It was an image of Black Excellence seen around the web: 16 Black female cadets smiling proudly as they prepared to graduate from West Point, their fists raised triumphantly in the air.
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 to them that the army began “investigating” the photo 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 Americans to cry “reverse racism,” the 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 dare to 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.
But it 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 well-meaning Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate and mentor to the students, 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 fist was similarly demoted in a New York Times article as a “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 to 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. And if this hoopla surrounding the beauty in this photo can become national attention is proof of anything, it’s proof 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 glowing proof of that, then I don’t know what is.
The incident remains proof that while the cadets have been cleared to advance, much of America remains begrudgingly stagnant.
West Point Cadets Are Proof That Black Pride And American Identity Remain At War was originally published on hellobeautiful.com