Belonging at Berkeley
Marshall S, Cabiness, Jr.
(aka Marshall Musa Muslim Abuwi)
A ship’s low foghorn could be heard across the Golden Gate bridge. I walked quickly from my black ghetto home in Berkeley. It was a typical, drizzly fall morning. I had decided to cut my morning classes at the University of California. It was my first semester and I was going to the Army recruiter’s office in downtown Berkeley. I raced when I saw the city bus coming to a stop. I nearly tripped with anxiety when I descended from the bus in front of the sign that said “ARMY”.
A weathered, fit-looking Army sergeant was lounging behind his gray desk in the sparsely furnished office. He was waiting for suckers to walk in. When I appeared in his sights, he quickly turned his usual scowl into a charming smile. He studied the opened book logo on my U. C. Berkeley sweatshirt, then looked me up and down before he said,
“Sit down, son. What can I do for you?”
“Japan”, I replied with a wide open grin. “I want to go to Japan.”
“You ever been in jail, or on probation ?” “Don’t lie, it’ll get you five years in Leavenworth.”
“No, Sergeant. I’ve never been in any trouble. Clean record.”
The recruiter then sat me down at a table in the corner of his large office, which was filled with pictures of teenagers having exciting adventures, like standing with beautiful Asian girls in front of an ancient temple, or rafting down white water rapids, or crawling through swamps. He gave me a test to see if I was smart enough to be a soldier in the Army. That was no problem for me, because I had scored in the top ten percent on my Scholastic Aptitude Tests. The recruiter’s test was easy. Simple reading and math exercises. A few geometry puzzles.
The sergeant was elated when he called me the next day, catching me at home just as I was leaving to go on campus for my ROTC class. I had to rush our conversation because I did not want my senior class ROTC captain to ride me for being late. From my very first day at drill, he and his arrogant lieutenants had convinced me that I was persona non grata for being the solitary Negro in my Air Force ROTC unit.
Excitement electrified me during my humiliating drill where I was treated like a peon by the pompous ROTC officers. They obviously did not know that I myself had been a top notch cadet officer, at a military school, the previous year. I stood in ranks, feeling defeated. I had been rejected for admission into the elite Naval ROTC program. The Navy Commander at the ROTC office said, “Mr. Cabiness, you do not have the right background to be a Naval Officer.” I was confused.
“What kind of background do I need to have?” I asked myself.
My family had been one of the leading Negro families in the Nation’s capital after Reconstruction. Grandpa had established a Negro industrial college in Alabama. How could I, a great-grandson of Booker T. Washington, have the “wrong background” for serving in the officer corps. Grandpa’s school provided the first Negro Army officers for America’s Army and Air Forces. I had graduated from a prestigious, though segregated, prep school, at the top of my class. My school, the Saint Emma Military Academy prided itself for having one of the nation’s best Army Junior ROTC programs. It also was one of the few nationally accredited Black high schools in the country.
I had not learned much about African-American history at that point in my life, but I knew one thing for certain. I knew that Black people back home in Alabama were treated like we were a subhuman species that thrived on cruel mistreatment. We were made to live under a rigid code of oppression call racial segregation. Racial segregation in America, particularly in the South, was based on the dehumanization efforts of the white masters of Negro African slaves. By severely controlling the living conditions of the former slaves, after the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments were added to the U. S. Constitution, the white southerners, in effect, nullified those laws. The result of this was that the former slaves, and their descendants, were virtually returned to slavery, not as chattels, but as free slaves. The same rational was presented for this strategy to dehumanize the Negroes that had been presented in the 17th and 18th centuries when the profit potential of the Negro slavery was recognized by the great land lords and empire builders of Europe and America.
As a political science major at Berkeley, I sought out information about Black history, and I learned that a Virginia legislator, Henry Berry, had announced to his colleagues in 1832, “We have as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light may enter the slaves minds. If it were possible, we would extinguish the light (of humanity) from their minds, and reduce them to the level of dumb beasts. We would do his on the plea of necessity” (Embree, Edwin, Brown Americans).
I believed that I had escaped from racial prejudice when I enrolled at U. C. Berkeley. Until my father was forced out of our Alabama town for challenging the white business leaders about racial injustice, I thought I might want to live near Grandpa’s college, Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama. I envisioned myself going to school and teaching there. But my Dad’s desertion of my family, in 1957, changed all that. Embarrassed by her divorce from Dad, my mom wanted a new town for us. We made the long drive out to sunny California in the summer of 1960, seeking a chance to have a better life.
