In a flashback, Gilbert describes his time in the RAF. When he first joins the armed forces, he’s thrilled by his dashing uniform, telling himself that “women gonna fall at your feet” because of it. However, once he arrives at training camp, he’s too preoccupied by the boiled and flavorless British food to think about women or his own looks. Gilbert’s unit is composed of Jamaican soldiers, as well as men from tinier neighboring islands, whom Gilbert scorns as “small islanders.”
Gilbert’s obsession with his uniform demonstrates his generally carefree spirit, which finds levity in all kinds of situations, even his imminent departure to war. However, his expectations for the RAF are frustrated by a mundane reality, just as his wife’s first days in England don’t live up to her daydreams.
However, an American officer soon informs Gilbert and his comrades that for the duration of their stay in Virginia, they’ll be confined to the military base. He explains that this is a safety measure to prevent disease and tries to console the men by assuring them that they will be able to “mix with white service personnel” and “not be treated as negroes,” but Gilbert is disgruntled because he wants to try out the effect of his uniform on American women.
While Gilbert couches his disgust in terms of his coveted uniform, it’s clear that he understands the thinly veiled racism in their confinement. Gilbert’s stay in Virginia marks his first encounter with the expression of racism in a society that’s not primarily composed of people of color.
After this incident, Gilbert remembers the words of his cousin Elwood, who was astounded that Gilbert wants to be a soldier in a “white man’s war,” and said he should be fighting instead for black Jamaicans to control their own country. Elwood says winning the war won’t change anything for Jamaicans like them.
Elwood’s opinions will always counter Gilbert’s. He represents the view that colonies can never be equal members of an empire, and ought to fight for self-determination instead.
However, Gilbert has read that Hitler considers both Jews and people of color to be “primitive, like an ape.” This is particularly striking to Gilbert because not only is he black, his father is a Jew. Born in the Jamaican town of Mandeville, Gilbert’s father converted to Christianity while serving as a soldier in World War One, was disowned by his family, and married Gilbert’s mother, Louise. Every Sunday, he took his wife and seven children to church; Louise watched the children while Gilbert’s father “fawned” on the congregation’s white members, seeking their approval even though they disdained him for his mixed heritage and black wife. Reading about Hitler in the newspapers, Gilbert recognizes in a picture of Germans watching a Jew walk down the street the “expression of disgust” with which these white congregants looked at his father.
Gilbert’s heritage means that he’s experienced racism in multiple forms, both as a black man in a colony ruled by white imperialists, and by observing his father’s inability to fit in among either Jews or Christians. That Gilbert immediately likens his family’s history to the plight of the European Jews shows his innate sense of empathy. Rather than pitying himself for his troubles, he considers how they link him to other people. This trait differentiates him from characters like Bernard, whose grievances make them insensitive to the views of others.
At the beginning of the war, Gilbert’s older brother Lester tries to sign up for the RAF, but they refuse to accept black soldiers and send him to a factory instead. As the war progresses and becomes more desperate, the RAF changes its policy. To Elwood’s disgust, Gilbert immediately signs up; he tells his cousin that nothing will change in Jamaica if Hitler wins this war.
It’s obvious that although Britain is fighting against Hitler and the racism he represents and perpetuates, their army is hardly egalitarian. While the empathy that leads Gilbert to enlist is laudable, he also displays a certain naivety about British attitudes toward colonial citizens.
In Virginia, American soldiers attempt to flatter Gilbert and the other men and compensate for their confinement by insinuating that they are “superior” black people, different from African-Americans, who “won’t work” and “ain’t really cut out to fight.” The white soldiers claim that segregation is the only way to ensure a peaceful society, and that everyone, including African Americans, likes it. Regardless of the food, everyone is soon eager to leave Virginia.
Here, the American soldiers emerge as completely tone-deaf, not seeming to notice that by insulting black people in America, they’re insulting Jamaicans as well. Their insistence that African Americans approve of segregation is deeply troubling, given that they obviously don’t interact with any African Americans.
Eventually, the men board a ship headed to England via Newfoundland. On the voyage, they endure long lectures from Corporal Baxter, whom they despise because he constantly belittles them as “colony troops.” Colonel Baxter warns them that in England, “no white women will consort with the likes of you,” angering the men further.
While Britain encourages colonial subjects to come to the defense of the Mother Country, once enlisted, Gilbert realizes that the English consider him a second-class citizen. Through his experience in the RAF, he’ll realize that Britain’s real feelings toward its territories are far different than the narratives it promotes within its colonies.