When I was eight, I asked my father if he was afraid to go off and fight in World War II. He said, “No, honey. I wasn’t afraid. You see, I knew that the Germans were fighting the Americans, but I didn’t know that I was an American.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Nobody thought that Negroes were Americans where I was raised,” he said. “We couldn’t vote, we had no rights that couldn’t be taken away by white people, and most of us believed that we weren’t really equal to whites. So I thought that the Germans would just pass me by looking for their American enemies.”
“Did they?” I asked, and my father laughed. I always loved it when my father laughed. Humor in our house was both strength and knowledge.
“No,” he said. “Those Germans wanted to kill me just as much they wanted to kill every other foreign soldier. As a matter of fact, them shooting at me was what made me realize that I really was an American. That’s why, when I was discharged, I left the South and came here to Los Angeles. Because I couldn’t live among people who didn’t know or couldn’t accept what I had become in danger and under fire in the war.”
My father always taught by telling stories about his experiences. His lessons were about morality and art and what insects and birds and human beings had in common. He told me what it meant to be a man and to be a Black man. He taught me about love and responsibility, about beauty, and how to make gumbo. My father’s instructions have sustained me in the complex life we live here in America. Some of his lessons I’m still working out over forty years later.
What did he intend for me to learn when he told me about the war and his safety zone of race? I already knew that I was an American because every Election Day my parents made a big deal about going out to vote. California was our home, and I was so insulated by their love that racism seemed like a far off, almost mythical foe. Maybe this story about the war was just a humorous tale. But no, if you had been there, you would have felt the passion and deep emotion. You would have heard the relief in his laughter.
When I went to school, there were no Black philosophers, at least none that I was aware of, who were recognized by Western universities. All of the philosophers I studied were white (with a few Eastern exceptions), and, for that matter, they were all male. Africa, the cradle of civilization, seemed to have no footing in the highest form of human thought. Even the few philosophers who were obviously born on the Mother Continent were most often represented in white face. This is changing somewhat, but I’m still of a generation whose minds’ eyes were trained to see white men as the only leaders and scientists and thinkers.
I would have been completely brainwashed by this lopsided and racist view of the world if it weren’t for my father. He was a deep thinker and an irrepressible problem solver. He was a Black Socrates, asking why and then spoiling readymade replies. He laughed when things got really bogged down, but he was no Sophist. My father cared about the world he lived in, and so he admitted his confusion about his place in America because he didn’t want me to make the same mistake in my life. Or, if I did make a misstep, he wanted to make sure that I could find the remedy in his great treasury of tales.
The first thing I had to work out was that his story unfolded in three stages: First the fearless ignorance that blinded my father to his real place in the world and the real threat of the war; then the violent and frightening experience that made him see that he had been wrong all those years: and finally the wisdom he gained, which showed him that he had to break away from the world he had known, and the world that knew him, in order to act on the knowledge he had gained. His was a path set out in ideas and a system of thought based on a unique experience.
On the face of it, one might think that my father was just slow. Why didn’t he see that if he put on a uniform and crossed the mighty Atlantic that his life would be in jeopardy just like the white soldiers who came from America? This story, you might think, only proves that LeRoy Mosley didn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain. But my father had been seeing Black men in uniforms go along almost invisibly his entire life. They were butlers and porters and hotel clerks, red caps and jazz band members who labored in the background, in the shadows of their own skins. There were even Black policemen in my father’s time, but they were not allowed to arrest whites. They weren’t even allowed in certain parts of the police station. Black men in uniform, for the most part, went unnoticed. But even if some white soldier did see him, why would he worry?