt no need to hold his tongue, and it felt good to test out this new equality of speech.
Jenkins’ face turned bright red, then he said loudly, “My diddy tole me all niggers had tails. Only…only you ain’t got no tail.”
The chatter and snickering from the other recruits ended immediately. The only sound was the spray of the showers hitting the concrete floor.
Jenkins’ words stung. Albert’s stomach knotted and his cheeks flushed hot as anger enflamed him. All those old feelings, all the reasons he left his small, country hometown in Arkansas to join the Marines flew through his mind in an instant. He had no tolerance for ignorance, and he wasn’t in the mood to educate anyone. “A tail? Like I’m some God-dammed animal?!” He was so pissed off, he forgot to be mad about Jenkins calling him a nigger, since that was normal at least. But this “tail” shit? This was new.
His thoughts flashed back to that day when his family was forced to move off the sidewalk, eyes lowered, to let a white family have full use of the sidewalk. That little white boy had been close to his own age, so would now be just about Jenkins age…he could take all that time-simmered rage out on Jenkins right NOW.
His hands balled into fists as he turned to face Jenkins. In that moment, he remembered a line from the play he saw months before, A Raisin in the Sun. One line had stuck with him, and he heard it repeat in his head now, in his own mother’s voice.
“When you starts measuring somebody…measure him right, child.
Measure him right. You make sure that you done taken into account…
…the hills and the valleys he’s come through…to get to wherever he is.”
At least Jenkins was honest. There were plenty of people who smiled in Albert’s face then called him “nigger” when his back was turned.
Jenkins was just speaking from his experience, and that’s all any man could ever be asked to do. Albert could respect that. Tightness in his chest and lungs made him realize he’d been holding his breath. He unclenched his fists and exhaled slowly. The steam of his angry breath mixed with the mist of the showers and dissipated, along with his rage.
“No,” Albert said coolly. “I don’t have a tail. And I’d be willing to bet there’s a few other things your diddy was wrong about too.”
As Albert rinsed off, he shook his head and took a slow, deep breath in and out.
Jenkins got lucky, this time.