I remember loving Black History Month a child, but to me, one month was not enough, and I started to wonder why I did not see those black faces in my textbooks, or in movies. Of course there were the MLK movies that came on in January, oh…and Roots was on in February, and by the time I was 14, I could probably recite every single line. Repetition is key, right? However, I do remember watching Glory as a child, and though it was an excellent movie, it was strange seeing Ferris Bueller as an Army officer, or that dude from The Princess Bride (forgive me, I was only 9). In 1995, HBO released a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, and that is when my fascination with Blacks in the military started. That next year, my brother, who is currently a Major in the US Army, got accepted to Tuskegee University, and when I went to visit, I was able to see the building named after Gen Daniel “Chappie” James, who was the first African American four star general. Who knew that two years later, I would enlist to be a soldier. Though my Basic Training was diverse in both cadre and soldiers, I remember seeing pictures of people on the barracks walls that had won awards, or who died for our country overseas. I remember thinking, “Where are the Black People?” I didn’t spend too much time on it, because the Army constantly told me, “We are all the same.” I think I believed that at one point.
The first time I heard of Henry O. Flipper was when I was studying for a Soldier of the Month board. For those of you who don’t know, he was the first African American admitted to West Point. I also recall being stationed at Ft Huachuca, Arizona, and on that base, there was a monument to the Buffalo Soldiers. Seeing that made me proud to know that my Black forefathers were held in such high regard, but it was also disheartening because I realized one thing…they were only seen as MY forefathers, but not really those of my other soldiers who did not identify as being of African descent. It seems that when Black military personnel, let me reframe this, Black people period, are discussed in history or the media, they are discussed separately, and rarely incorporated into the bigger picture. Some may think that it is great that they are spotlighted, but are they really? Most military movies feature the heroic acts of White men, and if there is a Black person in the movie, they are subservient. Yes, there are movies that feature all black military units, but let me ask those of you who are reading this…did you rush to go see Red Tails or Miracle at St. Anna, as you did Black Hawk Down or American Sniper? Did you even know about them?
Well, since this is a blog for NASPA, I probably need to tie this to Higher Education. In the times of safe spaces and Veterans’ Centers on campus, I think it is time for us to reexamine the purpose of these spots that serve as a decompression zone for those who served in our military. Many of these centers inherently operate on the “one size fits all” narrative. However, that is so far from the truth. Yes, the military has the ability to unify us based on a common mission and duty, but that does not mean that we lose our identity, and that who we were before we served has been negated. As a Black male, I have realized that my skin color often trumps my service, and even if it doesn’t, people are surprised that I was not a cook or supply clerk (not knocking either one of those jobs, because they were the people I treated the best, ha). As a student veteran, I clashed with other student vets who wanted to start a Veterans center, because they often tried to compare the potential center to a Black Cultural Center, or an LGBT Resource Center. THEY WERE WRONG! In most veteran centers, you aren’t even allowed in there unless you are military connected; however, those aforementioned centers often serve as an education center for all. Realize that the majority of Veterans’ Centers leaders are White males, and this is the same for those who utilize it the most. I have met with many students, Black and Latin American students specifically, who didn’t like going to designated veteran spaces because they felt alienated, and they didn’t feel that the center could help them solve the problems of being a minority AND a veteran in predominantly white campuses. Of course, they could have gone to multicultural centers or something of the sort, but their age and veteran status made it tough to seek assistance in those said places. What a dilemma, don’t you think?
Call to action: I think one way to change the inclusiveness of veterans’ spaces is to not only embrace veteran status, but to embrace the colors and creeds that may hesitate to enter these centers. Support their history as you do that of the military. Talk about Black history, and any other history of marginalized groups as you would your own. Sure, you can embrace the months designated to these groups, but incorporate the feats of these brown people always. It is easier said than done, but life is not supposed to be easy, and many of you who are reading this have served or are connected though someone who has, so you probably agree with my sentiment.
In closing, I just wanted to say thank you to Salem Poor, Milton Olive, Roscoe Robinson Jr., Benjamin Davis, Lillian Fishburne, and Guion S. Bluford Jr, and all of those other veterans who have served , do, or will serve our country, and who just so happen to be of African descent.
Damien E Pitts
Outgoing Region V Veterans Knowledge Community Chair
Academic and Diversity Initiatives Specialist
Lundquist College of Business, Undergraduate Programs
University of Oregon