Konch Magazine - “From King Comus" by William Demby
from King Comus, by William Demby

      Tillman first came into my life and I into his during World War II at the Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Army Reception Center where at the time of our meeting and along with some four thousand other Negro recruits in the segregated Army of those racially benighted days we new recruits were being “processed” in preparation for basic training—and inasmuch as a “short arm inspection” was an integral part of officially becoming a bona fide GI, Tillman (with whom as yet I hadn’t exchanged so much as a single word) and I were buck naked and shuffling along with excruciating slowness in a long seemingly endless line of similarly buck naked and shivering black U.S. Army recruits that zig-zagged back and forth the entire length of the enormous and drafty Army warehouse hastily pressed into service to speed up the physical examination and registration process of the swarms of new recruits arriving in vast numbers at the reception centers every day as the war effort began to gain momentum, each of us with our genitals demurely covered with the folder containing our medical and enlistment records as the seemingly endless lines inched forward at a snail’s pace toward a gaggle of wise-cracking all-white Medical Corps 2nd Lieutenants and Warrant Officers fresh out of med school, each attired in brand new officer pinks and armed with flashlights and wood “popsicle sticks” with which, after the recruit’s mouth had been vigorously forced open, head forced violently back, the examining officer’s flashlight beam would be aimed first inside his gaping jaws in a ruthless search for rotting teeth or sores, then down at the genitals for the Army’s ill-famed and obsessional “short-arm” inspection—
     
      On that day when the lanky disarticulated recruit in front of me (it was, of course, Tillman though neither of us had as yet spoken a single word to the other) finally reached the examination area he was suddenly and inexplicably rushed out of line while a bevy of highly agitated examining doctors came running up with towels and blankets to hide him from view—
     
      What happened apparently was that moments before we reached the roped-off area where the physical examinations were being conducted behind some five or six folding screens Tillman had developed an enormous erection that not only refused to subside but became increasingly rampant as astonished recruits and medical examiners came pushing and shoving around the scene, some to gape and others to prudishly hide from view what was rapidly becoming on the part of the troops a riotous breaking of ranks and on the part of the examining doctors a medical nightmare—

      At first mildly amused and having long since exhausted their repertoire of inane med school jokes, by the time I came running up to the roped-off inspection sites to see what was causing all the excitement, the cocky smiles had already vanished from the rookie doctors’ faces and they were beginning to panic at the nightmarish sight of hundreds if not thousands of naked Negro recruits (incited by now by wild rumors as to what all the commotion was about, including a rumor that a black recruit had been maltreated by one of the doctors) converging wildly on the scene behind me, igniting the shimmering electricity of a race riot that could break out at any moment now—

      In the meantime almost the entire staff of examining doctors had formed a pathetic phalanx around Tillman whose entire body in the meantime had been covered with a huge white sheet which revealed only his black feet and toes and beneath which he was prancing up and down and waving his arms around like a wind-up Halloween ghost—

      Then just as the riot was about to get out of control and some of the more savvy recruits had even begun to raid the medicine cabinets stacked up high in the roped-off area where the physical examinations were taking place for narcotics, a platoon of military police came running into the warehouse blowing whistles and wielding police sticks and firing blanks in the air, until after a brief display of bulging eyed but flatfooted resistance the rebellious recruits quietly reformed the long medical inspection line and Tillman was unceremoniously led off to a private office where his short-arm inspection was carried out under the severe watchful eye of a full-colonel from Medical Corps headquarters who, when the inspection was completed, ordered Tillman to be sent back to his quarters and be given a one-day pass and a 12-pac carton of Babe Ruth bars for his trouble—

      As if preordained Tillman and I became buddies and lifetime friends and indeed that same evening after the riot when after a hasty meal of baloney sandwiches and tepid coffee he and I discovered that not only had we been assigned to the same outfit and room number, but that Tillman’s bunk was the bunk on top of mine.

      And in fact, as if to solemnize our new friendship, that same night, after lights out, and after we made sure the cranky sergeant had actually gone to bed and wasn’t just pretending, Tillman put a towel over his flashlight beam, jumped down from his bunk and began rummaging in his footlocker for something which turned out to be one of his precious hoard of Babe Ruth bars which he deftly broke into two pieces and gave me half—                    

      “Since it looks like you and me are destined to be good buddies I’m going to let you in on a family secret, a Tillman family secret—it may seem funny to you, you being from up North and all, but it ain’t funny to us down here in the South—You listening to me?”