After I had finished high school and was enrolled at U. C. Berkeley, I received a shocking surprise! My chilling reception by the Air Force ROTC staff assured me that I was not wanted in their all-white officer training unit. I was stunned! I was only seventeen years old, with a nearly-perfect academic record. I had never been in any trouble with the law. I was an Eagle Scout and I had been selected for admission to Princeton and Yale. If these great universities wanted me, why did my Nordic military leaders reject me?
I had yet to understand that their treatment of me was part of a carefully designed plan to destroy the self-esteem of all African-Americans. The real meaning of this repressive system of the psychic destruction has been the continued dehumanization of an entire race of people. This psychic destruction has continued for three centuries so that American Negroes can be used in whatever way that the power brokers see fit, whether as convict labor to build America’s new cities, or canon fodder to fight America’s wars of global expansion.
The emotional effect of being pushed into a ghetto, with minimal municipal services, and repressive police agencies, is devastating. Even worse, however, is the denial of the natural right of human self-development, which is sought by every people on earth. That is, unless they have been beaten down so low, for so long, that they believe that subjugation is their natural place in the universe.
My psychic destruction began very early. When I was a ten year- old boy, in Alabama, the pain of being called a “nigger” by a truckload of redneck white boys, had seared my soul. It cut deeper than any memory that I have, other than my first sight of my father in the Air Force pilot’s uniform that the white racist generals tried to take away from him after he jettisoned a burning fighter plane that he was flying in 1943. He had angrily accused the Army of trying to kill the Black pilot trainees at Tuskegee by giving them flying crates of junk for training planes. Now the same repression had come home to me.
Is it any wonder that I became black nationalist college dropout? I joined a black separatist movement after hearing a revealing expose about slavery while I was a Berkeley student. I sought Black separatism, because I saw no other choice open to me, except to be a “house negro”, tipping around in corporate America, hoping to be left alone, or racing to break my head on the glass ceiling of the racist ‘good ole boy’ network, that was so evident in the officer training programs at Berkeley?
My poor, highly-educated father fared even worse, under segregation, than I did. Eventually, the racist Air Force generals, or their cousins destroyed my dad, as their children sought to destroy me, killing his spirit to achieve anything in America. They forced him to give up fighting for justice in racist Alabama, even though he had fought for America’s freedom in Europe, against Hitler. But in America, like me, he was just another “coon.”
In despair, my brilliant, poetic father turned to self-destruction, escaping from the emotional pain of segregation in a bottle of cheap gin whiskey. I would often watch him and his rejected Air Force buddies drink themselves into a stupor, as they replayed old indignities that had been heaped upon them by their white Air Force training officers during World War Two.
All this raced through my tormented mind as I stood in ranks one breezy, October afternoon during my first college semester. I looked up into the bigoted, wind-swept face of the stern ROTC officer, whose steel blue eyes were piercing my soul with his venom. He moved to the blond-haired, freshman cadet beside me, to offer him some encouragement. I bitterly started to plot my escape from American racism, far away from the U.S.A. I could not wait to hear the command “Dismissed from drill!
The Army recruiter just couldn’t get me back down to his office fast enough. He had made me promise that I would return there right after my ROTC drill ended, so I had to wear my Air Force Officer Cadet’s uniform into his office. Still in my uniform, I raced to the bus stop at Bancroft and Telegraph Avenue. I had just made it to the bus stop when the Shattuck Avenue bus arrived. The sergeant had a wide smile on his face, and a look of amusement.
This enlisted soldier was supposed to address me as “Sir”, and salute me, since I was a officer trainee. He was a hard, old, warrior and he did not give a damn about college boys. He was not about to call a seventeen year old Black kid, “Sir.” This gruff white sergeant reminded me of an old saying that I had once heard a white Alabama politician say at a rally against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s. “Black people have no rights that a white man is bound to respect.”
The Army recruiter’s large, Army-ringed hand shoved some papers towards me. He answered my questions impatiently, as I asked him about being able to go to Japan, if I dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army right away.
“You nearly got 100 percent of the questions right on your Army aptitude test”, he mused aloud.
“What do you want to do in the Army? Do you want to go Infantry?”
“Oh no, Sergeant”, I replied. “I want to go to Japan!”
“No problem”, he said, typing something on one of his many forms. “That’s where we’ll be sending you, right after Basic Training.”
My mind became flooded with pictures of the soft, brown Japanese coeds on CAL’s campus. My dream was about to come true!
I sat across from the recruiting sergeant and wondered how I could convince my mother to sign the enlistment papers that he pushed before me, permitting me to sign up for the Army. My poor Negro mother was very proud of me for getting into Berkeley. Only the world’s top high school graduates were considered for a place there.
