Free Will: Zehn kleine neger und mir


  • 1990, I think it was. Kaiserslautern, West Germany. I was a soldier then, stationed at Rhine Ordnance Barracks, a Single Channel Radio Operator for the 39th Transportation Batallion, Headquarters Element, in Vogelweh, which was, at the time, the largest concentration of American Military Forces outside of the continental United States.

    It was a Friday night; me and my friends Rainy and Joe were rolling on up to Mannheim and the club Scala, a nice little spot that I’d been going to for a few years with my boys, Parker, Fergeson and DeMaria. I don’t remember where they were that night, but we three were on our way, looking for a good time.

    I liked Rainy a lot. 5’3, army-thick, hazel-eyed and mocha-skinned, she was a fly little honey from California and just my type. That night, she wore a black form-fitting one-piece dress, thigh-high, that just set off her perfect physical attributes and I couldn’t wait to get her in my arms on the dancefloor. She was married to an asshole MP who worked all the time, but he mistreated her and we were really into each other. We used to take walks around a small lake in K-town holding hands when she could get away from him. We acted like school kids around each other, grinning and staring in each others eyes before looking away shyly. I think we kissed a few times, but that was it. I guess we were still kids, at heart. At least, when it came to each other.  

    Joe was cool, but it was unusual that he was going out with us. His rank was Specialist like Rainy and I, but he usually drove to Wiesbaden on the weekends to hang with people in his old unit, or, he would chill out with Mason, a Sergeant in our headquarters element who had one of those personalities of wry superiority, always making fun of people he was talking to with his expressions and behind-the-back clowning. That night he was with some girl, so Joe had nothing better to do. I was glad, he was a cool guy, just a bit timid sometimes, I thought. 

    We stopped at a gas station on the way out of town to fuel up. I was driving, a 1984, gun-metal grey 3-series Beamer, my pride and joy. As we pulled in, I noticed 3 German dudes sitting underneath the station sign, drinking beer. I didn’t pay much attention to them, fueled the car, went inside to pay using the coupons that made paying for a gas a lot less expensive than it would have been if we just paid straight up. I came out, walked to the car door and opened it, about to get in when I heard one of the German guys, singing a little song.

    “Zehn kleine neger fuhren an den Rhein, der einen fiel vom Schiff ins meer, da blieben nur noch neun. Ein klein, zwei klein, drei klein, vier klein, fumf klein,negerlein…”

    At first I didn’t believe I was hearing what I was hearing, but then when my mind wrapped around the images of the words he was singing, I saw red and spun around, glaring at them. “Was habst du gesagt?!”

    The one singing gaped at me, as did his friends, profoundly surprised that I spoke German. I growled a challenge, my breath boiling, my chest heaving. “Was denn!? Sag es wieder!!”

    The two friends looked at the singer, wide-eyed. I could hear Rainy dimly, asking me what was going on. I ignored her, focused on the Germans.

    The singer was smaller, skinny, with straggly blonde-brown hair and a mustache. One of his friends was a bit larger with long, dark-brown hair, but still smaller than me, fat, with oily skin, while the third made hardly any impression upon me. I remember thinking about rushing them, calculating the distance and wondering if Joe had the balls to get out to fight with me.

    The singer had puffed up a bit by now, and was glaring back at me. “Ich kann singe! Ich war nicht rede mit dir!”

    “Du arschloch!” I spat out, my fists balling, my adrenalin pumping. I shifted on the balls of my feet. Again, I could hear Rainy, and now Joe, saying something, but I was still focused on the Germans. The singer looked more confident now since I hadn’t made a move yet and his friends were looking at each other and then me, a bit nervously.

    He called out in a ringing, clear voice, “Ich sage was ich will!”

