The controversy surrounding the black women West Point cadets posed with their fists raised in a picture does not seem to be going away. In fact, the issue is getting wider.
Last week, a photo of 16 black women West Point Cadets posing in their uniforms with their fists raised went viral on the Internet, and the picture was met with its share of criticism. Mostly because the ladies are posed with their fists raised in the air, which some people assume is a political symbol. According to the New York Times,
The gesture, posted on Facebook and Twitter last week, touched off a barrage of criticism in and out of the armed forces as some commenters accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.
West Point opened an investigation on April 28 into whether the women violated Army rules that prohibit political activities while in uniform. Now, as the women wait to hear if they will be punished, they are gaining supporters who say they were simply making a gesture of solidarity and strength.
The elite public military academy, which trains many of the Army’s future leaders, is overwhelmingly male and 70 percent white. The 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in a graduating class of about 1,000, a meager 1.7 percent. But the Army has long tried to play down race and gender to create a force where “everyone is green.”
When I first saw the photo, my heart bursted with pride. As a veteran who proudly served my country as a non-commissioned officer, what I saw was a group of black women who will now proudly serve their country in the tradition of women leaders before them.
I also understand that studying at West Point is as tough as drinking water from a fire hydrant with a straw, and the statistics prove that each of them has probably faced a ton of hardships, anxiety, and pain before the picture was snapped. How could this photo not be a beautiful, positive thing?
But again, the raised fist gesture is throwing a lot of people off. Perhaps some of those people offering the most criticism are former or current members of the “Good ‘Ol Boys Club.” Or maybe the people who are upset are the same ones who carry UCMJ rules in their front shirt pockets while in uniform. Who knows who is upset and why. All I know is that the backlash that the women cadets in the photo are facing is familiar to me.
During the first year of my service on a battle ship in Norfolk, I started and finished reading This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard And The Story of the Black Panther Party. David Hilliard was Chief of Staff for the Panthers, and according to Afeni Shakur, he kept things running while Huey Newton was imprisoned.
I found David’s story thrilling. When you broke it down, he wanted for his community what everyone else wants for theirs – access to a quality education and medical care, help for single moms and babies, etc. I got so wrapped up in reading the book, that I took it out of my rack, and read it on the mess decks while I ate my lunch one day.
As I left the mess decks to hop back into my rack and read, I was stopped by the ship’s intelligence officer, who told me that he could report me for reading a book about the Black Panther Party.
I was so confused by his words that I didn’t know what to do, say, or think. The intelligence officer said that I was reading a book about a hate group. But the Panthers started a breakfast program that was later adopted by every school in the nation, and the WIC program, among other things. How could what I was reading be that awful?
The conversation ended with me agreeing to stop reading the book. But I didn’t. I finished reading it, then gave it to another shipmate, who defiantly read the book in front of other officers too.
That’s when I realized that being a black woman in the military is an act of defiance in itself. The power structure of the military wasn’t designed to hold women or minorities, which is partly why these groups are so fervently celebrated for their accomplishments when they break ground during their service to the country.
The unfortunate part of this investigation is the fact that a raised fist is viewed as something negative, instead of a gesture that symbolizes hope, love, and faith that there can be more unity among everyone.
When Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in solidarity at a medal ceremony during the Mexico City games in ’68, they weren’t telling the world to bask and thrive in hate by raising their fists and bowing their heads. They were honoring their ancestors with bowed heads, and raising their fists in hopes of unity among everyone.
But what the powers that be saw were two black guys stepping out of line. They were suspended, vilified, and got death threats for spreading a message of love, and what could be more sad than that?
Meanwhile, the “Good ‘Ol Boys Club” will keep thriving in the military, and shutting out one too many women and minorities from opportunities that they deserve, as a result of their skin color.