      I could hear him in the darkness chomping down nervously on his share of the Babe Ruth bar and when the chomping sound subsided, he asked:

      “Wanna hear something funny?”

      And without waiting for me to answer either his first question or his second he began swallowing and clearing his throat noisily and then after a pause for dramatic effect he said—

      “You probably won’t believe it but you wanna know something, I’m not the first member of the Tillman family to have that little problem—”

      “What little problem?” I asked, having all but forgotten the morning’s wild events.

      “Erectus superbus! You never heard of ‘erectus superbus’? Now I know you a college boy, but a lot of things happen down here in the South you never heard about up North, but back in slavery times ‘erectus superbus’ was a common occurrence and in fact so common the slave traders and the people used to hang out around the slave block where slaves were bought and sold, those people they knew all about it and even had this scientific name for it, ‘erectus superbus,’ and it was caused, so they say, by the fear of being sold down the river—”

      When I remained shocked and silent, Tillman leaned down over the bunk to see if I was listening—

      I was listening all right but I still couldn’t make up my mind whether he was pulling my leg or telling me the truth—

      “How it worked,” he said, “there’d be all these sorry-looking black bucks chained together on the slave block waiting to be sold, naked as the day they was born except for maybe a towel or a rag around their waist, naked as the day they was born, then all of a sudden, like suppose you were there figgerin’ to buy yoself a big black buck so your oxen wouldn’t have to work so hard—suddenly you’d see them one by one—the bucks waiting to be sold—one after the other all of a sudden getting an enormous hard on, and then start twisting and turning and trying to turn their backs to the slave-buying public so as to hide their shame for getting a hard-on like that in public—

      “But for all those slave dealers, plantation owners and local yokels who used to hang out at the slave market looking for a bargain and a good time, ‘erectus superbus’ was the main event—

      “So much so—,” Tillman said, warming up to the dramatic potential of his tale while continuing to spy my reaction from over the edge of his bunk, “male slaves with a known ‘erectus superbus’ capability were much in demand because they offered a double advantage over the older male slaves who couldn’t get it up in public like that—

      “Advantage number one being that the ‘erectus superbus’ capability guaranteed the buyer that the slave up for sale was at least intelligent enough and still had enough freedom genes left in his balls to be scared of being sold down the river, but at the same time had the wherewithal to father a whole slew of little pickaninnies worth on the slave market of the day maybe a hundred bucks per pickaninny give or take ten bucks in today’s currency—

      “Not to mention advantage number two, which—especially if the master and his wife were in the early stages of their marriage—was that owning a young buck slave having the ‘erectus superbus’ tendency and capability was like having a sex toy there in the bedroom, to the extent that all young marster and missy’d have to do to get sexually aroused would be to have the wife come traipsing into the room where the young buck was maybe washing the windows or scrubbing the floors and she’d shake her booty at him causing the miracle of  ‘erectus superbus’ to happen right before her eyes—

      Tillman paused to wipe his forehead with the blue bandana that was always somewhere in reach and when he was finished he took his good time replacing it back under his pillow—

      “At which time ol’ marster, who’d been waiting outside the closed door all the while, he’d come bursting into the room pretending he’d just caught his wife alone in a room with a nigger slave with a hard-on, and right away he’d pull out his whip (in some versions of the story Tillman would say he’d rush into the room with his sword drawn) and start whipping poor ‘erectus superbus’ halfway to hell and back so that by the time he’d finished his young wife’d be all hot and wet and practically begging ol’ marster to give-it-to-me-NOW! and before the poor terrified slave could figger out what he should do—run out of the room and save his ass or stay in the room and watch the show—ol’ marster and his sexy wife would be rolling and rutting right there on the floor in front of the poor scared slave and dare him to look and be lynched for his trouble—!”

      At the conclusion of this tale (which, as time went by, I was to discover there were countless variations and versions, invariably Tillman would let out a highpitched glory shout like a country preacher at the climax of a sermon: “Man, slavery was hell, worse than the U.S. Army!”
 
