A novel by Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2009
They called us “Eleanor Roosevelt’s niggers.” They said we wouldn’t fight, that we’d turn tail and run the minute we got into real combat. They said we didn’t have the discipline to make good soldiers. That we didn’t have brains enough to man tanks. That we were inclined by nature to all kind of wickedness — lying, stealing, raping white women. They said we could see better than white GIs in the dark because we were closer to the beasts. When we were in Wimbourne an English gal I never laid eyes on before came up and patted me right on the butt. I asked her what she was doing and she said, “Checking to see if you’ve got a tail.”
“Why would you think that?” I said.
She said the white GIs had been telling all the English girls that Negroes were more monkey than human.
We slept in separate barracks, ate in separate mess halls, shit in separate latrines. We even had us a separate blood supply — God forbid any wounded white boys would end up with Negro blood in their veins.
They gave us the dregs of everything, including officers. Our lieutenants were mostly Southerners who’d washed out in some other post. Drunkards, yellow bellies, bigoted no-count crackers who couldn’t have led their way out of a one-room shack in broad daylight. Putting them over black troops was the Army’s way of punishing them. They had nothing but contempt for us and they made sure we knew it. At the Officers’ Club they liked to sing “We’re dreaming of a white battalion” to the tune of “White Christmas.” We heard about it from the colored staff, who had to wait on their sorry white asses while they sang it.
If they’d all been like that I probably would’ve ended up fertilizing some farmer’s field in France or Belgium, along with every other man in my unit. Lucky for us we had a few good white officers. The ones out of West Point were mostly fair and decent, and our CO always treated us respectful.
“They say you’re not as clean as other people,” he told us. “There’s a simple answer to that. Make damn sure you’re cleaner than anybody else you ever saw in your life, especially all those white bastards out there. Make your uniforms look neater than theirs. Make your boots shine brighter.”
And that’s exactly what we did. We aimed to make the 761st the best tank battalion in the whole Army.
We trained hard, first at Camp Claiborne, then at Camp Hood. There were five men to a tank, each with his own job to do, but we all had to learn each other’s jobs too. I was the driver, had a feel for it from the very first day. Funny how many of us farm boys ended up in the driver’s seat. Reckon if you can get a mule to go where you want it to, you can steer a Sherman tank.
We spent a lot of time at the range, shooting all kind of weapons — .45s, machine guns, cannons. We went on maneuvers in the Kisatchie National Forest and did combat simulations with live ammo. We knew they were testing our courage and we passed with flying colors. Hell, most of us were more scared of getting snakebit than getting hit by a bullet. Some of the water moccasins they had down there were ten feet long, and that’s no lie.
In July of ’42 we got our first black lieutenants. There were only three of them but we all walked with our heads a little bit higher after that, at least on the base. Off base, in the towns where we took our liberty, we walked real careful. In Killeen they put up a big sign for us at the end of Main Street: niggers have to leave this town by 9 pm. The paint was blood red in case we missed the point. Killeen didn’t have a colored section, only about half of them little towns did. The one in Alexandria near Camp Claiborne was typical — nothing to it but a falling-down movie theater and two shabby juke joints. Wasn’t no place to buy anything or set and eat a meal. The rest of the town was off limits to us. If the MPs or the local law caught you in the white part of town they’d beat the shit out of you.
Our uniforms didn’t mean a damn to the local white citizens. Not that I expected them to, but my buddies from up north and out west were thunderstruck by the way we were treated. Reading about Jim Crow in the paper is a mighty different thing from having a civilian bus driver wave a pistol in your face and tell you to get your coon hide off the bus to make room for a fat white farmer. They just couldn’t understand it, no matter how many times we tried to explain it to them. You got to go along to get along, we told them, got to humble down and play shut-mouthed when you around white folks, but a lot of them just couldn’t do it. There was this Yankee private in Fort Knox, that’s where most of the guys in the battalion did their basic training. He got into an argument with a white storekeeper who wouldn’t sell him a pack of smokes and ended up tied with a rope to the fender of a car and dragged up and down the street. That was just one killing, out of dozens we heard about.
