3/5 of a Man? Imagine that!

There is a seemingly new awakening of the national conscience regarding race. This national conversation has been prompted by what seems to be “one injustice too many”. There have been tragic losses of life recently that have ignited an increase in both a universal cohesion as well as a brazen hatred not seen in decades. 

But imagine living most of your life where this open and unashamed racism was just the norm. 

Imagine that you are a Black man that was born into poverty in an era where poverty was both expected and accepted by African Americans.

Even worse, imagine that you were just a little Black boy, say 8 or 9 years old, in the south during The Great Depression. Times were bad for everyone but you are still a child so you are still on a perpetual hunt for fun….So you go to the movies whenever you could and the admission price to the theater is actually a potato. The cost of admission is actually a potato!  

Now you are a teen. You are 16. You are on the verge of being a man yet everyone calls you ‘boy’. You have seen your parents struggle to provide for you and your sibling but they have managed well enough that you and your brother never went to bed hungry but sometimes your hunger was sated by a can or two of Vienna sausages. You see that many of your older high school classmates are dropping out of school. Not because of bad grades or because of a lack of ambition but because they were drafted into the military. And they were drafted because there was an actual madman actually taking over all of Europe and then a completely foreign group of pilots took off from an aircraft carrier and sank a bunch of United States Navy ships in Hawaii. Even though your country has tried to make you feel like three fifths of a man, you are chomping at the bit to fight for it. But alas, you are too young.

You are old enough, however, to plainly see that the playing field is nowhere near level. You have to drink from a separate, dingy water fountain. You have to avert your eyes for fear of a beating or worse if a pretty white woman walks too close to you. You have seen more friends being beaten by white police officers than you can count on both hands and you know that it is an inevitability that your very own beating will come one day. But you do not have the pressure of not being able to afford college weighing on you for you already know your life’s plans. You have known it from that “day that will live in infamy” in December of 1941. As soon as you are old enough, you will do what many Black men do simply to have a decent wage, housing and also the opportunity to die at the hands of someone from another country that threatens yours….You will enlist in the United States Army.

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World War II has ended by the time you decide to sign up so you are feeling like you might actually have a chance at making a living, having a family and living a fulfilling three fifths of a life as a Black man. You get to the recruiting station and see that there are still two separate water fountains there. “Why is the ‘Colored’ water fountain a full two feet lower than the one without a sign above it? Do they really fancy me a boy even though I am a full six feet tall and 24 years old?” Things are going along swimmingly in the Armed Services until you watch white soldiers get promoted to higher ranks that enlisted a full 3 years after you and you see it so much that you just begrudgingly accept it as policy. And then something happens with communism or something in southeast Asia and you find yourself on a plane to Korea. You aren’t really sure of the reason that you are on that plane. No American really is clear on why but every American is super educated on the fact that there is death happening. Some call it a ‘conflict’. Others call it a ‘war’. What you are most sure about, however, is that even halfway across the world where you living or dying is a daily coin toss….Your American soldiers in arms still call you “boy”. 

The “war” ends. You survive. You make it back to ‘your’ country. You meet a beautiful woman. You buy her a ring. You go to the Justice of the Peace and suddenly you have a wife! And then, just a short year later, she tells you that you are going to be a father! The “American Dream” is three fifths happening for you! You meet your first son and you cart your new family around the country to wherever your country needs you. Life is good!

And then something happens with communism or something in southeast Asia and you find yourself on a plane to Vietnam. After 17 years of service, you make it to Sergeant First Class and you have a family and then you get the privilege of risking your life in Asia. Again. 

And..You are still called “boy”.

You survive bullets zipping all around you and you survive Agent Orange. You are starting to feel like things are getting better for you and your race and your family since you get stationed in Germany and your beautiful wife tells you that you are going to have another child and also… 

There is a movement happening! A movement led by a Black man that seems to have energized every race towards the goal of all men actually being created equal. Now imagine THAT! While riding this wave of good times, you get some time off from guarding our country in Europe and you decide to come home to Detroit to check on your aging parents. Imagine that while you are stateside, this man that has given the entire country the hope of racial equality is shot in the head in the city of your birth, Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. Imagine that your city erupts because Black people are upset enough to take to the streets and an all out riot happens and you just have the bad luck of being in Detroit at that exact time when you could have been on the other side of the Atlantic at work.

And…You have the bad luck of taking a beating by police just for being Black. The time of your beating has come and, for 4 minutes or so, you feel exactly like three fifths of a man.

So, after this, now you have had enough with the wars and the injustice in your country that you have sworn to protect. You have given 24 years of your life to the United States Army and you now have a wife and two sons to protect. You have new priorities and you have a new perspective of what your life should be and what your country actually is. Your father in Detroit dies and leaves you his house so you put in for your retirement. Your last day of worrying about another war tearing you away from your young family is on the horizon.

You move your family to Detroit and, because of your distinguished service record, you immediately land a job as a foreman at Ford Motor Company. You have a house that is paid for, you have a beautiful young family and you have a new good paying job where there are no foreign enemies shooting at or throwing hand grenades at you! But on your first day of work, your new boss says to you, “So I am going to call you ‘Sarge’! How does that sound boy.”

So imagine all of this…

You are a Black man born into The Great Depression and survived poverty.

You are a Black man that has been shot at in three wars…In Korea from 1950 to 1953, in Vietnam from 1963 through 1966 and in Detroit on April 5th, 1968.  

You are a Black man that retired from The U.S. Army AND Ford Motor Co. after over 20 years service at each.

You are a Black man that gave his two sons every new fancy toy and every expensive article of clothing that they asked for and then sent them both to college. All on the salary of a Sergeant First Class and, later, a blue collar auto worker.

You did all of the above while the world called you ‘boy’ and, at times, made you feel like three fifths of a man. Imagine that! 

But you knew something. You knew that you were five fifths of a man and you never had to tell them because you showed them. You were five fifths of a man! You showed the world. You showed me.

Thank you Dad. For everything. All 5/5 of it.

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