I was privileged enough to attend the opening night of Black Eagles, a stage play written by Leslie Lee and produced by Twin Productions . The play, which was held at the Patriot Hall Performing Arts Center in Sumter, SC, sang the praises of the Tuskegee Airmen. I say I was privileged to attend the event because in addition to the performance of 12 fine community theatre actors, was a real life Black Eagle, Leroy Bowman. Mr. Bowman still lives in Sumter and I was honored to be in his presence. I just wish more people were there to witness the tribute paid to him.
We all know the story of the Tuskegee Airman, right? In case you don’t: the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces. During World War II, blacks in many U.S. states were still subject to Jim Crow laws. The American military itself was racially segregated. As a result, the Tuskegee Airmen were subject to racial discrimination, both within and outside the Army. Despite these adversities, they flew with distinction. The Tuskegee Airmen were particularly successful in their missions as bomber escorts in Europe.
The play was featured three actors who portrayed aging Tuskegee Airman who reminisced about the good old days and how they overcame the common thought that black airman were not capable of being military aviators. Throughout the play, there was a common thought that guided the young airman’s actions… they were not only representing themselves in their endeavors to integrate the US Army Air Corp; they were also representing their families and the entire black race. They had to prove to white people that they were just as good, smart and capable as they were. As a result of carrying the burden of an entire race on people on their shoulders, they tried harder; they studied longer. Their resolve was tougher; their work ethic was stronger. They did all this because they had to prove that black men could pilot fighter jets just as well as white men. In doing that, it would prove that black people were good enough. In fact, one of the characters exclaimed to a fellow flyer who had been slacking off, “Man, this just isn’t about you. We are doing this for our families; our communities. For all black people!” Wow. That’s a lot for one black airman to bear.
That line reminded me of stories my mother told me about her youth. She told me how important public presentation was. So much so, that her home economics class in school was more like a finishing school. Their teacher didn’t only teach them how to run a house, she also taught them how to enter and exit a room; how to dress appropriately. Basically, how to be a lady. My mother told me that when she and her sisters left the house, they had to be ‘girdled down’, because they could not be seen in public with their bodies shaking and wiggling all over the place. That would have reinforced white people’s thoughts that black women were loose, unkempt and not respectable. When she walked out of the house, she didn’t only represent herself, but her entire family, as well as the entire race of black people. That’s a lot for one woman to bear.
I’m sure many older black people have tons of stories just like this; how they had to go above and beyond just to prove that we, as a race, were good enough. My question to you is: do black people as a race still have something to prove?
I don’t think so. My theory is that we have assimilated into the culture of white America to the point that individually, we no longer feel we represent the race. We only represent ourselves now. That eases the burden on our young people today, but I contend that as a race, we are suffering as a result.
When we had to work twice as hard to get opportunities, we cherished the opportunities more. And as a result of the opportunity, we worked harder to prove to the world that we are good employees and we deserved the opportunities. Now that employment opportunities are more equal than ever before, our work ethic has diminished significantly. We go to work late and do less work while we are there… if we go to work at all. If we perform poorly or get fired, no longer does it look bad on the entire race of people. It only speaks to the kind of person that individual is. That’s a good thing, right? I’m not so sure. Now, it is a lot easier to be a slacker because there is no pressure from the race to be a good representation.
When young girls leave the house now, they use little to no discretion about their dress. Whereas my mother took extra care not to allow her body to jiggle inappropriately, young girls today seems to wear as little as possible and the most non-restraining fabrics that actually facilitate the jiggle. The more the jiggle, the better. If young girls represented the entire race of people with every step, would they wear Lycra and spandex, or something a little more controlling?
You know, I think we are will agree that as a race, integration was a major step to the empowerment black people. But seeing the camaraderie and the desire to prove the world wrong about black people that the Black Eagles play displayed, I must wonder if integration is really all that it cracked up to be. Because now that we have proven that we are just as good, we are also proving that we can be just as bad.