“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.” Muhammed Ali.
Starting this letter to you may be the hardest thing I’ve done today. I know that I should just ask you how everyone is doing back home and gloss over the details of the war. But, you wouldnt appreciate that. You’re reading this now, willing me to tell you everything, to put aside my instinct to protect you and open up about Vietnam.
I can hear all of your questions: “Are you safe?”, “Where have you been?”, “Are there many casualties?” and “How are they treating you?” The first 3 questions are normal for any young couple seperated by conflict and duty. But, the last one is something only a black woman like you has to worry about.
Do you remember your Dad sitting me down before I left? I thought he was just going to tell me another WWII story in preperation for my upcoming service. As usual, he began with tales of bombings and concentration camps while you rolled your eyes, mouthing along to his rehearsed ramblings. Then he got real quiet and his eyes, glistening with tears, were fixed on mine. “If you think it’s bad here son” he said “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Then he went back to watching his shows as if nothing had happened.
I asked you later that evening what he meant, but was met with silence. And me? Well I put it to the back of my mind. Our situation is improving, I told myself. We have Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act. By law, I can shop where I want and ‘whites only’ facilities never really took over the North.
Of course I’m not stupid. I know that our people are still being mistreated. But, it’s not 1940. It’s the sixties and we are equal. At least that’s what I kept repeating to myself, as I ignored your father’s ominous warning.
Sitting here under the Vietnam sun, I wish I’d pressed him for more information. I wish that I hadn’t let my naiive optimism overshadow the pain that resonated in his voice that day.
I hear the brothers here whispering about what they’re going to do and I know that they’re not idle threats. There’s only so many times that a man can be called a “nigger” before he snaps. There’s only so much latrine duty a grown man can handle. There’s only so much disrespect and laughter and humiliation we can put up with. The death and destruction that we see everyday can change a man. When you combine that with consistent disrepect, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
The worst part is we can’t escape. At least if I have a rough day at work, I can come home and get lost in you. Here I’m surrounded by hate, day in, day out. It’s exhausting.
Can you give your father this letter and ask him to write me back? Tell him that I understand now, but I need his help. I need to know how he came out on the other side.
A black soldier’s pain
By Shaurna Cameron