When I was a high school student in Concord, North Carolina, my civics teacher required us to visit municipal events to learn how local government worked. During one visit, an older white veteran who was volunteering zeroed in on me, the only Black student in the room. He had a question for me: Had I heard of the Tuskegee Airmen?
I hadn’t, I told him. He gave me a brief recount, telling me of the Black pilots who fought in World War II and ascended great heights despite rampant racism. “Those bastards were so daring they painted the tails of their planes red,” he told me. I was surprised – both at the story and the person telling it. I had never met a white person so interested in Black history; this was before our nation’s first Black president, and long before it was cool to be woke and white. The veteran told me how important it was for me to know about the Black soldiers who fought in American wars. These stories, he seemed to be saying, were necessary to hear. And, he told me, I wouldn’t learn about them in my school’s history books.
He was right. Though my white high school history teachers taught me many things about America’s past, stories like those of the Tuskegee Airmen were absent. That is not to say I learned nothing from my teachers; they made sure I and my classmates knew all 27 Constitutional amendments, the eight lords proprietors of Carolina, and how local government works. I am thankful for these lessons.
But I and my classmates learned an incomplete history, one in which Black people were either Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King, existing in a distant past where racism had safely been tucked away and largely eradicated.
When it came to the wars our country fought, people of color were either side notes or antagonists; service people like the 54th Regiment or the Red Tails were rarely mentioned. The white veteran I met that day knew this was a tragedy – that my education would not be complete without an understanding of our country’s full history.
Nationally, we are wrestling with how we should remember history. We are in an era that has seen an unprecedented removal of Confederate monuments and a recognition of the anti-Black sentiments that often accompanied their installation. At the same time, we are in a struggle over how to tell the story of our country, seen now in the handwringing over “critical race theory” – a system of thought that has been coopted by politicians as a catch-all term for any attempt to tell the truth about our country’s history of race-based subjugation.
It is as though these politicians and handwringers are afraid that, after learning the truth about our country’s history, we will no longer be allegiant to our nation. But learning the truth about racism doesn’t make us less loyal to our country. If it did, people of color wouldn’t make up 43% of active duty service members despite being 24% of the population. Likewise, a white-centered curriculum that pretends that white supremacy either has never existed or is a thing of the past does not engender greater allegiance to our nation – as the Capitol insurrectionists who attempted to overthrow the United States have proven.
What the politicians and handwringers do get right is that how we remember history is important. I was reminded of this in my first visits to New England. I was struck by all the statues I saw in the town squares commemorating Union soldiers who had fought during the Civil War. Having been born and raised in the South, I had only seen the Confederate monuments that were as much a part of the landscape as pine trees and red clay.
The Union statues were eye-opening. Though I knew the Civil War was our country’s costliest war in terms of lives lost, I thought the South was uniquely preoccupied with remembering it. But these monuments in the North told a different story. Indeed, to hear New Englanders speak of the Civil War, the war was one of good versus evil, of abolitionism versus the institution of slavery. In this narrative, the North – the Union – was unerringly on the right side of history. Of course, the story is more complicated than that; it’s not as though the North always welcomed Black people and nonwhite people with open arms, or even as though the United States entered the war to end slavery. The war was fought, as Abraham Lincoln said, to preserve the Union, at least at first (his opinion changed notably by the time of his second inaugural address). But this remembering, this selective amnesia, tells a story of how the North views itself.
The South has its own selective amnesia. Here, the Civil War is a thing of lore, pride, and shame for white Southerners, probably best exemplified by the fact that Gone with the Wind aired on television at least once a year in my childhood (though I could never bring myself to watch it) and, while driving through the South, I saw plenty of Confederate flags and rarely ever an American one.
As a Black Southerner, I found the Civil War to be a tender and bittersweet wound. It was the war that brought Black people our freedom, but that also resulted in more than a century of bitterness among racists, yielded a short period of Reconstruction where we caught a glimpse of what the South could be, and birthed the Ku Klux Klan and state-sanctioned racist domestic terrorism. The war was not simply a story of good versus evil in which good won. It was a story of being liberated by a country – our country – and then being abandoned by it. Good and evil both prevailed, it seemed.
I never heard this version of history taught in schools. Instead, the Civil War was often presented as being primarily an issue of states’ rights or of everyday people fighting to protect their homesteads. Romantic recollections of Southern heritage rarely included the perspectives of the Black people who fueled the Southern economy or the Native Americans who were nearly eradicated to make room for plantations and other Southern ambitions.
Maybe this is why Blacks and Native Americans are so rarely memorialized on courthouses or town squares. Memorials are not impartial testaments to historical events. Rather, they are time capsules for what people in positions of power desire to display. And though we like to think of textbooks as being impartial, they bear the thumbprints of those in power, as their content and curriculum are dictated by state legislatures.
But many throughout our country understand that our collective memory about race can be more expansive than the Civil War and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, many of us understand the story of the American dream is not as simple as bootstrapping your way to success – not when your race and class are better predictors of your future professional success than your academic ability. This means we can choose to tell a more a complete history, one that acknowledges racism and gives us the tools to examine and eradicate it. To tell the truth is not to erase or even to rewrite history; it is a way to better understand it.
I believe that we as Americans are strong enough to do this. Our egos and our allegiance are not so fragile as to be undone by simply acknowledging that racism exists and has existed since our country’s founding. Servicepeople of color are important reminders of this. Time and again Black, Native American, Hispanic American, Asian American, and immigrant servicepeople have defended our country even when our country refused to defend them. If anyone understood the depths of the ways white supremacist thinking infiltrated our laws and practices, it was these servicepeople. And yet, they still fought.
With today being Memorial Day, it is fitting to remember those who have died in service for our country. Among these are the 66 Tuskegee Airmen who gave their lives fighting fascism in World War II. Despite these sacrifices and the exemplary record of the 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen, Black airmen were still ordered to abide by segregation within the military ranks. Many refused and were deactivated from service. Fifty years would pass before the Air Force would clear the records of these airmen.
When that veteran in the city hall exhorted me to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen, I wonder if he knew about this story – the whole story. I like to think he did. I like to think he trusted me to hold two things in tension: our country’s failures and its attempts, however faltering, to progress. I like to think he trusted that I, like he, could know this history and still choose to love the United States.
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