Two American Blacks
And A Jamaican in
WWII"Get off the base, that's what I said to Jon. Military as changeable as a summer breeze. One minute you got a pass, next all leave is cancelled. Well, if a mule can't hear it ain't disobeying. Truth of the matter is, Joe, we got a pass and two pretty women waiting for us. Lincoln girls. That's going your way, I believe. I have to say, Joe, you're a sight made me rub my eyes. A coloured man in a British uniform. You're British, you say?"
"British. Yes," I answered.
"But not English?"
"No, I am from Jamaica but England is my Mother Country." Was it the half-light or were their baffled faces really contorting into the shape of two question marks? "Joe, I don't altogether understand what you're saying. Jamaica is in England and who is your mother?" Levi asked.
"No, Jamaica is not in England but it is part of the British Empire."
"The British Empire, you say. And where would that be, Joe?"
"There are plenty countries belong to the British Empire."
"And you say your mother lives in one of them?"
"No, Britain is Jamaica's Mother Country. But we are all part of the Empire."
"Oh." Both nodded, both had not one clue what I was talking about. "The Empire, you say. That wouldn't be the place in London where there was a picture show?"
I tried explaining: "The British own the island of Jamaica, it is in the Caribbean Sea and we, the people of Jamaica, are all British because we are her subjects." Nothing, "Jamaica is a colony. Britain is our Mother Country. We are British but we live in Jamaica."
"Well, Joe, I think I get it now. This island, Jamaica, is in the Caribbean Sea." Jon nodded, pensively turning to his friend. They understood. "So," Levi carried on, "the British have all their black folks living on an island. You a long way from home just like us."
"Yes, I suppose I am."
"So you're not from America?"
"No, I'm British."
"Yes, sir, British, and so is your mother?" he mumbled, in a hesitant way that made me wonder whether anything I was saying was going into his head or merely circling around it searching for somewhere solid to land. "So, what you doing here?" Levi asked.
"I am a volunteer for the war effort. Here to help the Mother Country." Oh, I sounded so pompous, I know I did. As I said the words I wanted to breathe them back in but I had heard and answered that question too often. What? Did people think I was lost on my way from the canefield?"
"Now, Joe, I think you're misunderstanding my meaning. My question is more what were you doing at that US Army base you've just come from?"
"I was sent to retrieve something that had been lost in transit."
"From that base? Someone sent you to that base?"
"Yes." Levi paused for a moment. Then, frowning like a clever man who sees for the first time that the person he has been talking with is a fool, he said, "Now, Joe, I know you are a British man. And I understand that the British do things different. But --- and I am picking my words as careful as a thief before a judge --- but, Joe, I am presuming you do know you are a negro. And a negro on that base 'bout as welcome as a snake in a crib." Look on my empty truck, I wanted to say. You see any parts there, man?
"You want to come round to us. We're out near a place called Netting Ham."
"But the parts were on that particular base," I squeezed in.
"Now, Joe, I don't know if what I am telling you is something you already know but seems to me someone is playing around with you. See, the American army is very strict about keeping black folks apart."
"There was a misunderstanding with my CO," I said.
"Well, you may be right, Joe, you may be right. But the way I see it, tangled strings always got someone pulling them."
I had no time to contemplate who was pulling whose strings, travelling as I was through a landscape that could not be trusted. "So, will I drop you two in Lincoln?" I purposefully asked.
"No, we ain't going to Lincoln, though it's good of you to offer, but just before you reach there will be fine."
"But I thought you said you were meeting two Lincoln girls. I am going through Lincoln."
"Brenda and Peggy, Lincoln born and bred so they tell us. But Netting Ham is the place we will be meeting them."
"I am not going as far as Nottingham."
"We appreciate that, Joe."
"Nottingham, why Nottingham?" I asked. "Netting Ham is where we is headed. It ain't our day in Lincoln." Our day. You see, I thought I understood those words --- simple as they are. It was not their day in Lincoln. Said so matter-of-factly, only a half-wit could not follow. But a curious silence hung in the truck between us amplifying that little phrase. Soon all I wanted to know was what, in God's name, could "It ain't our day in Lincoln" possibly mean! So I asked.
"Lincoln," Levi began. "It being Wednesday, Lincoln is a white town. Lincoln is for white GIs only until next week. Now, me and Jon here don't have a pass for next week when Lincoln would be for coloureds. So we gonna meet our Brenda and Peggy in Netting Ham. 'Cause you see Netting Ham is a black town. No whites going to be resting in Netting Ham unless they're looking for trouble and then they're going to get a whole heap of it 'cause Netting Ham is a black-GIs-only area. But me and Jon here, we ain't looking for trouble --- we're looking to have a nice time with our ladies. A little dancing, something to eat and who-knows-what-else, if you get my meaning, Joe."
"But Nottingham is far away."
