Excerpt: I Am the New Black
In the 1950s, America decided it was a good idea to try to fight communism in tropical jungles on other side of the world. When JFK was president, he seemed to think we needed to help the Vietnamese, but that ultimately they would need to figure themselves out on their own. Once he died, Lyndon Johnson took office and became the guy who really made a big national issue out of it for us. President Johnson and his administration, in their infinite wisdom, tripled our military presence in Vietnam, basically upping the ante on some crazy idea of President Eisenhower's from about ten years before. I don't understand how anyone can like Ike.
Shouldn't our presidents be given tests for common sense? I'm no military strategist, but I think the people in power from the late fifties through to the seventies were a bunch of paranoid white dudes. In the way that the PTA looks at marijuana as the gateway drug, those guys thought of 'Nam as the gateway to worldwide communism. They told the American people, who at first really bought into this shit, that if we let those communist Russians get stoned on Vietnam, they'd become addicted to takeover. Soon they'd be selling their crackhead philosophy all across Asia and into Europe. Then they'd hook up with their homey Castro in Cuba and have a huge commie cartel poisoning our free democratic minds in America. There'd go the whole damn neighborhood. The Russians were supposed to be some kind of new Hitler, and if we didn't get that communism out of 'Nam, we'd be eating Kremlin Nuggets in McDonald's over here in no time.
In the end, our government sent eight million of our young men—that's an entire generation—over to Southeast Asia to serve, and hundreds of thousands came back dead or wounded or too f***ed up to live right. We don't have much else to show for it, so if you ask me, everything about that war was just wrong. It wasn't the kind of war we could win because there wasn't anything really to fight for! You'd think that after that kind of a blow to America's self-esteem, presidents would be more careful about invading places with complicated histories. Apparently, dudes from Texas whose fathers were president don't learn lessons like that. Anyone who knows anything about Vietnam wouldn't have wasted our country's time and money and lives in Iraq because it's the same kind of war, just this time in a desert. Listen, I wasn't much of a student, but there's one thing I took away from U.S. history class: An army of stuffy British redcoats couldn't beat a bunch of hick farmers with holes in their boots because they were fighting in the farmers' own backyards! Was Bush not a baseball fan? Doesn't he know about the home-field advantage? You can't ignore that shit! Ask any cop who's tried to run down a crackhead in his own hood—nine out of ten times, the crackhead won't get caught. He's got the home/hood advantage.
He tried to always end those stories with something cheerful, because that was the way he looked at life, but you could hear the hardship through it anyway. When my dad would tell me about hard days and sleepless nights in the jungle, he'd spend more time talking about his friends telling jokes and singing Motown songs to get through it together. But one time when I was in high school, he sat me down and really leveled with me. He told me that he'd been a helicopter gunner and that countless times he killed people that he didn't know. He'd watch them fall to the ground hundreds of feet below him every time he pulled that trigger.
"It was war," he said to me, without a smile on his face. "It was bloody."
He got real quiet and I couldn't think of anything to say. He was my hero, and I was just trying to picture him, not much older than I was at the time, in a helicopter above a jungle, leaning out the door shooting people every day, just to stay alive.
"I never told you who you're named after, did I, Tray?"
That wasn't what I was expecting to hear. "No, Dad. You and Mom said you just liked the way it sounded."
"Well, we did, but there's more to it," he said.
"That taught me everything I needed to know about the war," my dad said. "I never forgot that time I spent with him, because all that talking we did put me at ease. I figured that we'd be friends forever, but that's how war is. And that's how you got your name."
I was sad to hear that story but glad too. Because let's face it—Tracy Morgan? That's an Irish female's name. With a name like that, I should have red hair, blue eyes, and big titties. I should be in a green bikini on a float every March.
Taneisha told me that her brother slept as much as he could on his way to war. He didn't want to think about it. He tried to avoid it by sleeping, but he couldn't hide from it: On one of his first days there he saw a baby who had been shot in the head lying on the side of the road. Her brother is back home, thank God, but that is the kind of stuff that he can never forget. He had a hard time readjusting, but he got through it. He goes to church five days a week now.
When I was a kid I'd wake up at night and find my dad walking around the house, patrolling. I'd be on my way to the bathroom and I'd ask him, "Dad, are you all right?" And he'd just stare at me. I don't even know if he knew I was there. He was just in his head, still patrolling, still in Vietnam. He couldn't shake it. I used to break down crying about that, even as a young kid, because I knew at those moments that I'd never have my dad. I could never have my father in his entirety because a huge part of him was never going to be there.
What I'm saying is that my father picked up bad habits over there just like I picked up bad habits in show business. Show business is my Vietnam and this life is the war that I'm fighting. We've all got our wars. We're all victims of our battles because in war nobody wins. My father? The only thing that kept him sane was his music, but he died paying the price for his sins anyway.
My mother's and father's families lived in the same projects—the Tompkins Houses on Tompkins and Myrtle Avenue in the Bedford- Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. My father's family lived in apartment 12M, and my mother's lived in 14M. My best friend, Allen, he lived in 13M. It was like one big house—those apartments were right on top of one another, and we ruled those three floors. It was our place on that end of those hallways. We were all poor, but back then life was good out there. Neighbors looked out for each other. It's not like that now because it's all violent and people are only looking for what they can take from each other, not how they can help. But I grew up there in a time when things were a little bit different.
My father's parents' home was definitely a looser place to be, with people laughing and hanging around and playing music, while the Wardens' home was like church on Sunday—every day. But I loved it there too. My mom's mother, Alice, was my baby. She was my heart. She was the one who gave me the love. Grandma Alice was more affectionate to me than anyone else was, my parents included. She'd hug me, she'd kiss me, and give me all the attention I really needed as a kid. She died a year before my father did, back when I was in high school, and I was devastated. I was living with my dad up in the Bronx at the time, and I remember coming home from school that day and him telling me she'd died. I broke down right there. And as soon as I got myself together I took the train out to Brooklyn. I had to be in her place with my mom's family right away. Alice Warden was my baby. I dedicated every single race I ran in track and every football game I played to her for the rest of my high school sports career. She was my surrogate mom during the years my mother and I didn't see eye to eye.