In the Line of Fire


Though the disenfranchisement of black Americans might have been the main issue in Florida during the recent presidential election, Brill’s Content reports that few black commentators were invited by the networks to talk about it. This was also true during the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. What we got was analyzing and pontificating by the same wealthy white men. While doing so, they exhibited the arrogant attitude that is partially responsible for hatred against the U.S. in many parts of the world. The typical image of blacks after the attack was that of nurturer. On the networks, blacks were shown comforting people or singing hymns. Even The New Yorker ran an illustration of a black woman hugging somebody, while the serious responses were made by white writers. If the country goes to war, black men and women will do a substantial amount of the dying. So where does one go to discover how black soldiers feel, how they think?

Whether fiction is dead might be a supper-party conversation on the Upper West Side or in Santa Monica, but for some black men, fiction is one of the few means by which they can tell their story. It took John A. Williams and John O. Killens to write about the experiences of black men during World War II. In his And Then We Heard the Thunder, Killens, like black male writers of the past, exposed one of the cherished myths of the culture—that “the Greatest Generation” was all virtuous and fought a war to save democracy. In his book, members of that generation are shown lynching black soldiers, denying them civil rights, and treating their enemies better than their black comrades.

Anthony Grooms, with his first novel, Bombingham, joins a distinguished group of authors who have written about the experience of black soldiers in Vietnam. They include Lorenzo Thomas, Yusef Komunyakaa, Arthur Flowers, and George Davis. Grooms is well aware of popular culture’s omission of black soldiers’ experience in war. His character Walter Burke says: “I had seen From Here to Eternity, but I had never known that black men had died at Pearl Harbor; I didn’t even think blacks were allowed into Pearl Harbor. Nowhere in our history books did I see a black soldier . . . or on statues.”

The novel alternates between Walter Burke in combat, described in horrifying detail, writing a letter to the parents of his dead comrade Haywood, and flashbacks to Walter Burke as a boy, coming of age during the civil rights struggle of 1960s Birmingham, Alabama. These public conflicts are played against the private turmoil of the Burke family. A stubborn and stern mother, who believes that faith healers will cure her cancer, fights with the father, a high school science teacher, whose approach to life is “scientific.” Their quarrels rip the family apart, so that relatives have to be summoned to assume control of the household. This gives Grooms a chance to present the viewpoints of three generations of blacks about the growing militancy of Birmingham blacks who also want to settle old scores between themselves.

As in the case of many black families, a terrible injustice, committed in the past, haunts every generation. In this book, a grandfather died in jail after being falsely accused of rape by a white woman. As the young Burke and his sister Josie join their young friend Lamar in the demonstrations, they are scolded by their conservative parents, in a rare instance of agreement. Burke’s father says, “Listen, Son, it is very important that you don’t get involved in that tomfoolery. It could ruin what chances you have. It’s dangerous.” His dying mother is a proud segregationist who barely contains her contempt for whites: “We never saw any white people, so we were just who we were. We didn’t have to pretend one way or the other. No delusions about ‘overcoming.’ ” Both Josie and her brother defy their parents and conservative school officials by joining Dr. King and the demonstrators. Even their dog, Bingo, gets into the act, killed during a courageous confrontation with a police dog.

Bombingham is constructed so well that it could be used as a textbook in writing classes. It’s a perfect traditional novel. There are characters whom you feel for. The scenes are so vivid that they could be staged without any adaptation. The characters’ speeches tell you as much about the characters as the excellent descriptions. Well-crafted novels are common, however. Grooms brings more to his book. His talent and persistence are evident in this virtuoso performance, in which a variety of fictional techniques are on full display. He has the rare ability to transport the reader to those times about which he writes. We even get the odors, and the sounds, the popular music and television shows of the 1950s. His battlefield writing brings the war home to the reader: “The thirty-calibers picked up again; the mud became soupy with blood and piss; the sun became hotter, and the air filled with biting flies. There was the smell of open bowels, smoke, and oil. The guns whined and popped incessantly.”

The book is called Bombingham because in Birmingham “bombings were so common” that blacks gave it that name. Grooms writes, “The Birmingham Klan was too sophisticated to toss a rope over a tree limb.” Contrary to the comments of one of the elitist commentators, who was burdened with the task of filling up time during the week of September 11, terrorism on American soil is not rare. The Klan, which was in its infancy a Confederate guerrilla movement, has waged a terrorist campaign against black people since the end of the Civil War. Blacks in Tulsa and Philadelphia have been bombed from the air.

Nowadays the Klan’s rhetoric has been co-opted by talk show hosts. Why on earth does the Klan need its Web site NiggerWatch (which gets a lot of its material from the mainstream media) when it has the Don Imus show? Shelby Foote, the country’s leading celebrity historian, has even compared the Klan to the French Resistance. Its message is being used by well-funded think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (which supported Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism, compelling conservative Glenn Loury to resign from the institute). Moreover, Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which preaches the Klan’s theory about black intellectual inferiority, was praised by The New York Times.

In Bombingham the heavy is played by Bull Connor, the oafish chief of public safety whose brutal treatment of the demonstrators provoked worldwide outrage and sympathy for Dr. King’s cause. “Bull Connor looked much less like a bull than he did a hog.” It’s ironic that the nonviolent strategies of the civil rights movement are being mimicked by nonviolent institutions and individuals—among them the above-mentioned shock jocks and think tanks—that preach the Klan’s ancient message. They are more subtle than Connor and, unlike the man whom Grooms calls “the archenemy himself,” capable of influencing public policy.