As we, rightfully, assert the value of black lives and rail against a hegemonic culture which so easily disregards the humanity of black males, I argue that through the lens of patriotism a soldier-athlete archetype exists which forms the psychological, philosophical, and spiritual foundation that supports illiberal perceptions of race with regard to masculinity. I believe both the military and sports in America, as seen through the lens of patriotism, illustrate the hypocrisy of national consciousness related to masculine ideals – often contrasting white and black men – in a paradigm which helps to build an American mythology particularly about military service. Still today, we live in a society where military bases carry the name of Confederate generals – Ft. Lee, Ft. Bragg, and Ft. Benning. Where some personal stories are told so often they reach a mythical status, I’m intrigued – and saddened – by the limited information about my cousin, Dan May, who crossed Normandy Beach in 1944 on D plus 3. The details of his service – his personal memories – unfortunately no longer exist because he has joined my family’s ancestors. One of the reasons these stories are lost is the effects of military service and certainly the trauma of war which affects each veteran differently. My cousin, like many black veterans, returned home speaking little about his service and sacrifice because, like so much of his entire lived experience, his service occurred in the crucible of race in a country which often forgets or minimizes the value of the black military experience.
America’s oldest living veteran right now is Lawrence Brooks. At 110 years, he is a black man who has defied the odds of longevity. Mr. Brooks served in the Pacific Theater from 1941 to 1945 – one of millions of black men who served in that theater limited to support roles but no less exposed to the dangers of war. What strikes me more than National Geographic’s recent feature of him is it took so many years to acknowledge his story and it makes me wonder about the other stories of service and sacrifice by black men in the military that are lost in time. Over 16 million Americans served during World War II, of which 1.6 million were black – my cousin Dan May and Lawrence Brooks are counted among them. Black veterans endured the racialized tropes that exist within the soldier-athlete archetype – white men were honorable and brave while black men were fearful, ignorant, and untrustworthy. There is a precarity of existence for black veterans – on one hand, they are celebrated for supporting the American cause, while on the other hand pernicious racialized critiques persist which diminish the value of the black contribution.
We have all heard of the Tuskegee Airmen – the famed black fighter group who served in the European Theater during World War II. Few people realize that the fighter group – officially, the 332nd Fighter Group comprised of the 99th, 100th, 301st, and the 302nd Fighter Squadrons – was to also be joined by the 477thBombardment Group but for an incident in Indiana notoriously called the Freeman Field Mutiny. Under the command of a white officer – Colonel Robert R. Selway – over 100 black officers asserted their privilege as officer to frequent the Officer’s Club on Freeman Field. Col. Selway’s command had been filled with anti-integration policies which resulted in open challenges from the black officers under his charge. In the end, Col. Benjamin O. Davis was ordered to take command of the unit so they could complete their training which was not completed by the end of the war in Europe. The unit was eventually disbanded, and the story of these men has nearly disappeared.
While we often believe President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 – which desegregated the US armed forces in 1948 – democratized service between the races, in 21st century America military service is a decidedly exclusive space that remains to be shaped by race when less than 1% of the population ever serves and greater than 60% participation is white male. Given this context the soldier-athlete archetype illustrates the duplicity within the paradigm of race and gender identity is in America. While the US Air Force celebrates GEN Charles Brown’s appointment to be it first Chief of Staff in the service’s history, the senior ranks of all four branches of the military still remain a predominantly white male realm. What will it take to reshape an illiberal patriotic identity such as we have here in America in the 21st century?