A Soldier Returns to His Southern Roots - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Soldier Returns to His Southern Roots

A Soldier Returns to His Southern Roots

By Ian Graber-Stiehl


Because the color of your skin shouldn’t determine whether you set goals or get lost in your dreams. 

By Ian Graber-Stiehl

Ian Graber-Stiehl is a military intelligence analyst turned freelance journalist. When he’s not researching science, environmental policy and social politics for media outlets including OZY, Pacific Standardand Popular Science, he’s a tithing member of the church of coffee.

Every soldier I watched prepare for their first home-going leave was precise in picking out the boots they would wear. Our “Sunday boots” were always unscuffed, with thick, comfortable soles. Yet, as I walked an inch taller through my hometown that day, heading to an old friend’s house, I was not surprised when the neighborhood kids greeted me barefoot on the Louisiana asphalt. Some children in Pleasant Hill wore shoes only on Sundays — or on the basketball court.

I reached Jaylen and Toosie’s door, which was unlocked, and noticed broken glass on the floor. Still, everything seemed normal — they were always missing a few panes. It wasn’t until I called out and got no reply from the empty room that something seemed amiss. 

As children, the floorboards would complain when we walked too heavily, and scold us when we dared to jump. Now it was as if the damp floorboards and walls had learned to suffer in silence. I couldn’t recall the humidity being so oppressive, but I suppose it’s hard to feel weighed down when you’ve no burdens.

My skin was a shade darker and my uniforms were used, but I never suspected we weren’t all the same.

Then again, I never dealt with the Southern heat for long — running off to Illinois when the summer and holidays came to a close to, as my grandmother would say, “get a good education at those white people’s schools,” where libraries were in stone buildings rather than trailers. In the great white North, the nuns scolded me for grass stains on my uniform, the same as they did the other kids with slicked-back hairstyles I could surely mimic with enough gel. True, my skin was a shade darker and my uniforms were used, but I never suspected we weren’t all the same. 

Until, that is, it was time to return to the Southern family nest I called home. Back where I felt like a star, drawing kids of every color to play ball on my court and to boast at my pool table. What I didn’t know was that I was popular because my court didn’t have cracks large enough to break ankles, the grass was cut back enough to leave Jordans unscuffed and you didn’t have to pay to play at my table, where Usher, Mariah and Al Green played on a loop.

As the years went on, the children who could afford it found better company in video games, while others, the darker ones like me, began complaining about the humidity. And when the court and the cues began to look neglected and unused, I started making the rounds at playtime. 

In the morning, it was off to Jaylen and Toosie’s to lift rotting floorboards from their bedrooms and position them in the tree limbs and tangled vines. Building tree houses, we called it. Jaylen used to say, “With a house in the trees, we could probably climb to the top.” 

And climb we would, until the heat and humidity got so that breathing was a challenge. Then I’d leave them for the air-conditioned sanctuary of Noah and Haley’s house, where Xbox and apple juice filled our hours until darkness. At night, it was off to “the projects” to play with kids who looked like me, amid the haze of cigarette smoke and the din of domino games.

In all those years of hopping up and down between two worlds — from the relative homogeneity of Illinois to Louisiana, starkly divided by color and money — I never felt any dissonance. In the first, children of every color donned pressed green polos and played inside cookie-cutter walls and stone foundations. In the other, the sagging floors of Black kids’ houses and churches feebly protested their joyful leaps.

It’s been more than a decade since those childhood days, but according to Urban League, income disparity has only worsened. Nowadays, a $35,451 median income divides Louisiana’s Black and white families. But I wouldn’t know. As I learned to “think” and “talk” white, I forgot about Jaylen and Toosie, who, now that I think about it, looked less light-skinned than me. They wore rags to my used clothes and had dreams of making it to the top, whereas I had goals. 

Everyone’s got their own take on where that family went, like faded souls. Noah and Haley left too, but that’s different; they probably made it to the city and got better jobs. When I asked my uncle about their leaving, he solemnly drew an ever-present cigarette from his mouth and said, “Son, some people fade away, and some get to move. Just be glad they got to move.” 

I don’t know if there’s 35 grand that separates those two families, wherever they are. But I know that when I turned to leave Jaylen and Toosie’s hollow house, a warm, weeping board silently gave way beneath my soles. And at Noah and Haley’s house, my goodbye echoed back to me off the cool stone walls.

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