Thursday, May 5, 2016

Knights in Black and Gray - Some Personal Perspective on the West Point Class of 2016 Picture Question

I am Army born. I am Army bred. When I die, I’ll be Army dead. My proud Army heritage extends as far back as the U.S. Civil War, traceable to an ancestor named Augusta Reed who served the Union Army as a Mule Skinner and Whiskey peddler.  He is remembered as a bull-whip wielding, no nonsense individual who was a shrewd and skilled survivor possessing the warmth and charm of a rattlesnake. Ancestor Reed paved the way for my Grandfather figure, Great Uncle Julius Frazier, who served in WWI and raised my father from his early childhood. Numerous other family members served in WWII and Korea as well.  My father cemented our heritage by becoming a career solider – a paratrooper and Vietnam veteran with numerous deployments over a period of almost 30 years.  He handed the baton to me, who spent my early adulthood pursuing a military career, including some time spent at West Point, but who eventually found myself ministering to soldiers and later ministering on a broader, global scale.  My cousin Brian Vance has carried the baton for the family since, honoring several traditions by serving as a Screaming Eagle of the 101st Airborne Division and enduring multiple deployments as a warrior in the Global War on Terror.  While my vocational experience with the Army was brief, my Army roots run deep and my way of thinking and my development as a human being have been undeniably influenced by Army culture. For that reason, I have strong convictions about the Army’s mission and way of life, including the mission of and life at The United States Military Academy at West Point.

The United States Military Academy at West Point has the premier honor of being the historically first guardian of the American Ideal.  West Point is as old as America and stands as the foundation upon which America’s military excellence and tradition has been built. Traditions of all sorts abound at West Point. Some are known and well publicized, while others are less known but still hold great sway over West Point’s ethos and culture.  The three oldest traditions remaining in place to this day are: “A cadet will not possess a mustache, horse or spouse.” But it is not those traditions that have captured the nation’s attention this week.  It is the unofficial tradition of taking pre-graduation group pictures that has come to the forefront, in particular, a photo taken by a group of African American women who are members of the West Point class of 2016. The picture is one of a series of photos taken of the women, who retrofitted their uniforms to represent the uniforms of an earlier generation of cadets – a practice that is on its own a longstanding West Point tradition. A greater level of scrutiny than normal has arisen because of one picture depicting the raising of fists by the women in that picture.

As of the writing of this piece, I am not aware of any statements on behalf of the women that clarifies the specific meaning they attach to the raised fist photograph. I am aware of numerous interpretations of what the pose means.  The considerations range from a belief that the gesture is a representation of the women’s triumph over the assortment of challenges West Point presents to all who enter its gates, to a belief that the gesture is some type of expression of African-American identity.  As of my writing, the exact meaning remains in question.  Nevertheless, the speculation is plentiful and the responses have been swift on the few West Point social media connections of which I am a part.  As I consider my deep familial Army Heritage and my specific experiences as a citizen of the United States and as an American descendant of slaves, I have felt compelled to share a few observations on the situation.

Challenge, adversity, stress and pain are intimate companions for the West Point Cadet during their life at the Academy. I repeat, these challenges are present for every cadet!  From the moment a new cadet candidate faces “The Cadet in the Red Sash” on Reception Day until graduation day, cadets are intentionally subjected to an unrelenting stream of intentional testing that is meant to prepare them to lead soldiers as commissioned officers in the United States Army.  Anyone who has spent even a day as a cadet will have stories to tell of seemingly impossible situations that by design forced them to marshal all of their character, courage and innermost wherewithal to not only confront the situation, but to manage it successfully and emerge triumphant.  The standards are high – especially high for college-aged people whose peers attend other institutions that are not military service connected and are able to enjoy a freedom of expression and leisure that are not generally a part of the Academy experience.  This difficulties of Cadet life become even more challenging when additional considerations shape one’s West Point experience.  While the Army as a whole and West Point in particular are institutions that value and seek to embrace the diversity that defines America, this has not always been the case and the process of achieving diversity and equality has been complex and at times painful.

Race has impacted every aspect of my family’s Army history.  For the earliest soldiers in our family, being an African American meant limited opportunities within a tightly prescribed area of possibilities.  As years passed and the available opportunities broadened, our family members embraced the possibilities and excelled in fantastic ways, yet always with some racial challenges thrown into the mix.  By the time I arrived at West Point as a Cadet, many others from my ethnic background had traveled the road I was then treading. One experience highlights the complexities of race and Cadet life during my West Point days. 

While I was certainly aware of the racial makeup of the academy, at least as much as my experience allowed me to see, I became more deeply cognizant of the significance of my presence at the Academy as a Black Cadet and the expectations that came along with my Army background after an early conversation with my Tactical Officer - my commander – after the completion of Cadet Basic Training and a few weeks into my first academic semester.  My TAC initially began with standard questions about my well-being and observations about my performance when he asked how I was getting along with my roommates – one Caucasian southerner and the other a Latino.  In the midst of what I perceived to be a solid roommate experience, I responded that all was well – at least as well as anyone could expect as a West Point Plebe. The TAC seemed relatively happy to hear my report and added this surprising commentary,