***
 
      A few days after Tillman became an instant comic celebrity I was summoned to division headquarters where a young personable lieutenant in division personnel with refined features, perfectly manicured nails and a slightly European accent stopped leafing through my college records long enough to ask me pointblank if I wanted to become a psychiatrist’s assistant at division headquarters for the duration of the war—

      “I see you’ve taken courses in psychology, Psychology I and Psychology II, your first year in college,” he began, arching his eyebrows graciously as if about to anoint me into a secret priesthood, “—so I’d like to preface my remarks by pointing out that what I am about to offer you is a wonderful and rare opportunity for a bright and talented young man like you to ride out the war in relative luxury and ease—”

      He watched me closely and added:

      “Unfortunately, given the abysmally low literacy rate of some of your more ethnic brethren in this quaint but completely superfluous horse cavalry unit, we’ve been having—as you can well imagine—a great deal of difficulty filling some of the more demanding slots so as to conform with the Division’s manpower requirements—”

      This time during his pause he offered me a flat oval-shaped cigarette in a flat black and gold box of some exotic Middle-Eastern brand, Syrian or Egyptian judging from the exaggerated “Orientalism” of the packaging.

      And while he was lighting both our cigarettes, he sneaked a look at my hands as if to check for tobacco stains or to see if my fingernails were neatly trimmed and clean—

      “I don’t usually smoke—,” I lied, hiding my free hand on my lap.

      “Well good for you, it’s a loathsome habit to say the least—”

      And he crossed his legs and twirled around on his super-modern office chair and blew out a dainty cloud of oddly scented tobacco smoke and followed it with his eyes as it wafted toward the ceiling, then elegantly uncrossed his legs and suddenly spun around to face me.

      “The reason is, I think—,” he began, returning with Faustian elegance to what must have been a favorite topic if not an obsession, “—not only have your people, Negroes so to speak, no offense meant—not only have your people been disadvantaged by not having access to the finer universities, but those few of you who have achieved a university degree whatever its quality seem strangely uninterested in pursuing careers in the mental health sciences even though—both here and in Europe and eventually in both the Far East and the Near East—the mental health sciences will be the secret weapon so to speak in the what now appears inevitable restructuring of human society! Do you have any idea at all why this should be the case? Why your people seem so uninterested in pursuing careers in the exciting new mental health sciences?”

      A hot anxious look had crept into his eyes and once again he seemed obsessed with my hands, indeed seemed to be caressing them with his eyes until, finally, I hid them on my lap again and realized for the first time there was no furniture in the room other than our two chairs, a wobbly table-desk and a cardboard box filled to overflowing with Army personnel files like the one spread out in front of him.

      “What would my duties be?” I asked, hoping to deflect his interest away from my hands—

      My question seemed to please him for almost involuntarily his body seemed to stretch out and relax—

      “Forgive me,” he said, “I was under the impression I’d already told you. Your starting rank would be Corporal First Class and your job description would be Field Assistant to the Division Psychiatrist, that’s me of course, and, naturally, it goes without saying you would receive special training with credits leading to an academic degree—”

      When he said that a tremendous sense of relief and accomplishment seemed to settle over him like a heavenly cloud—
He closed his eyes, then after a few moments of silence, he opened them again, and suddenly spinning around to face me and after snuffing out his cigarette in an empty glass of water and with a dreamy self-satisfied look of accomplishment in his eyes, he touched my knee with the briefest flick of a gesture and said in an almost brotherly tone of voice—

      “In a way—assuming you accept, of course—you and I would be pioneers exploring the effects of this strangely racial war on your people who, in the opinion of many, and not only left-wing and right-wing radicals, would have every right to side with the enemy—”

      A look of panic must have crept into my eyes for he quickly shifted gear—

      “It’s my understanding—,” he began in a chirpy officiously condescending tone of voice, “—you published an article in The Wayward Thinker, a small Negro newspaper published irregularly during the Depression in a small office on the Northside of Pittsburgh entitled ‘The Burden of Race,’ and while you were junior editor of your high school newspaper, in an article published April 14, 1939 you insinuate that the war we are engaged in is less a war against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy than a race war aimed at the ultimate subjugation of the colored peoples of the world—

      “Would you care to comment?” he asked.

