Kittie Howard

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tuskegee Airmen and Louisiana Memories; Fictional Characters

A big Thank You to Alex J. Cavanaugh for hosting the "It's All Fun & Games Blog Fest."  We bloggers know how to have a good time!

And a big Welcome to my new Followers - It's nice to meet you! *waves*  (Would Cheryl and Arcadia 1997 please drop me a comment; I can't link to you. *sighs*)

A PBS television program about the Tuskegee Airmen and numerous descriptions of fictional book characters who have 'nothing' prompted this post.  Specifically, I'd like to take a look at this 'nothing' so many write about, ie, in the physical possession sense.  It's all relative, of course.  And therein lies the fault line.  How does an author describe a character so the reader can relate?

First, to the Tuskegee Airmen - Two years ago, my husband and I had the honor and privilege to sit with several of the Tuskegee Airmen at a function held in Washington, D.C.  These distinguished African-Americans helped crack the racial ceiling on March 19, 1941 with the formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (47 officers and 429 enlisted men.)  At that time, widespread opinion in the United States was skeptical that blacks could fight as good as whites in World War II.  However, the Tuskegee Airmen earned combat ribbon after combat ribbon and proved everyone wrong.

At war's end (1939-1945), combat forces returned home to a hero's welcome.

Not so fast.

In February 1946, African-American veteran Issac Woodard was attacked and blinded by policemen in Aiken, Georgia. (The Harry Truman Library)  In July 1946, two African-American veterans and their wives were executed (60 bullets) by a white mob in Georgia.  (Harry Truman Library)

Amid significant controversy, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 that desegregated all units within the United States military.  Accustomed to following orders, the military desegregated and is today, by all accounts, an integrated military that marches as one.

Some of the Tuskegee Airmen remained in the military after World War II.  Those who returned to the  South returned to 'separate but equal' facilities (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896 Supreme Court decision) that enabled segregation. 

The sharecropper system also divided along racial lines.  This economic system, whereby field hands worked off exorbitant rents for houses occupied, divided black and white sharecroppers:  White sharecroppers usually lived in the more front-facing shacks; black sharecroppers usually lived in shacks positioned further back on a farm.

These two groups of very poor people, the poorest rung on the economic ladder, interacted during working hours, usually because a white sharecropper supervised a black sharecropper.

The U.S. Census couldn't accurately record how many sharecroppers existed.  Dirt paths or wagon-rutted farm roads usually led to these tucked away shacks.  For both races, babies were born and babies died, often buried on the farm, without record.  As were the sick and the infirm.  Few sharecroppers paid state or federal taxes.  Pay taxes on what?  So, scant records there.

Many sharecroppers - and especially black sharecroppers - lived in shacks without electricity.  Or running water.  Roofs leaked.  Windows had patched cardboard to block the cold.  Sharecroppers could grow their own food - this sounds rather quaint, almost self-sufficient romantic - but sharecroppers didn't have the run of the farm for personal gardens.  Shacks usually had hardened 'yards' where scrawny chickens pecked.  Chicken eggs provided year-round food, unlike green beans.  So kids played where the chickens crapped.

People died.  Lots of people died young.  No medical insurance.  No dental insurance (it was common for people to die from dental infections.)  No Medicare.  No Medicaid.  Social Security existed - but back to those missing records.  Lots of sharecroppers - especially black sharecroppers - simply didn't exist.  So, no Social Security checks.

For many white sharecroppers, though, the KuKluxKlan provided a measure of superiority.  Ever heard of those dudes in white sheets and pointy hats?  The KKK rode against my grandfather once - tried to intimidate him into selling off some land at a cheap price. (He didn't!)  It wasn't until I was a grown woman that my father told me who had been active in the KKK in our area:  The fathers of lots of kids I went to school with, that's who.  You see, the yellow school bus picked up all white kids and delivered them to a segregated school.  Black students got to school (if a schoolhouse existed) as best they could.  Black and white sharecropper kids dropped out of school at alarming rates.

The sharecropper system needed the students who dropped out of school.  They fed the system with a stream of muscled labor.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 destroyed the sharecropper system.  A Federal law mandated that if a sharecropper occupied housing not maintained for a significant period of time, that plot of land belonged to the sharecropper.  Practically overnight, farmers had shacks torn down.

So, back to a WIP character (a work in progress character) having 'nothing' -  this is all relative.  I don't think a struggling college student who works two jobs and carries a student loan has 'nothing' - to me, the character maximizes opportunity for a broader future.  I know a 64 year-old man and his wife who lived in million-dollar waterfront property.  He earned enormous income.  But, by his own admission, he cut one deal too many and lost it all to bankruptcy. 

They now live off of Social Security in a small, rented apartment.  Does he have 'nothing?'  Not if he has a roof over his head, food, and some income, the physical basics.  But he struggles.  There's a difference.  'Nothing' is a basic bottom line, not to be confused with what one wants.

One of the Tuskegee Airmen at my table in that posh hotel said, "It's not easy to survive nothing."

                                                        Tuskegee Airman (Wikipedia)

Restored P-51 Mustang associated with the Tuskegee Airmen (Wikipedia)  Note the red tail...the Airmen painted tails red so Allied forces wouldn't mistake them for the enemy.  This wasn't racially motivated, but a preventive combat measure.  However, the Airmen proudly refer to themselves today as the "Red Tails" and often wear signature red jackets (which they wore the evening I met some of them.)

Support training squadron airplanes, with the Tuskegee Airmen's Red Tail, at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, honor the Tuskegee Airmen today. (Wikipedia)  You can visit the Airmen's Web site here.


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