For many of us, it was a wonderful symbol of accomplishment and celebration. But for others, it was a moment of Black pride so disturbing that it warranted an investigation of the photo by the army last week over claims it was “sowing racial divisions” and violating policy.
On Tuesday, the 16 cadets were cleared to graduate after officials found no violation, but the message was clear:
In the U.S., you’re either Black or you’re American, but you can’t be both.
When the photo first went viral last week, the accusations hurled at the students seemed nonsensical to many of us, and fodder for many others Americans to cry “reverse racism,” that beloved, vapid (if not ridiculous) mantra so often hurled at any person of color who dares to celebrate themselves.
According to the Army Times, officials were concerned with the idea that the cadets could support the Black Lives Matter Movement, which is “sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.” They claimed it could also have been a violation of the Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces, that warns against “partisan political activity” while in uniform.
What critics of this group of strong, beautiful, intelligent, resilient women fail to comprehend is what most racists can’t grasp: Blackness, and celebration of it, is not a political statement, it is reality. It is not a declaration against one group or person and it need not be investigated.
To accuse these women of racism — women who dedicated four years of their lives to studying at an institution that will turn into a career of defending this country’s people — is insulting and pathetic.
Moreover, the accusation begs a question so simple, it almost seems preposterous to even ask: can’t one support Black Lives Matter, take pride in their Black identity, be partisan in the fact that they are humans with opinions, and still do their job effectively? Dare I say, even still love their country?
It’s a concept that the cadets are living proof of, and one that so many of us — those who get up, go to work, do our jobs, say hello to our neighbors, vote in elections and care about the future of our country — do every day.
Some critics even went as far as equating the gesture to Nazi propaganda. It’s a heartbreaking, false trope meant to demonize any attempt at Black people celebrating their own identity and further instill fear in America’s collective heart. Fear that Black people are dangerous. Fear that anything that isn’t White is wrong. Fear that if you dare say you’re proud of your Blackness, you’re in danger of being publicly shamed and reprimanded. Fear that choosing to celebrate yourself is grounds to lose everything you’ve ever wanted or worked hard for.
Lest you think this is an exaggeration, consider the simple fact that, in defense of the photo, the student’s own ally, Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate, mentor to the students and herself a Black woman, said the students were not celebrating Black pride, but instead celebrating Beyonce.
“These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé. For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood. That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country.”
The raised fist was similarly demoted in a New York Times article as a mere “pop culture” symbol, seen in “mundane” settings such as the Super Bowl.
It’s sad that, in order to pacify so many uncomfortable with the idea of Black pride, we must downplay symbols of it. It’s a frightening mirror of what is asked of us so often in our daily lives: to turn down our Blackness so as not to offend others.
Let’s be clear: the cadets more than likely knew the meaning of the raised fist. It was not to celebrate Beyonce, it was to celebrate themselves. And for that matter, Beyonce, a brilliant artist who uses her platform to celebrate Black women and culture, knows the meaning of the raised fist. It is not a mundane or trendy move that she made at the Super Bowl. It was a declaration.
A declaration that being Black is wonderful, beautiful, difficult and rewarding. Being Black is worth celebrating.
The cadets deserved to celebrate themselves, especially at an academy plagued by accusations that it is an unforgiving place for women, and unforgiving for Black women especially. It’s a place that is 70 percent white and male, where to even graduate as a Black woman is a revolutionary act in and of itself. And if this photo’s viral nature is proof of anything, it’s that many White people remain threatened by Black people who don’t trade their racial identity for their national one.
These two things are not mutually exclusive. If the cadets, excited about graduation and their futures in this country, are not a shining example of that, then I don’t know what is.
The incident, however, remains proof that while the cadets have been cleared to advance, much of America remains begrudgingly stagnant.
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