‘The Last Thing You Sur­ren­der’

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP-ED - Leonard Leonard Pitts is a colum­nist for The Mi­ami Her­ald. Con­tact him at [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com. © 2019, Mi­ami Her­ald Dis­trib­uted by Tri­bune Con­tent Agency

In this abridged ex­cerpt from “The Last Thing You Sur­ren­der” by colum­nist Leonard Pitts Jr., el­e­ments of the all-black 761st Tank Bat­tal­ion make a grisly dis­cov­ery and Pvt. Luther Hayes, whose par­ents were mur­dered be­fore his eyes by a white mob when he was a boy of 9, learns a les­son about hu­man­ity’s true ca­pac­ity for cru­elty.

It was a camp of some sort, bar­racks ar­ranged in neat rows. And hob­bling, shuf­fling, tot­ter­ing to­ward them from ev­ery di­rec­tion, came an assem­blage of stick men in filthy black and white striped prison suits. Maybe some of them were women, too. It was hard to tell. The crea­tures seemed sex­less.

Dazedly, Luther dis­mounted the tank. His mouth was still open.

The crea­tures swarmed the col­ored tankers. It was dif­fi­cult to be­lieve they were even hu­man. Their eyes were like small, fright­ened an­i­mals, peer­ing out from the cav­erns their sock­ets had be­come. Their mouths were drawn tight against their bony jaws. You could look at them and see where tibia met patella, count their ribs by sight. They were lit­tle more than skele­tons wear­ing rags of flesh. And their eyes gleamed with a madness of joy, an in­san­ity of de­liv­er­ance, at the sight of the col­ored tankers. They shook clasped hands to­ward heaven, they smiled ter­ri­ble, tooth­less smiles, they looked up at the Ne­gro sol­diers like pen­i­tents gaz­ing upon the very throne of God. A woman — at least he thought it was a woman — took Luther’s hand and lifted it to her cheek. Her grip was like air. She held his skin to hers, which was pa­pery and thin, al­most translu­cent. Her face con­torted into an ex­pres­sion of raw, ut­ter sor­row and she made groan­ing sounds that did not seem quite hu­man. It took Luther a mo­ment to re­al­ize that she was cry­ing, be­cause her eyes re­mained dry, no wa­ter glis­tened on her cheek. She had no tears left in her.

And Luther, who had never touched a white woman be­fore, who had never so much as brushed against one in a crowd, who had avoided even that in­ci­den­tal con­tact with a kind of bone-deep ter­ror ac­ces­si­ble only to a Ne­gro man in the Deep South who grew up know­ing all too well what mess­ing with a white woman could get you, could only stand there, stricken and dumb­founded, as this woman pressed his hand to her cheek. He was a man who had seen his par­ents tor­tured and burned to death be­fore his very eyes at his own front door by white peo­ple. It had never oc­curred to him that their ca­pac­ity for bes­tial cru­elty did not stop with the woes they in­flicted upon Ne­groes.

But here was the proof, this poor thing whose gen­der he had to guess, this crea­ture whose age might have been 16, might have been 60, hold­ing his hand in her airy grip, cry­ing with­out tears.

Luther looked around. The place reeked of death and s***, a stink of pu­tre­fac­tion that surely pro­faned the very nos­trils of God. Naked and ema­ci­ated bod­ies lay stacked in piles ex­actly like cord­wood, only their gap­ing mouths and sight­less eyes at­test­ing to the fact that once they had been hu­man and alive. Flies droned above it all in great black clouds, a few of them oc­ca­sion­ally de­scend­ing to walk in the mouths and eyes of the dead.

At length, the cry­ing woman got hold of her­self. Luther gen­tly took back his hand. She gave him a shy, weak smile, touched her feath­ery hand to his shoul­der — some sort of thank you, he sup­posed — and wan­dered slowly away. Luther watched her go, still dazed, still failed by lan­guage. And he still strug­gled to un­der­stand. It had never oc­curred to him, not even in his an­gri­est, most bit­ter imag­in­ings, that some­thing like this was pos­si­ble.

How could white peo­ple do this to white peo­ple?

How could any­body do this to any­body?

The sergeant on top of the tank had his head down, lis­ten­ing to the voice in his ear. Then his gaze came up. “Okay, that’s it,” he called. “Mount up. We’re movin’ out.”

“Movin’ out?” Luther couldn’t be­lieve it. “How we gon’ move out, Sarge? What about these peo­ple?”

“What are you go­ing to do? Cram ‘em all in your tur­ret? Com­mand knows where they are now. They’re send­ing help, doc­tors, some ra­tions they can eat.”

Luther ac­cepted this only grudg­ingly. “I guess so,” he said.

‘He was a man who had seen his par­ents tor­tured and burned to death be­fore his very eyes at his own front door by white peo­ple. It had never oc­curred to him that their ca­pac­ity for bes­tial cru­elty did not stop with the woes they in­flicted upon Ne­groes.’ From Leonard Pitts’ book ‘The Last Thing You Sur­ren­der’

“Still don’t seem right.”

“Look at it this way,” called the sergeant. “Would you rather stay here and play nurse­maid to peo­ple you can’t help, or would you rather go kill some more krauts?”

Luther glanced back at the pris­on­ers, these wasted rem­nants of vi­tal hu­man be­ings. “Ain’t no con­test,” he grum­bled and walked back to­ward his tank.

Pitts

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