Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuskegee Airmen

An oft ignored or unknown aspect of post emancipation America is the systematic crushing of black dreams. Those of my generation have always known, or been taught, of the first black this, or first black that. The initial astronaut, millionaire, Oscar winner, or president, have been praised. They have been praised to such an extent that the significance and relevance of such achievements have been lost, rendering the names trivial. Those cynical, young, or simply white, oft find it difficult to not drift towards the all encompassing, “so what.”

I turned off my prescribed path to follow a sign announcing a Tuskegee Airmen Memorial. I was nowhere near Alabama, North Africa, or even a military base. I was intrigued. I found myself at an isolated South Carolina field that had at one time, just a short time, served as an airstrip servicing the squadron of black airmen while in training. There was a small statue under a tree, a couple of plaques explaining some history, and an old searchlight.
The plaques explained that in an effort to squelch the new squadron, officials required all applicants to have a college degree and flight experience. Those same officials were astounded at the number of men who qualified. To that surprise is where my thoughts wandered.

We have been taught, indoctrinated, with the ideal of the American dream. We have been raised with the expectation that in America if you work hard, if you try, you will achieve. I was told by my teachers, my parents, my politics, by my very culture, that I must learn, work, and try. If I did, my goals would be realized. All these African-American firsts helped to prove this. A memorial to the Airmen helped me realize otherwise.

Those surprised officials believed the dream. These Americans had misjudged their culture’s ability to elevate the able. They saw the lack of black doctors, professors, lawyers, and black professionals as proof that black people lacked qualifications. In the land of meritocracy it was assumed that the disparity in achievement was a direct result of who had, or did not have, merit. They were proved wrong. How did they get it so wrong?

Slaves were not allowed to read or write, yet there was still a Frederick Douglass. After Emancipation schools were opened and quickly flooded with students. Most of our books or lessons plot this point on the timeline and chart a vertical trajectory in dramatic fashion. The subsequent glossing over of all that transpired between then and the civil rights movement has left us blind to things we still don’t want to see. All those firsts were not the first qualified, they were the first allowed.

For every one who achieved there were many who had previously learned and worked hard only to be thwarted. They were not held back by inadequacy but by America. W.E.B. Dubois, the first black man to graduate with a PhD from Harvard, a man now considered one of the United States greatest sociologists, was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to do research and teach their students, but was denied a seat as professor. He could teach the students, but not be recognized as a teacher. Fisk, Howard, Morehouse, and even Harvard and Yale, produced black graduates long before the greater society produced black professionals. It seems the speed of work, education, and legislation, were outpaced by locked doors, hard heads, and burnt crosses.

America is the land of dreams, the land of opportunity? Yes, but it is, and has also been, a land littered with the remnants of crushed dreams and dashed aspirations. Our country has created for itself a dual past and a checkered present. Some were elevated and rewarded, others filled full of hope only to have it pushed back into the ground from which it sprung. Things were not fair. Things were never meant to be completely fair. That is true no matter one's race just as it is true that any man or woman stands a better chance of progress in America than any other land. We can hold our heads high but should never do so with eyes closed. If America is to pride herself in all the firsts she helped create, she must also admit that she is the one who stopped many other firsts from happening.

But the firsts have come. As I looked at the bronze bust of a brown pilot looking up at the sky, I smiled cynically. I smiled because it made perfect sense why these pilots showed no fear of German planes. It was obvious why they proved so adept at avoiding enemy flak. These were men who had a lifetime of having their dreams being shot down. They had previously been trained under ‘friendly fire.’ That is the real triumph of these airmen. I cannot, nor do I know anyone who can, tell me the name of any of these heroes. I can find no real record of any of them later reaching some notable milestone. They weren’t remarkable for any one event or battle. What made them special is that they existed and despite the anti-aircraft fire from home, they still had wings and flew.