I was unhappy living in the small apartment that Mom was renting as she began her life as a divorcee with three children. She was upset and depressed most of the time. She did not have a California teaching certificate yet, so she only got minimum wages as a teacher. She was trying to feed her kids with no help from my father. He was back at a far away graduate school, hoping that another college degree would erase his label of “subhuman”. But, in his quest for his own self-esteem, he had left us to fend alone.
If my Dad had made something out of his life besides being a drunk poet, I could have lived in the freshman dormitory. Then I could have made some friends to compensate for my sense of rejection on the huge campus. Instead, rejected everywhere I went, I felt like a nobody. I wanted desperately to believe that this encouraging old soldier was going to help me change all that.
When I was finished filling out the papers, the old soldier typed up an Enlistment Agreement. He said, “Sign it and press hard enough to imprint all six copies.” Meekly I signed his papers, while daydreaming about the Japanese delights that were soon to come into my sensuous, segregated Negro life. I left his office and ambled towards the campus.
The juke box inside the Berkeley student union blared out, “Those were the days my friend. We thought they’d never end.” and “The lion sleeps tonight.” Chatter about President John F. Kennedy’s new Peace Corps program was overheard at several of the heavy, dark wood tables. An inverted Eskimo canoe, attached to the ceiling in the campus hangout, kept watch over the noisy students. Bear-hunting trophies looked hungrily at tables piled with burgers and fries. Their huge brown eyes issued ferocious challenges. Here, the best and the brightest relaxed.
It was Friday evening on America’s “Oxford by the Bay”. A motley-looking quartet tuned up their music on a low stage in the back of the Bears’ Lair cafe. The customers were warmed by the serene twilight, exotic coffee smells, and a funky Jimmy Hendrix song. I’d never fit in here. I descended into the gloom of my lonely soul.
The red golden glow of sunset on the campanile had signaled the end of the day. The campus was now wrapped in long shadows. Evening chimes peeled out CALIFORNIA’s school song. I got off the city bus and walked a few yards to my financial aid job in the Bears’ cafe. When I arrived, I smelled the broiling steaks on the busy grills. Cooked onions drifted out to the street to pull me inside. The perspiring Negro chefs joked as they shouted orders over the laughter around them.
I moved to the locker room. As I put on my fresh, white busboy apron, my mind lingered on the Army recruiter’s promise. Outside, the twilight spread over the Berkeley hills above the university. A slight chill pushed drifters inside candlelit espresso bars. I would soon be leaving all of this. I would soon be free! Free from Negro-haters!
Although my mother refused to sign the enlistment papers which would have permitted me to join the Army at 17, a week after my 18th birthday I was inducted into the U. S. Army and on my way to basic training at Fort Ord, California. As a former cadet commissioned officer, I performed superbly as an Army basic trainee and was made an Acting Sergeant.
I quickly learned that the Army recruiter had lied to me about going to Japan, where I had eagerly anticipated an end to racial segregation, in a rich land of brown people, like me. anxious to see my orders to my Asian Dream Land posted on the trainees’ bulletin board, I was excited when someone shouted, “The orders are up.” I saw my name and assignment. The assignment read, “Eighth Army, Infantry Unassigned. When I asked my drill sergeant if Eighth Army meant Japan, he laughed at me. The rough-cut veteran informed me that I was going to The Land of the Morning Sun, a stink-hole called Korea.
I went to Korea, determined to make the most out of a bad situation. The Army denied me admission into their officer training program until they needed canon fodder lieutenants for Viet Nam. Only then did they approve my Officer Candidate School application. But I had seen enough stinking rice paddies for awhile, so I took my discharge.
Later, three years after my October encounter with the racist ROTC officers at U. C. Berkeley, I was a disenchanted Black college student again. I found myself, in Montgomery, Alabama, standing in front of another Army recruiter. He was telling me that I was crazy for trying to rejoin the Army, to once again escape from the self-destructive effects of segregation. Self-destructive because the pervasive anti-Black racial hatred everywhere in America made me hate being a Negro, hate being me. Running from the “frying pan to the fire, I returned to my alma mater, U. C. Berkeley. Not very much had changed. I still hated my Black self. Segregation still existed and it had destroyed my soul.
One summer night, driving a few blocks from the U. C. campus, I put my drunken head down on my chest. Then I pushed my car’s accelerator pedal all the way to the floor, and I quit giving a damn about trying to belong at Berkeley. My subsequent terrible auto wreck was the subject of a feature article in the Berkeley Gazaette the next day. Fortunately, the only person that I hurt on that sobering night was myself. But, from that point on I no longer needed the smiles of my enemies to sustain me. I knew that I had survived my death attempt for a reason, and it was not to be petted or repressed by white society. I went back to U. C. Berkeley that school year with my mind made up to “keep my eyes on the prize,” regarding of whether I was invited to belong at Berkeley.