on Racism

Tuskegee Airmen in 1943, with a P-40 in the background. Photo courtesy of the National U.S. Air Force Museum

Tuskegee Airmen in 1943, with a P-40 in the background. Photo courtesy of the National U.S. Air Force Museum

“We were fighting two battles. I flew for my parents, for my race, for our battle for first-class citizenship and for my country. We were fighting for the millions of black Americans back home. We were there to break down barriers, open a few doors, and do a job. But we’re all Americans. That’s why we chose to fight. I’m as American as anybody. My black ancestors were brought over here, perhaps against their will, to help build America. My German ancestors came over to build a new life. And my Cherokee ancestors were here to greet all the boats.” Joseph Philip Gomer (b. 1920), Tuskegee Airman and Iowa native

This past weekend my husband and I went to go see the movie Red Tails at Winterset’s historic theater. If you have not yet had a chance to see the movie, it is about the 332nd Fighter Group, which consisted of the very first black fighter pilots based out of Tuskegee, Alabama, who fought during World War II. It was a good family film, and other than the typical dogfight violence (old Hollywood style), and some language, it was pretty clean. Although I have to say, the occasional use of the N-word sure took me aback. I had to remember though, that it was period piece, and was supposed to show how these young brave pilots not only had to fight the Germans abroad, but racism within the ranks of the U.S. military.

These men were amazing, not only for their bravery and skill, but for their love of their country despite it not seeming to return the favor. For some of these pilots, like Joseph Gomer above, it was the first time they had ever experienced blatant racism (Iowa’s schools had been desegregated since 1868). Nevertheless, it did not deter them from the higher call to duty. They proved themselves to be soldiers of honor, who excelled at their craft. Despite escorting over 200 bombing missions, their squadrons were the only WWII pilots who never lost a single bomber to enemy attack. In fact, they garnered such a feared reputation among the German pilots, that they were called the “Schwartze Vogelmenshen”, or the Black Birdmen.  To the U.S. pilots though they were simply known as the “Red Tails”, named after the distinctive painted red tails of their planes, symbolizing the Tuskegee Airmen motto: “All blood runs red”.

I believe that honor, virtue, and strength of character are all qualities that transcend race, gender and creed. As I watched this movie, I was humbled at the dual adversity that these young men had to battle. Yet, somehow their great love of country and sense of duty were somehow able to overcome the normal human tendency to flee. They set aside their own needs for the sake of a greater calling, a greater purpose, and a brighter future, as they understood the evil that was the Third Reich. They were true heroes for doing so, and are role models not only for black youth, but for all of us.

Where have such great, humble men gone? When did a simple disagreement on principle somehow translate into the ugliness of racism?  How can anyone trivialize the real racism that men like the Tuskegee Airmen experienced by now calling simple dissent racist? What does this say about those that are still using race to divide us, for the sole purpose of achieving political gain? Is this how we best honor these young men that loved our country enough to continue to I believe in its future, even when their own was uncertain?

Perhaps the best way to honor these young men is to follow their example.  Taking a righteous path will always be fraught with obstacles, and sometimes you may even encounter friendly fire. Yet, despite all the flak shot at them by the Germans, by American society, and even by their own government, the Tuskegee Airmen still overcame and persevered. We owe it to them to do the same.

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