This rainy day Pvt. Curvey and I had ended up with the left and right tent halves and so were tent mates. Curvey was a tall handsome black man of 25 whose student deferment had run out the year before when he graduated from college. He was articulate and the Drill Sergeant had chosen him squad leader of my squad, probably for his command presence rather than his language.
We finished assembling the tent and went to chow in the mess tent. This was way better than the boy scouts.
Without much to do after the dusk exercise of shooting pennies out of the air with BB guns, we smoked and talked about the events of the spring. That included the wave of riots following Dr. King’s assassination.
“Curvey, can I ask you a race question? I only ever knew three negroes and I haven’t seen them since high school.
“Sure, I know a little about race since I grew up in Detroit.”
“You won’t get mad?
“No I won’t get mad. I promise”
“I had a negro boss on my last job before I was drafted. He was new. Been on the job a couple of weeks. Anyway, he didn’t come to work the Friday after King was shot. I worried all weekend what I would say to him when I saw him. I worried that he’d be pissed and take it out on us who worked for him. But he didn’t.
On Monday he came to work. He was very sad. I went into his office at coffee time and said, “I’m sorry about Dr. King. I hope you won’t be mad at us but I suppose you have every right to be.”
And he said, “No, I’m not mad at you. It isn’t your fault, you’re just a kid.”
Now I’m in the army and a bunch of the platoon are negroes and I’m afraid I’ll say something or do something to make them mad. I don’t understand them.”
“OK. So what’s your question?
“Well, why did the negroes in Detroit burn their own neighborhood? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s because of years of pent up rage. Dr. King had showed a way forward and now it’s gone. Negroes have nothing; no political power, no money, hardly any good paying jobs, no access to education, except for a few people like me whose parents are well off from the music business in Detroit.
“But why burn your own neighborhood? Why not burn the white neighborhood?”
“Because they don’t own anything. They don’t own those tenements. They just pay rent. They’re slums, no hot water, no elevators. Sometimes no heat in winter. It’s a bitch. Then King is killed — it’s just too much.”
“Why don’t they move to a better neighborhood?”
“Curvey sighed, “Where do I start?” He asked softly to no one in particular.
“It’s a big complicated problem and it goes back to the Civil War and before. I can’t hope to explain it in an evening. You’ll have to do some reading. But I can say this: the white culture you grew up in is the dominant culture and they like it that way. It even determines what you see on TV. If I was white I’d know what king of hair cream to buy from watching TV commercials but I’ll bet you don’t know what product to buy to straighten kinky hair. How do you think Dianna Ross gets her hair to look like that? She wasn’t born with straight hair. ”
“No. I don’t. How would I find out?”
“You’d have to read Ebony. There aren’t any black TV stations in Seattle.”
“It’s a magazine for Black people. See, the white culture is so dominant you don’t even know there is a black culture.”