“That’s very good Mr. Jackson, that’s what we had hoped.” I wondered, who the “We” was? He continued, “I’m going to be direct with you Jackson.  You will NEVER have a black roommate during your career here at West Point.” I thought to myself silently, “NEVER?” He seemed to hear my thoughts and immediately said for emphasis, “NEVER.” I was stunned.  I hadn’t really thought about the issue until then. I had supposed that there weren’t enough of us to form many multiple “Black Cadet” rooms and had never considered that there were very careful designs on how Black Cadets were housed based on race.  Of course I wondered why. The TAC knew that as well, and answered before I could ask.  “Many of your classmates have never had any personal, non-athletic contact with black people. Some have had no interaction beyond incidental public contact of some sort, which means they’ve had no meaningful contact with Blacks personally.  We believe that we have to maximize their exposure to Blacks in all the ways we can, as they will certainly be dealing with Blacks as officers in the Army.  As we considered your file, we believe that based on your background, you can handle such situations and encourage your White classmates. Some of your other Black classmates don’t have your background, and more urgently need the presence of someone of like background for encouragement, especially in the first couple of years.  People like you are a treasure for us in this regard and we’re glad you’re up to the challenge.”  As I left his office tying to process what I had just heard, an upperclassman in my company lit me up for a minor protocol infraction and I realized I’d have to process my chat with TAC some other time.  Upon arriving in my room, my roommates asked how the time went. I gave a standard answer, internally muttering, “If you only knew…”

The Bible warns that “To whom much is given, much is expected.”  This verse rings deeply true for every West Point Cadet, each one of whom represents the absolute best of the nation’s youth, but it holds an extra measure of significance for ethnic minorities and for women at the Academy.  My experience with the TAC helped me to understand what I couldn’t have seen with the naked eye: The Army and Academy had an extra measure of expectation of the minorities of the nation who attended, to help the military to sort out their racial problems, while not so much helping the minorities to sort out theirs.  It was an ongoing “Jackie Robinson” type of expectation, with the acceptance of the assignment largely assumed, not offered.  It meant that when I was called the “N-word” as a Plebe out of ear-shot of others, I was on my own to process it.  It meant that whenever there were racial overtones to sort out, I had to normally figure out the solutions without help or support. But, I understood, that is what “Jackie Robinson” does and I actually was up to that part of the expectation of me as a cadet.
When one is in the midst of such an experience during a very formative time in one’s life, how does one process the shaping events, positive and negative, that will leave an imprint on one’s soul? Demonstrating racial pride in such an environment can be tricky, and protesting racial mistreatment can seem totally off limits. While at West Point, I experienced days that caused me a great deal of pride in my heritage – both militarily and racially.  I also experienced other days that caused me significant racial discomfort and personal reflection.

As I consider the actions of the women in the picture that led to this discussion, I have forced myself to take time to listen, read, consider and reflect rather than to shoot from the hip only considering my own experiences.  Thanks to the posting of West Point graduate MaryTobin, I have been able to take factors into consideration beyond my own experience. While I share a racial perspective that I believe can be extremely helpful in the situation, I am not a woman and I cannot experientially address that viewpoint on the matter.  A recent conversation with my daughter Joana, who is approximately the age of these women, has also given me a deeper perspective generationally and gender-wise that has helped me to reevaluate my considerations on the issue.   

As I reflect on the situation these women are experiencing and consider my thoughts on the matter in comparison to other West Pointers who share my ethnic heritage, I believe there are distinctive points of view related to unique eras of the cadet experience. I further believe that gender differences provide some other distinctives in how this situation is viewed and solutions are being sought.  In spite of these differences, I am convinced that our commonalities must play a strong role in helping to speak into the situation as well. As African Americans, we have inherited the history and testimony of a people who have suffered but who have always demonstrated herculean resilience and strength that have enabled us as a people to endure, regroup and overcome! 

Furthermore, we share the unbreakable bond as members of the “Long Gray Line” that unites us “through the years of centuries told” and calls us to hang together in the stormy times of our journey.   In engaging this journey, it is essential for us to keep in mind General Douglas MacArthur’s all-time charge to all who represent West Point. We must never forget the clarion call that will never fade with time, circumstances or perspective:  “Duty, Honor, Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you can be, what you ought to be, what you must be. They are you rallying points!”  As cadets and as officers the rallying cry of “Duty, Honor, Country” must continue to guide how life is lived and how duty is done.  This cry is truly a rallying point. As we continue the conversation of these African American, West Point women and the photograph that has opened the door for a broader discussion, let us seek not to “win” an argument, but rather let us seek to win the day with wisdom, understanding and care for these women and for our “Rockbound Highland Home.” Our duty demands it. Our honor must guide it. Our country desperately needs it.

USMA 2016

USMA 1882


Unknown said...

Thank you. Each man and woman entering West Point comes from their own experiences and expectations. I do believe in the ideal of living one's life, military or civilian by "duty, honor, country". How we express that ideal may differ, but it should encompass an understanding of our differences and our likenesses. The "shooting from the hip" and the ugly comments regarding this viral picture is disturbing. I thank you for your very articulate and deeply thought out comments. Not that is should matter but I am the mother of a white cadet graduating along with these women. He, along with the majority of his classmates support them completely. It might be easy to say, "if you haven't walked in their shoes...shut up but that doesn't foster hopefully shedding light on an important issue at not only West Point, but for the future of this country.

Sam said...

Thank you for your insights! Best wishes to you, your son and all of USMA 2016!