The longer I spent around guys from other parts of the country, the madder I got myself. Here we were, about to risk our lives for people who hated us as bad as they hated the Krauts or the japs, and maybe even worse. The Army didn’t do nothing to protect us from the locals. When local cops beat up colored GIs, the Army looked the other way. When the bodies of dead black soldiers turned up outside of camp, the MPs didn’t even try to find out who did it. It didn’t take a genius to see why. The beatings, the lousy food and whatall, the piss-poor officers — they all added up to one thing. The Army wanted us to fail.
We trained for two long years. By the summer of ’44, we’d about gave up hope that they were ever going to let us fight. According to the Courier there were over a hundred thousand of us serving overseas, but only one colored unit in combat. The rest were peeling potatoes, digging trenches and cleaning latrines.
But then, in August, word came down that General Patton had sent for us. He’d seen us on maneuvers at Kisatchie and wanted us to fight at the head of his Third Army. Damn, we were proud! Here was our chance to show the world something it’d never seen before. To hell with God and country, we’d fight for our people and our own self-respect.
We left Camp Hood in late August. I ain’t never been so glad to see the back of a place. Only thing I’d miss about that hellhole was Mallie Simpson, she was a schoolteacher I kept company with in Killeen. Mallie was considerable older than me. She might’ve been thirty even, I never asked and didn’t care. She was a tiny little gal with a big full-bellied laugh. She knew things the girls back home didn’t have the first idea about, things to do with what my daddy calls “nature activity.” Some weekends we didn’t hardly leave her bed, except to go to the package store. Mallie liked her gin. She drank it straight up, one shot at a time, downing it in one gulp. She used to say a half-full glass of gin was a invitation to the devil. Seemed to me there was plenty of devilment going on with the glasses being empty, but I wasn’t complaining. I said goodbye to her with real sadness. I reckoned it’d be a long while before I had another woman — from what I’d heard, Europe had nothing but white people in it.
But I reckoned wrong. There were plenty of white people over there all right, but they weren’t like the ones back home. Wasn’t no hate in them. In England, where we spent our first month, some of the folks had never seen a black man before and they were curious more than anything. Once they figured out we were just like everybody else, that’s how they treated us. The gals too. The first time a white gal asked me to dance I about fell out of the box.
“Go on,” whispered my buddy jimmy, he was from Los Angeles.
“Jimmy,” I said, “you must be plumb out of your mind.”
“If you don’t I will,” he said, so I went on and danced with her. I can’t say I enjoyed it much, not that first time anyway. I was sweating so bad I might as well to been chopping cotton. I hardly even looked at her, I was too busy watching every white guy in the place. Meantime my hand was on her waist and her hand was wrapped around my sweaty neck. I kept my arms as stiff as I could but the dance floor was crowded and her body kept on bumping up against mine.
“What’s the matter,” she asked me after awhile, “don’t you like me?” Her eyes were full of puzzlement. That’s when it hit me: She didn’t care that I was colored. To her I was just a man who was acting like a damn fool. I pulled her close.
“Course I like you,” I said. “I think you just about the prettiest gal I ever laid eyes on.”
We didn’t stay in their country long, but I’ll always be grateful to those English folks for how they welcomed us. First time in my life I ever felt like a man first and a black man second.
In October they finally sent us over to where the fighting was, in France. We crossed the Channel and landed at Omaha Beach. We couldn’t believe the mess we seen there. Sunken ships, blasted tanks, jeeps, gliders and trucks. No bodies, but we could see them in our heads just the same, sprawled all over the sand. up till then we’d thought of our country, and ourselves, as unbeatable. On that beach we came face-to-face with the fact that we weren’t, and it hit us all hard.
Normandy stayed with us during the four-hundred-mile trip east to the front. It took us six days to get there, to this little town called Saint-Nicholas-de-Port. We could hear the battle going on a few miles away but they didn’t send us in. We waited there for three more days, edgy as cats. Then one afternoon we got the order to man all guns. A bunch of MPs in jeeps mounted with machine guns rolled up and parked themselves around our tanks. Then a single jeep came screeching up. A three-star general hopped out of it and got up onto the hood of a half-track. When I seen his ivory-handled pistols I knew I was looking at Ole Blood and Guts himself.