      I was mortally embarrassed, not by the contents of the article but because the article had been written by my best friend and confidante, Abraham Stock, the son of a frustrated Jewish insurance salesman and a fairly recent emigrant from Vienna where he had worked as a photographer—

      “I’m not in any way suggesting you’re disloyal, but to restate my offer in more simplistic terms, you would be my eyes and ears inside the Negro world, my private window into the hidden realities of Negro life so to speak, and as my precious assistant you would of course enjoy many special perks and privileges not to mention the power inherent in such a broadly defined military assignment, in brief, an opportunity that comes along but once in a lifetime—”

      For the life of me I couldn’t think of a thing to say, especially since he was staring at me intensely as if waiting for me to react, or was measuring the temperature of my thoughts, even observing the agitated throbbing of my pulse—

      “Obviously I’ve learned a little about you from your records such as they are, that you are an avid if indiscriminate reader of books from the public library, that you voted socialist in your high school election, that in your freshman year in college you majored in psychology and minored in music, that in your sophomore year you wrote an essay entitled ‘The Negro Race and Utopian Politics,’ written for your history class but which you somehow managed to publish in a radical Negro magazine, not the one we mentioned before—”
     
      For some reason I later regretted I felt it necessary to say something in defense of myself—

      “My best friend at high school—his father was a socialist and a refugee from Fascist Europe and he got it published for me, not me!”

      He smiled condescendingly at my outburst and continued without comment:

      “I understand—but what do you really think about all this? All this ideological confusion?  For example, it’s my understanding many of your people are secretly sympathetic to the Japanese Fascist cause—”

      “Only because the Japanese aren’t white—,” I blurted out without thinking.

      “Then I suppose you are one of those who consider this a war for white supremacy—”

      “Not really. I personally believe this is a just war, that it’s being fought to save the world for democracy—I was referring to colored people all over the world who consider themselves unjustly oppressed, the colored masses who have been held down so long they consider the war a—”

      My use of the word “masses” triggered a sudden epiphany of self-righteous excitement—

      “—a world revolution for the liberation of blacks and coloreds? How does that make you feel as a Negro-American college student? Does it give you a feeling of manly pride? Does it give you an erection?”

      Only then did it occur to me that for all practical purposes I was being psychoanalyzed and that my having been summoned to division headquarters had something to do with the Army’s reaction to the near riot that Tillman’s erection had provoked—and that upon how I reacted to the division psychiatrist’s glib provocation would depend whether or not I would continue to be offered a cushy job at division headquarters or I would have to share the fate of an all-colored horse cavalry unit in a war as yet still undefined—

      Suddenly I began to laugh, and the young officer stood up so suddenly he almost knocked over his chair.

      “I don’t think I’m the right man for the job,” I said. 

      “And why not may I ask?”

      He was livid and was furiously scanning my resume which suddenly now he held up triumphantly and pushed back his chair—

      “It says here you are a member of the ROTC, that you’re a volunteer, and that you’re an Episcopalian—! Is that true?”

      “I’m an Episcopalian and a volunteer but I’m still not the right man for this job!”

      Even I was surprised by the harshness that had crept into my voice and apparently so was my would be employer—

      “I just don’t get it—,” he whined, “—here I’m offering you a fabulous slot in the Army that all but guarantees you a privileged role in the postwar power structure and you turn it down even before you hear what the job description is and what’s in it for you—”

      “I’m happy where I am,” I lied, rising and managing a fairly snappy salute. “I’ve always wanted to be a Buffalo trooper and, God willing, that’s what I’m going to be—”
      I felt foolish and terrified that I was making some horribly stupid adolescent mistake—

      On the other hand there was no way in the world I could tell the lieutenant that what I really wanted was to stay with Tillman, become a black buck like him, wanted to be baptized in the holy pool of Tillman’s family pride, ponder the solemn mystery and wisdom in Tillman’s tribal memory and down home ways—

      Instead I just stood there and said nothing until finally the frustrated young officer slammed shut my file and slid it across the table so violently it hit the wall and scattered all over the floor the futile papers of my Army life not to be—

      “You may go now—,” he said as, avoiding each other’s eyes, we bent down in unison to gather up the papers scattered all over the floor, “—I still think you’re the right man for the job, but the decision was yours to make, so goodbye and good luck—!”