MIA: African American Autobiography of the Vietnam War

By Loeb, Jeff | African American Review, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

MIA: African American Autobiography of the Vietnam War


Loeb, Jeff, African American Review


In a recent article in War, Literature, and the Arts, Perry D. Luckett took to task several critics writing for a special edition of Vietnam Generation that was dedicated to analyzing the representations of African Americans in the literature and popular culture of the war. Especially galling to Luckett was Herman Beavers's article "Contemporary Afro-American Studies and the Study of the Vietnam War," in which Beavers contends, among other things, that white-authored representations have "ideologically entrapped" the images of the war, leading to a situation in which "black and white soldiers [are] de-racialized" and we as readers are no longer "able to make distinctions between black and white" (9). Beavers further argues that, in lieu of our seeking out more accurately drawn representations by black authors, which he quite correctly notes are scarce, we instead have come to depend on white narrators, who mistakenly feel that, "against all odds, they understand the black grunt" and are thereby able to "decode the black presence in the war" (10, 12). Luckett rejoins that "these accusations of neglect and negative treatment are clearly exaggerated ... for positively depicted black soldiers are ubiquitous in Vietnam narratives" (1). Indeed, though Luckett's major criterion, "sympathetic treatment," seems finally to miss the point of Beavers's contention, his argument that white Vietnam authors have gladly granted black characters their proportionate share of the page nevertheless rings true, especially in works written in the past fifteen years (25).(1)

While this dispute suggests a recapitulation of the issues first joined in the sixties in response to William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, as well as some more recent eruptions of identity politics, the fact is that both critics seem to miss a much larger issue. The major question, it seems--the one that neither Beavers nor Luckett ultimately asks--is not how blacks have been represented by white authors but rather how they have been represented by black ones, because what is remarkable is that so few works in general, and memoirs in particular, have been written about Vietnam by African American veterans. Of the almost 600 Vietnam novels listed in Sandra Wittman's 1989 bibliography Writing about Vietnam, only 6 are black-authored: Coming Home (1971) by George Davis, De Mojo Blues (1985) by A. R. Flowers, Shaw's Nam (1986) by John Cam, Captain Blackman (1972) by John A. Williams, Runner Mack (1972) by Barry Beckham, and Fallen Angels (1988) by Walter Dean Myers--only the first three of which were written by Vietnam veterans. There are but four war-centered collections of poetry by African American survivors of Vietnam: Dien Cai Dau (1988) by Yusef Komunyakaa, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (1977) and In the Grass (1995) by Horace Coleman, and Mad Minute (1990) by Lamont B. Steptoe. In addition, there are two oral histories: Wallace Terry's Bloods (1985) and Brothers: Black Soldiers in the Nam (1985), which Clark Smith assembled from taped interviews of two black veterans, Stanley Goff and Robert Sanders.

Similarly, of the almost 400 self-generated memoirs by American Vietnam participants, only seven--less than two percent--are by African Americans. Further, not only are black-authored Vietnam autobiographies relatively few in number, but there has not been a new one published in over ten years, and only the most recent, Eddie Wright's Thoughts about the Vietnam War (1984), was composed exclusively in the post-Vietnam era. Four of the remaining memoirs were written before the war was over--David Parks's GI Diary (1968), Samuel Vance's The Courageous and the Proud (1970), Terry Whitmore's Memphis-Nam-Sweden: The Autobiography of a Black American Exile (1971), and Fenton Williams's lust Before the Dawn: A Doctor's Experiences in Vietnam (1971). The other two, A Hero's Welcome: The Conscience of Sergeant James Daly versus the United States Arm), by James Daly and Yet Another Voice by Norman A. …

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