“Men,” he said, “you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I’d have never asked for you if you weren’t the best. I have nothing but the best in my Army. I don’t give a damn what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches.”
Gave me a shock when I heard his voice, it was as high- pitched as a woman’s. I reckon that’s why he cussed so much — he didn’t want nobody to take him for a sissy.
“Everybody’s got their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you,” he went on. “Most of all, your race is counting on you. Don’t let them down, and damn you, don’t let me down! They say it’s patriotic to die for your country. Well, let’s see how many patriots we can make out of those German bastards.”
Course we’d all heard the scuttlebutt about Patton. How he’d hauled off and hit a sick GI at a hospital in Italy. How he was crazy as a coot and hated colored people besides. I don’t care what anybody says, that man was a real soldier, and he took us when nobody else thought we were worth a damn. I’d have gone to hell and back for him, and I think every one of us Panthers felt the same. That’s what we called ourselves: the 761st Black Panther Battalion. Our motto was “Come Out Fighting.” That day at Saint-Nicolas-de-Port they were just words on a flag, but we were about to find out what they meant.
A tank crew’s like a small family. With five of you in there day after day, ain’t no choice but to get close. After awhile you move like five fingers on a hand. A guy says, Do this, and before he can even get the words out it’s already done.
We didn’t take baths, wasn’t no time for them and it was too damn cold besides, and I mean to tell you the smell in that tank could get ripe. One time we were in the middle of battle and our cannoneer, a big awkward guy from Oklahoma named Warren Weeks, got the runs. There he was, squatting over his upturned helmet, grunting and firing away at the German Panzers. The air was so foul I almost lost my breakfast.
Sergeant Cleve hollered out, “Goddamn, Weeks! We oughta load you in the gun and fire you at the Jerries, they’d surrender in no time.”
We all about busted our guts laughing. The next day an armor-piercing shell blew most of Warren’s head off. His blood and brains went all over me and the other guys, and all over the white walls. Why the Army decided to make the walls white I could never understand. That day they were red but we kept right on fighting, wearing pieces of Warren, till the sun went down and the firing stopped. I don’t remember what battle that was, it was somewhere in Belgium — Bastogne maybe, or Tillet. I got to where I didn’t know what time it was or what day of the week. There was just the fighting, on and on, the crack of rifles and the ack ack ack of machine guns, bazookas firing, shells and mines exploding, men screaming and groaning and dying. And every day knowing you could be next, it could be your blood spattered all over your buddies.
Sometimes the shelling was so ferocious guys from the infantry would beg to get in the tank with us. Sometimes we let them, depending. Once we were parked up on a rise and this white GI with no helmet on came running up to us. Ain’t nothing worse for a foot soldier than losing your helmet in battle.
“Hey, you fellas got room for one more?” he yelled.
Sergeant Cleve yelled back, “Where you from, boy?” “Baton Rouge, Louisiana!”
We all started hooting and laughing. We knew what that meant.
“Sorry, cracker,” said Sarge, “we full up today.”
“I got some hooch I took off a dead jerry,” said the soldier. He pulled a nice-sized silver flask out of his jacket and held it up. “This stuff’ll peel the paint off a barn, sure enough. You can have it if you let me in.”
Sarge cocked an eyebrow and looked around at all of us. “I’m a Baptist, myself,” I said.
“Me, too,” said Sam.
Sarge hollered, “You want us to burn in hell, boy?” “Course not, sir!”
“Cause you know drinking’s a sin.”
We all had plenty of reasons to hate crackers but Sarge hated them more than all of us put together. Word was he had a sister who was raped by a bunch of white boys in Tuscaloosa, that’s where he was from.
“Please!” begged the soldier. “just let me in!”
“Get lost, cracker!”
Reckon that soldier died that day. Reckon I should’ve felt bad about it but I didn’t. I was so worn out it was hard to feel much of anything.
