October 28, 2016
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Soul Session In Vietnam

The following article was originally filed April 24, 1971, recounting the life of the African-American solider serving in Vietnam

Brother Bill flipped on the music. Brother Rob lit up a joint and passed it around. Brother Larry opened the beers and handed them out.

The music of Charles Earland's Black Talk filled the hooch and a group of Camp Holloway brothers began a night soul session of rap and sounds.

"Man, the Army's the most racist pig organization you ever seen," Spec. 4 Robert l. McCarthy, 21, of Newark, N.J., said. "It's set up by dudes for dudes. Nothing for the brothers except trouble."

McCarthy fingered his power band, a bracelet made of black bootlaces and worn over the right wrist. He ran a hand through his thick Afro hair.

"Yeh, man," Spec. 4 William Toliver, 24, of Los Angles broke in. "That's the way to tell it, you dig. You tell me I should be a good soldier. Man, what do you want? I'm getting the same gooks as the rabbits (whites). But all I get is troubles from the pigs (MPs)."

Thousands of black soldiers have rejected traditional Army life, set up their own counterculture on bases throughout Vietnam and have been waging a sort of psychological (and sometimes physical) guerilla war with military authorities.

White army officers questioned said the movement has spread to only a minority of the black GIs in Vietnam. Black officers and enlisted men questioned, however, estimated 85 to 90 percent of black soldiers in Vietnam have taken on at least the outward trappings of black militancy.

It's hard to find a black GI in the country without an Afro haircut and a bootlace power band, despite frequent attempts by company commanders to outlaw them. The dap, the black power handshake, is de rigeur when brothers meet.

Many a brother claims he has gone to the LBJ (Long Binh Jail) for refusing to give up the symbols of black power. Others say they have managed to cow white commanders by threatening to frag (toss live grenades at) them.

When things get too hot on the bases, some blacks just drop out and live as deserters on Soul Alley near Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport. Black officers say at least 100 militant brothers, many with Vietnamese families, are hiding out there.

Small groups of MPs are attacked when they enter Soul Alley, the major source of drugs in the Saigon area. Large raids tip off the runaway GIs and result in only a few arrests.

There were 15 brothers in the wooden hooch (barracks) at Camp Holloway that night, drinking and smoking grass and rapping with each other. They said there were hundreds more meeting in the other Holloway hooches and thousands of others getting together on bases throughout Vietnam. The 15 may be more militant than the average black GI, but perhaps not much so.

A cardboard sign was taped to one of the walls of the darkened barracks:

Off limits

No rabbits allowed

This area for blacks and blacks only

This was a special night, however. A white newsman had been allowed to attend one of the soul sessions, listen to the brothers rap and ask questions.

The blacks arrived in groups of two or three during the night. When each got there he went around the hooch doing the dap (from "dep," the Vietnamese word for beautiful) with all the others. The intricate dap is made up of dozens of steps ranging from tapping fists to slapping chests.

Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express brotherhood. However, some of the most commonly used gestures (the dap varies from region to region) are symbols for cutting the throats of MPs and shooting them in the head.

Spec. 4 Gary Terrell, 23, of Birmingham, Ala., said his superiors have tried to get him to cut his hair, take off his power band and stop dapping with the brothers.

"I tell them no," he said. "You ain't gonna take my soul away from me, you dig. So what happens? I got every rotten job the rabbits can think of."

The super-sensitivity of the new black soldier often gets him into hot water with his superiors. McCarthy, for example, tells about how a platoon sergeant once whistled for him to halt. "I just don't pay attention to him," he said. "Nobody's gonna whistle at me like I'm a dog. I'm a man, a black man, and I'm proud of it."

Pfc. Charles Allen, 21, of Los Angeles, claimed his first sergeant tried to keep him from hanging around with other blacks.

"Man, when I first got here they told me not to participate with too many blacks," he said. "But, man, I couldn't dig the rabbit. They don't got nothing for me, no soul. I want to be with my brothers. That's the way things were before I left the world (America)."

Just about every militant has a story about how a Communist soldier either spared his life or showed some sign of friendship. White officers say most of the stories are figments of the blacks' imaginations.

Pvt. Tommy Gladney, 21, of Chicago, told how he and another black were in a Montagnard village when it was attacked by Communists. "Man, we figured we were in for it," he said. They jumped us and there was nothing we could do. But then, man, it was fantastic, Charlie just sits down and has supper with us. We smoke some good stuff and then they let us go."

"The black man ain't gonna fight for the rabbit," McCarthy said. "We don't got nothing against Charlie. Man, he ain't white either. If the white man wants to kill Charlie, he can do it himself."

The brothers claim they get picked on by their superiors for minor infractions. They say the vast majority of the prisoners in the LBJ are blacks.

Gladney said he has spent two terms at the LBJ, one for pushing an NCO and the other for going AWOL for three days. He denied both charges and said he was framed because he wore the symbols of black power.

"The pig army picks on us blacks more than anyone else," he said. "A white guy goes out and kills 13 gook babies and gets away with it. I bet that Calley guy gets off. A brother doesn't shine his boots one day and he gets nine months."

(Lt. William Calley was convicted for his role in the My Lai Massacre and was convicted by a court-marital of premeditated murder of 22 civilians and in 1971 was sentenced to life in prison. The sentence was commuted to 10 years confinement. He was released in 1974.)

The brothers ended their meeting with a power check. They formed a circle and thrust out their arms, grasping each other's hands.

This is to the black brothers and sisters back in the world," one brother intoned. "Down with the pigs. Everybody blackenized. Rise everybody. Stand up and be recognized."

All the brothers then raised their hands upward and snapped their fingers. They then turned to the white visitor and each one did the dap with him and said goodbye.

How does a successful black soldier feel about the black power movement in the service?

Capt. Alfred Thomas, 24, of Freeport, N.Y., a helicopter pilot, said, "I'm just as proud of the movement as anyone else. But I feel the Army is really trying to help the blacks. Both the blacks and whites have to bend a little and things can work out."

STORY TAGS: VietnamBlack News, African American News, Minority News, Civil Rights News, Discrimination, Racism, Racial Equality, Bias, Equality, Afro American News


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