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He is a self-described dark horse, a “contender with little or no chance of succeeding,” who goes from 46th Place Southeast – a horseshoe-shaped street in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. – to the pentagon-shaped headquarters of the Department of Defense. But his trajectory due west from the non-touristy District across the Anacostia and Potomac rivers to Virginia and the Pentagon is not a smooth flight.
He is a fat and harassed African-American kid, one of eight children of an amputee Korean War veteran and his wife who hail from southern Virginia, where Jim Crow “shaped their life perspective.”
Out of necessity, Larry Spencer learns how and why to earn and keep a dollar. He finds spiritual and physical strength from athletic prowess, from family, and, later, from military service, and without his being trained as a pilot he eventually lands in the top budget job at the Air Force.
In “Dark Horse,” the retired U.S. Air Force four-star general dutifully recounts his growing up and his living up to his expectations. In the process, he contradicts the assumptions of others.
The memoir efficiently documents the officer’s 44-year military career. But his lifelong experiences with racism – not always blunt but always belittling – provide a reader with the moments that set “Dark Horse” apart from standard career-ographies.
As an enlisted airman, his acumen with numbers and his ability to work hard pay off. After he commissions, his boss tells the lieutenant not to work so hard and to go home earlier. Given the book’s plethora of fast-paced promotions and changes in duty stations, a reader might sympathize with the supervisor. Why? Because “Dark Horse” could be more effective with less focus on milestones and more on emotions. Explaining, for example, what makes a job “exhilarating,” what makes membership on a corporate board “extremely enjoyable.”
Still, Spencer’s candor about bigotry is commendable and noteworthy.
“Dark Horse” is no diatribe. The examples are not pervasive – perhaps a judicious decision by the author, who says “I did not experience personal racism that that negatively impacted my career.” However, in his everyday life there are obstacles. The rude and offensive behavior and comments he chooses to relate are unforgettable. And unforgiveable.
As a child Spencer dreams of NBA stardom while hanging with “a group of boys who were constantly looking for trouble,” he writes, later realizing “that what drew us together was they lacked the same basic academic skills and self-esteem that I did.” He persists, and he allows himself to achieve esteem. Ultimately, he succeeds professionally. Personally? There are reminders that society and survival mandate his remaining cool in the face of racially motivated comments and actions:
- He goes to a movie – the 1959 “Ben Hur” – with his mother, only after she telephones the neighborhood theater in “her best White voice” and inquires whether Black people are welcome in the auditorium. Yes, if they dress nicely and behave themselves. They go, and they do.
- In 1968, his father tells his son why he re-enlisted after service in Korea because words matter. In the civilian world, “being called a ‘nigger’ was commonplace,” but in the Army “he was called a soldier.”
- At Spencer’s first duty station as an officer, a “crotchety” unnamed colonel hurls “racial epithets like it was acceptable” and advises him to “mind your manners” and not to act “uppity.”
- At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Spencer returns home after work and enters the kitchen, where he a police officer has “his gun pointed directly at me.” Why? An alarm had gone off, and “when the officer saw me enter my front door, he assumed a robbery was in progress.” The officer leaves the house without apology.
- Spencer’s adding a fourth star in 2012 provides him with no dispensation from discrimination. His wife, Ora, attends a social gathering at the Air Force chief of staff’s home, and two other spouses ask the Black woman to “bring them a drink.”
And when Spencer pulls his car into a space at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in D.C., an “anxious gentleman” questions why he is parking in an area reserved for general officers.
Spencer points to the four-star emblem on his car’s windshield. “Why do you assume I am not a general officer?” The man, Spencer notes, is African American who has unwittingly “fallen victim to the same negative racial profiling as everyone else.” Parking and driving while Black is not the foundation of “Dark Horse,” but the frankness about the topic gives the book its force.
Sharing His Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Spencer learns lessons throughout his life, and he writes about seven at the end of the book:
- Even a dark horse can succeed
“The best way to make things better is to work your way into a position of authority so you can assure fairness within your sphere of influence.”
- Be an ant, not a grasshopper
Hard work and frugality add up. “If conflict is necessary, America should completely dominate any opponent foolish enough to engage. is Taking an efficient and frugal approach to managing resources . . . frees up money for additional mission readiness.”
- Leadership matters
“Display absolute integrity; develop a clear vision for the organization; communicate clearly, effectively, and often; lead by walking around; allow subordinates to fail and learn; create an environment of innovation and recognize those that excel.”
- Issues of race remain persistent in American society
“Children are not born as racists or bigots. At some point in their lives, adults teach that behavior to them. I also know that the only way to solve this challenge is for Americans of good will to stand up and, as the late (Rep.) John Lewis did, ‘Get in good trouble, necessary trouble’.”
- Prioritize career and family choices
“If offered the opportunity to accept a career-enhancing yet personal demanding job, decide, with the help of your family, if the sacrifice is worth the reward. If yes, go for it. If not, then don’t accept the job.”
- ‘It’s okay to try and fail, but it’s not okay not to try’
“Those words spoken to me by my grandfather while plowing a field on his isolated farm guided my life . . . Failure is inevitable, and success is not guaranteed. But if we don’t try, we certainly will not succeed.”
- Be kind
“As I watch our country and our world become less civil, I worry sometimes that people mistake kindness for weakness. There is absolutely nothing weak, unmanly, or unwomanly about being kind.”
Huffman has reviewed 400+ books published during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, and he received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (2012, Marine Corps University Press). He has led discussions at Defense Information School and Marine Corps War College and has advised newsrooms from Defense News to Dubai to Delhi and back.