"Now, that's true, but if we were in Lincoln we gonna be niggers in the wrong place. Niggers in the wrong place spend all their time watching their backs. There's white boys and MPs just waiting to jump on our broad shoulders. No, we ain't looking for trouble, me and Jon, we're fixing to have a good time. I know you British do things different but US military has it all figured out."
"Your Brenda and Peggy don't mind to travel so far?" They both laughed a little.
"Now, they could rest in Lincoln. Me and Jon ain't so come-lately to think they don't have no white boys dangling from their chain when we ain't there to escort them. But we coloured boys figure we must give good satisfaction and I ain't just talking about dancing, if you get my meaning. Only our moneys the same as white boys but they'd travel anywhere for the pleasure of dangling from any part of us."
"You mean," I asked, "you are going all the way to Nottingham so you don't mix with white GIs?"
"Like I say, the military got it all figured out --- Netting Ham is a black town." I did not ask whether the good people of Nottingham knew their town was black or whether the quiet folk of Lincoln realised their town was only for whites. It was too ridiculous! No, what I asked instead was "Don't you mind being treated like that?"
"What d'you mean there, Joe?"
"Well, Joe, I know you British do things different, but where we come from it's the way of things..." Suddenly the puppet master awakened --- Jon was wriggling in his seat. Opening his lips --- a little at first then wider --- his bass voice, deep as mahogany roots, steadily said, "But things gonna have to change when we get home." At which Levi, turning to his friend, responded with "Maybe they will, Jon, and maybe they won't," before carrying on. "See, you British are different, you see things different. Take Jon here --- he don't mind me talking for him 'cept around women. Jon never talked to a white person 'fore he come here. He knew plenty of 'em to give him orders --- take out the trash, sweep the yard --- but that ain't conversing. So --- and I'm cutting this story as short as I can, Joe --- me and Jon and some of the other boys get invited to this English lady's house for tea. Not coffee, tea, always tea. 'Pour it back in the mule' is what I say about tea, although not to this white lady who is friendly enough to request the company of negroes. Now, she lives in a house fancy as a church. Coloured glass, big wooden doors, rooms so big your voice still running round the walls long after you spoke. We sit down on her finest chairs and this lady is asking all of us in turn how we like England. Most of us are just saying the polite thing, which is yes-very-nice-thank-you-ma'am. Only Earl thinks to say something like a complaint 'cause that is his character. He says the climate is a bit too cold, but this lady just laughs so we all laugh along too. Then she turns to Jon here and asks where his family is from. Now, at that same time as she is asking him that simple question, this pretty little white servant girl is placing the tea --- in a little cup on a little saucer --- into Jon's hand. Well, Jon is so feared having a white woman waiting on his conversation that that cup began to shake on that saucer like the earth was trembling under Jon's rear side. It was clicking and clacking, wobbling and rattling and the hot tea was spilling over the top. This lady she's making like she don't see anything and we boys could do nothing but watch. It was the white servant girl who moves over to Jon. She takes his hand with the little cup and the little saucer and closes her hands around them till it's steady. Jon being grateful looks up to her and smiles and she smiles back. Well, the lady sure notices that. "Thank you for coming," she tells us, and quick as a crooked dealer with his deck she has that tea back from us. We was out of that house looking at that closing door before any of us had got a drop of that damn brew to our lips. But we was invited. A white woman invited us coloured soldiers to her house, to sit with her on her furniture, to drink with her her tea. Don't get that where we come from. You have anything to do with white folks here, Joe?"
"Yes, I share a billet with seven white men." If silence ever spoke, it spoke to me then. Levi's breath stopped. Whereas Jon came to life once more, twitching tormented in his seat, wiping a hand first across the back of his neck then dragging it slowly down his face. Studying me like he saw me for the first time, he asked, "How can you sleep with them in the same room?"
"What do you mean?" I asked him. But both stared silent on me, convinced I was the strangest apparition they had ever beheld. With Lincoln approaching, Levi told me, "Just about here will be fine, Joe." Assuring me they would be catching a train, they wanted to be left in what seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere. "You been good company, Joe. Now we sure would like to show our appreciation for the ride but we don't want to offend you."
"I was going your way. No problem."
"Now, you sure that is enough for you? Only you've been kind. And you can be sure me and Jon here are gonna eat plenty of chicken when the folks back home request the tale of the British coloured man we met. The British Empire --- I'm gonna remember that. And all their coloured folks on an island in the sea." Both offered their hands for me to shake before they would leave the truck.
"Been a pleasure meeting you, Joe," Levi said, for both of them. As I started up the truck again I found deposited on their vacated seats six packets of Chesterfield cigarettes. Waving goodbye they pulled up the collars of their coats before finally disappearing into the lonely stretch of dark road.--- From Small Island
Andrea A. Levy