“An American Story”

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.

Topics: Books,

For all my interracial enlightenment, intraracially, I was a mess. I could never forgive the “hood rats” for embarrassing me. No one would blink when some black airman mangled his verbs and said “I be” while demonstrating his job for the general. No one but me. The fact that he’d been chosen by his superiors as the best (otherwise he wouldn’t be doing the demo) was lost on me. All I heard was the sharecropper speech patterns. All I saw was the gold teeth.

There were few specific instances that led to my distaste for and disapproval of blacks; there was just the self-hatred I did not yet recognize which made me want them to disappear. Unless, of course, they acted just like me. Blacks were hypervisible, or at least they were to me, and I was constantly vigilant for signs of our group failure. Like a member of the white citizens’ councils opposing the civil rights movement, I kept close tabs on our dangerous activities.

It was clear to me that black people chose not to work very hard in the military. Why else would so few number among the linguists, the commandos, the pilots, the officers, the academy grads? You couldn’t enter a military administrative office without finding enough Negroes working there to make a Tarzan movie and it always embarrassed me. I expressed my embarrassment as annoyance. That’s their choice, I thought; they might just as easily have chosen a more challenging field, but they’d rather simply take up space.

I was embarrassed to be one of so few linguists and I was embarrassed by the sharecropper intonations and low-class lack of home training I so frequently encountered among these “typing Negroes.” I hated entering admin offices when I was junior enlisted because the blacks there tended to be my peers, by rank and age group, and there was an assumption of familiarity that made me uncomfortable. I was sure they’d want to “talk black,” make fun of whites, scoff at the Air Force. Then there were the liberties black males felt free to take with me. Sotto voce, they called me “baby” and wanted to know when they were going to get “some of that sugar.” When I refused to respond to their vulgarities, I was menacingly called “sister,” a word often used to extract behavioral concessions from someone you hope will be too afraid of group disapproval not to back down. It means: “Don’t forget you’re black; act right or I’ll call you a Tom.” I got called “Tom” a lot.



As few as we were, the “Head Negroes” (self-designated arbiters of all things sufficiently or insufficiently black) tried every form of negative reinforcement to make us behave. There’s a Head Negro anywhere there are African-Americans. At the Defense Language Institute in 1981, she and I began as close friends. How could we not have been? We were both working-class black girls from north St. Louis. She was much harder-edged than me and came from a much less stable home, but still, we knew the same schools, same neighborhoods, same churches, same rib joints. We’d even graduated basic on the same day. Later Martha, who was white and one of eight children of very religious Catholics, came along and we three were inseparable. But as Martha and I grew closer (through our shared love of books and traditional upbringings) and the two of us began to spend more time together, the Head Negro expressed her hurt as racial pride. Black people weren’t good enough for me. Ironically, that was true except that she was smart enough, as a Romanian linguist, to make my grade. She just wanted to act so black: she wasn’t shooting for DG, she mocked me for shooting for it and she was blasi about the Air Force. She went out of her way to cultivate every black she could find at DLI. She thought she’d hit the Negro mother lode when she networked her way into Fort Ord, the Army base not so far away (not far away enough for me). The Army is a third black, and on top of that, Fort Ord is an infantry base, i.e., full of ghetto blacks. Head Negro homed in on every one she could find who was just marking time, lugging a rifle and a fifty-pound rucksack. Unless the Mafia starts hiring, I used to sneer, what were they going to do next? She was trying to re-create north St. Louis and I was trying to exorcise it. She was determined to remain the ghetto girl I was desperate to bury.

— From “An American Story” by Debra Dickerson. © 2000 Debra Dickerson. Used by permission, all rights reserved

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