The Navy wanted McKinney about as much as he coveted the training slot. He was black. After decades of first racism, then racial indifference, the Navy was now desperate to recruit more African-Americans into its embarrassingly white aviation ranks. Up until World War II, African-Americans were barred from flight training; the service thought they could not see as well at night as whites. Even after the military was integrated, African-Americans steered clear of Naval aviation, which was considered an elitist preserve of white males.
If he made it through the training, McKinney would become not only one of the Navy's few black pilots, but also one of its youngest. Born in Newport News, Virginia, he was something of a child prodigy. By the time her son reached three years old, Sylvia McKinney knew he was unusually bright. If he had been born in the ghetto the gift would likely have been ignored or wasted. But Charles was lucky. Sylvia was a reading teacher with a master's degree. His father, Charles, was a Naval officer in the civil engineering corps.
Sylvia took it upon herself to educate her son and to do so at a faster pace than the public school system's. Shortly after his third birthday, he was enrolled in preschool. Every afternoon McKinney came home to color-coded word cards his mother flashed before him. By kindergarten, he was reading. Sylvia had access to countless standardized tests from her school and began carefully measuring his intelligence. In kindergarten, he scored 165 on the IQ test. By age five, McKinney was in second grade. Beginning in seventh grade, he took the SAT tests every year thereafter. In his classes, he excelled in science and math, suffered through reading and writing. By age fifteen, he was a senior in high school.
Being a child prodigy could be fun. He felt proud in the classes where the students always turned to him for the right answers. Some teenage girls found it cute that he was so much younger.
But by high school, McKinney discovered that pain also came with being different. The constant moves every military family must make from one duty station to another could be difficult for children. McKinney dreaded each time he had to transfer to a new school -- it always seemed to be in the middle of the academic year -- and the teacher would make him stand in front of the class to introduce himself. On top of being the new kid -- always with the wrong style of clothes -- there was the added pressure of being younger and smarter than his classmates. He felt like a puppet in an amusement park. Some students called him Doogie Howser.
So McKinney withdrew into his own shell. He developed many acquaintances but no close friends. He liked it that way -- always the outsider looking in, detached from the people around him. By his senior year, he tried to hide his age from people he met for the first time and pretended to be older. That was easy, he discovered. McKinney did look older and he acted more mature than his classmates.
Something else made him feel different. He had never experienced racism until the family moved to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune when he was nine years old. The six years before, his father had been assigned to Guam, where being black or white meant little to an Asian culture and children of service families grew up oblivious to the prejudices that would later divide them when they returned to the United States. Lejeune was located near Jacksonville, North Carolina -- redneck country, where a black kid, no matter how gifted he was, could still be called "nigger." At first, McKinney found it perplexing, almost impossible to comprehend. Then the slurs began to hurt.
He attended a high school in the middle of a cornfield and faced racism from all sides. Blacks, who shunned him as much as whites, considered him too well bred to be one of their brothers. The constant moves had homogenized any accent in his speech. The educational advantages his parents had afforded him now made him an Uncle Tom in the eyes of black students. He talked and acted like a white boy.
Copyright © 1998 by Douglas C. Waller
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