I didn’t talk about none of that when I wrote home. Even if the censors would’ve let it through, I didn’t want to fret Mama and Daddy. Instead I told them what snow felt like and how nice the locals were treating us (leaving out a few details about the French girls). I told them about the funny food they had over there and the glittery dress Lena Horne wore when she came and sang to us at the uSO. Daddy wrote back with news from home: The skeeters were bad this year. Ruel and Marlon had grown two whole inches. Lilly May sang a solo in church. The mule got into the cockleburs again.
Mississippi felt far, far away.
Henry stayed mad at me, and he showed it by ignoring me in our bed. My husband was never an especially passionate man, but he’d always made love to me at least twice a week. In the first months of our marriage I’d felt awkward and reluctant (though I never refused him — I wouldn’t have dreamed of it). But eventually we settled into an intimacy that was sweet and familiar, if not entirely fulfilling. He liked to do it at night, with one lamp on. At Mudbound it was one candle. That was his signal: the sound of the match head rasping against the striker. joined with Henry, his body shuddering against mine, I felt very close to him and miles distant from him at the same time. He was experiencing sensations I wasn’t, that much was plain to me, but I didn’t expect ecstasy. I had no idea it was even possible for a woman. I hadn’t always enjoyed Henry’s lovemaking, but it made me feel like a true wife. I never realized how much I needed that until he turned away from me.
If my bed that April was cold, my days were hot, sweaty and grueling without Florence to help me. Henry hired Kester Cottrill’s daughter Mattie Jane to come and clean for me, but she was slovenly and a chatterbox to boot, so after the first day I restricted her to laundry and other outdoor tasks. I saw Florence mostly from a distance, bent over a hoe, chopping out the weeds that threatened the tender cotton plants. Once I ran into her in town and started to complain about Mattie Jane. Florence gave me a look of incredulous scorn — This is your idea of a problem? — that shamed me into silence. I knew I should be grateful I wasn’t spending twelve or more hours a day in the cotton fields, but it was poor consolation.
One Saturday at the end of April, the five of us went into town to do errands and have dinner at Dex’s Diner, famed for its fried catfish and the sign outside that read:
JESUS LOVES YOU
MONDAY - FRIDAY 6:00-2:00
After we ate we stopped at Tricklebank’s to get the week’s provisions. Henry and Pappy lingered on the front porch with Orris Stokes and some other men, and the girls and I went inside to visit with the ladies. While I chatted with Rose, Amanda Leigh and Isabelle ran off to play with her two girls. Alice Stokes was there, radiantly pregnant, buying a length of poplin for a maternity dress. Wretched as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to begrudge her happiness. We’d been chatting for a few minutes when a Negro soldier came in the back door. He was a tall young man with skin the color of strong tea. There were sergeant’s stripes on his sleeves and a great many medals on his chest. He had a duffel bag slung over one broad shoulder.
“Howdy, Miz Tricklebank,” he said. “Been a long time.” His voice was sonorous and full of music. It rang out loudly in the confines of the store, startling the ladies.
“Is that you, Ronsel?” Rose said wonderingly.
He grinned. “Yes, ma’am, last time I looked.”
So this was Florence’s son. She’d told me all about him, of course. How smart he was, how handsome and brave. How he’d taken to book-learning like a fish to water. How he drew people to him like bees to honey, and so on. “Ain’t just me talking mama nonsense,” she’d declared. “Ronsel’s got a shine to him, you’ll see it the minute you lay eyes on him. The gals all want to be with him, and the men all want to be like him. They can’t help it, they drawn to that shine.”
I had thought it was mama nonsense, though I hadn’t said so. What mother doesn’t believe her firstborn son has more than his fair share of God’s gifts? But when I saw Ronsel standing there in Tricklebank’s, I understood exactly what she meant.
He dipped his head politely to me and the other ladies. “Afternoon,” he said.
“Well, I declare,” said Rose. “Aren’t you grown up.”
“How you been doing, Miz Tricklebank?”
“Getting along fine. You seen your folks yet?”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “Bus just got in. I stopped to buy a few things for em.”
I studied him as Rose helped him with his purchases. He looked more like Hap, but he had Florence’s way of filling up a room, and then some. You couldn’t help but watch him; he had that kind of force. He glanced over at me curiously, and I realized he’d caught me staring. “I’m Mrs. McAllan,” I said, a little embarrassed. “Your parents work on our farm.”