    Those words filled the close, night space of that instant in time, the flourescent lights casting their mechanical spell upon the scene. The sound of rushing cars passing by, the hard cement beneath my feet and cool evening breeze suddenly filled my awareness. I remembered, then, where I was, and who I was in this country, to these people. An American soldier – Black-American at that – in the country of the Master Race and the Holocaust, rabid racism and a relatively homogeneous society, the truth of his statement, I can say what I want to,echoing and reverberating within me. Instantly, the martial energy drained from me, my shoulders slumped, and I could hear Rainy and Joe clearly now, imploring me to get in the car, let’s go, Mark. C’mon. Get in the car. Let’s go.

    I looked at the German man – he was still glaring at me, his chest heaving – one last time and agreed with his statement, nodding once, my words low. “Stimmt so.”

    I got into the car and we drove off without looking back, toward the Autobahn and Mannheim, about 80 klicks up the road. I explained what had happened, shortly. I remember looking over at Rainy and seeing how wide-eyed and impressed she was that I spoke German so well. Two years of German language classes and hours out on the Economy, clubbing and dating German girls had helped a lot. The veil of time, space and distance fell over the night after that as my memory dims and darkness cloaks the stage.

    Obviously I’ve never forgotten this experience. The sheer rage which passed through me as I recognized the racist children’s song as a passive aggressive attack on me and my friends, on our presence in their country. A diminution of our humanity by relegating us to the status of Samboselevating themselves above us. To them I was that, and the closeness of the German word neger and the english, nigger, spoke to an enduring perceptual reality that I was no stranger to by any means.

    That had only been my second encounter with such xenophobia, the first having been only an older German man who walked by myself and a group of friends on the Fussgangerzone in downtown Kaiserslautern; we were proud and oblivious young Americans, of all ethnicities – although tending toward the darker – laughing and talking loudly. He turned around after walking past us, gesticulating wildly and exhorting us to get out of his country. We’d looked at each other with a sort of disbelief and laughed it off, unused to being the target of such condemnation, turning our backs to him and continuing on into the nearest beer garden.  

    But what was really important about this encounter, in the context of my life lessons, was his very last statement. I can say what I want to. Because it is true. Stimmt so. We can all say what we want, believe what we want to believe. In their worldview, we were aggressors anyway, American soldiers occupying a foreign country. I was driving a nice car with American Military plates, dressed nicely with a beautiful black woman sitting next to me, while they were sitting there, poorly-dressed and drinking beer out of brown paper bags, with nothing better to do.

    We were an opportunity to share an inside joke for them. To bond with each other in their common experience and beliefs. Members of every type of group in the world do it in order to reinforce membership within that group, re-creating the perennial Other. I can still see their sly grins, hear their snickers, right before I blasted at them. I can see their jaws hanging open, their wide-eyes as the realization that their assumption of my ignorance was wrong, and that they would now have to deal with me at a different level. I can see the fat guy’s face as I’m arguing with his friend, looking at me differently. Their silence, in the face of their exposed racism, speaking volumes.

    I don’t think of this tale often but I did today, and I wonder if any of them even remember it, or if it was just a passing instance in their lives, soon forgotten. Now, I can thank them for the experience. Thank them for interacting with me in that 5-minute moment outside of time, in order to teach me an important lesson regarding Free Will. We all can say what we want, do what we want, be who we want to be. The imposition of my viewpoints upon another will not change their mind. Ever. We each must make that choice for ourselves, and nothing anyone else says will ever persuade us until we choose to change.

    We are all free to be who we choose to be. Thinking about that, and realizing that in any argument with another person, we are attempting to impose our beliefs upon them. We are assailing each other’s Free Will in a psychic battle of dominance and submission. Even with our facts and stats and moral stances, we are telling them that they are wrong and we are right and they must conform to our conceptions.

    That is judgment. Und so, ich sage ihnen: Tun, ja du, was du wollen, wird die gesamtheit des rechts. Crowley, and the ideals expressed by Thelema, may have a point after all. As long as we don’t impose what we want, or believe, upon others.

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