“How do,” he said. His eyes only met mine briefly, but in those few seconds I had the feeling I’d been thoroughly assessed.
“Do Hap and Florence know you’re coming home?” I said.
“No, ma’am. I wanted to surprise em.”
“Well, I know they’ll be mighty glad to see you.”
His forehead wrinkled in concern. “Are they all right?”
He didn’t miss much, this son of Florence’s. I hesitated, then told him about Hap’s accident, emphasizing the positive. “He’s using crutches now, and the doctor said he should be walking again by June.”
“Thank God for that. He can’t stand to be idle. He’s probably driving Mama crazy, being underfoot all day.”
Uneasily, I looked away from him. “What is it?” he asked.
I realized suddenly that the other women had gone dead silent and were watching us, making no effort at discretion. Some looked shocked, others hostile. Rose looked concerned, and her eyes held a warning.
I turned back to Ronsel. “Your parents lost their mule,” I said, “and then we had a spell of bad weather. They’re using our stock now. And your mother’s working in the fields with your brothers.”
His jaw tightened and his eyes turned cold. “Thank you for telling me,” he said. The ironic emphasis on the first two words was impossible to miss. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Alice Stokes.
“Excuse me,” I said to Ronsel. “I have shopping to do.”
As I walked away from him, I heard him say, “I’ll come back for that cloth later, Miz Tricklebank. I better get on home now.”
He paid Rose hurriedly and headed for the front door with his purchases and his duffel bag. just before he reached the door, it opened and Pappy came in, followed by Orris Stokes and Doc Turpin. Ronsel stopped just short of running into them.
“Beg pardon,” he said.
He tried to step around them, but Orris moved to stand in his way. “Well, looky here. A jig in uniform.”
Ronsel’s body went very still, and his eyes locked with Orris’s. But then he dropped his gaze and said, “Sorry, suh. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Where do you think you’re going, boy?” said Doc Turpin. “Just trying to get home to see my folks.”
The door opened again, and Henry and a few other men came inside, crowding behind Pappy, Orris and Doc Turpin. All of them wore unfriendly expressions. I felt a flicker of fear.
“Honey,” I called out to Henry, “this is Hap and Florence’s son Ronsel, just returned from overseas.”
“Well, that explains it then,” drawled Pappy.
“Explains what?” said Ronsel.
“Why you’re trying to leave by the front door. You must be confused as to your whereabouts.”
“I ain’t confused, suh.”
“Oh, I think you are, boy,” Pappy said. “I don’t know what they let you do over there, but you’re in Mississippi now. Niggers don’t use the front here.”
“Why don’t you go out the back where you belong,” said Orris.
“I think you’d better,” said Henry. “Go on now.”
It got very quiet. The air fairly crackled with hostility. I saw muscles tense and hands clench into fists. But if Ronsel was afraid, he didn’t show it. He looked slowly around the store, meeting the eyes of every man and woman there, mine included. Just go, I pleaded with him silently. He let the moment drag out, waiting until just before the breaking point to speak.
“You know, suh, you’re right,” he said to Pappy. “We didn’t go in the back over there, they put us right out in front. Right there on the front lines, face-to-face with the enemy. And that’s where we stayed, the whole time we were there. The Jerries killed some of us, but in the end we kicked the hell out of em. Yessuh, we sure did.”
With a nod to Rose, he turned and strode out the back door.
“Did you hear what he just said?” sputtered Pappy.
“Nigger like that ain’t gonna last long around here,” said Orris.
“Maybe we ought to teach him better manners,” said Doc Turpin.
Things might have turned ugly, but Henry stepped forward and faced them, hands up and palms out. “No need for that. I’ll have a word with his father.”
For a moment I was afraid they wouldn’t back down, but then Orris said, “See that you do, McAllan.”
The men dispersed, and the tension lifted. I did my shopping and rounded up the girls, and we left Tricklebank’s. On the way back to Mudbound, we came upon Ronsel walking down the middle of the road. He moved to one side to let us pass. As we went by him, I traded another glance with him through the open window of the car. His eyes were defiant, and they were shining.