One must think of how much of the flesh is given back when you pay it up for the flag.

-Donnie Moreland

by Donnie Moreland

My grandfather—my mother’s father—participated in the first sit-ins in Greenville, South Carolina. My grandfather is a military veteran. He patrolled the tomb of the unknown soldier, was employed as a manufacturer with the Department of Defense and was a supervisor, in the Pentagon, when Flight 77 made contact with the building at 9:37 am on September 11th, 2001—not a few hundred meters from his office. He saved lives that day. He would retire soon after, being proclaimed a national hero.

He’s owned each and every home he’s lived in and now spends his days meditating on new additions to his South Carolina estate, which would see whomever is left with the deed—either my Mother or Uncle—able to claim land of greater value than when he finalized the acquisition. He is the American Dream, realized. But I often wonder at what cost.

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I’ve rarely seen him kiss my grandmother, embrace her, hold her hand. See, I know he loves her. I know he loves. He loves harder than any man I’ve known, but when I think of the deeply etched wrinkles molded about his face, I think of so many men—our elders—who gave their bodies to the promise of America only to be stripped bare of the erotic. Pleasure related to a type of emotional revelation seems to have been rarely experienced by Black men of his age. Men before him. Some, long gone. So many men denying the proper expressions of the flesh’s appetites.

It seems that to submit, be wrapped tightly underneath the Stars and Stripes of Old Glory, one must sacrifice something in their private life. A part of themselves which requires a type of physio-emotional vulnerability that to be considered a countryman, one must seemingly deny.  Let me be clear, this is no pontification on the sexual proclivities of my Grandfather, but this is an inquiry into what may have been, and still be, sacrificed to become a Patriot. To become American.

The 41st Engineers at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in color guard ceremony. (National Archives)

Sensitive Skin

The flesh of a Black man is a fragile thing to behold. Easily breakable, burnable, mutilatable and tearable. But the word which floats in such close proximity to the skin of Black men is the word “hard.” It’s a historically oxymoronic suggestion that a group of folks, once disproportionately targeted to be publicly lynched for sport, have somehow developed some type of racially-interspecial evolutionary protective trait. Less oxymoronic, and more careless. It suggests that somewhere, in time, that Black men in America were safe and able to harden. But we’re still easily huntable, especially by the State, and we die with a few less hostilities, on our own, when you account for salt being just as effective as a rope, bullet or ballot in erasing us.

Now, I know that when people qualify Black men as “hard” that they are speaking to some ingredient of our emotional existence. But the problem is that any social relationship with the emotional existence of Black male-ness begins at the body and is outstretched to bag up what’s left. We can begin at the estimations of value concerning how laborious a male body from the “Dark Continent” was and we can trace a line to the Tuskegee Experiment and end at Barack Obama’s political opponents remarking on his “ape-ish” features. No matter how you draw the map of our nomadic relationship to Empire, it begins and ends with our bodies as abusable, severable and consumable, and exclusively for gratingly trivial political purposes.

It’s one thing to bar someone from existence, if qualifying them as a laborious object, but once you validate their inclusion in the economical, political dealings of the State, you must reconcile the meanings of these bodies by which they interact with that very State. This never happened. The State continued to ring the bodies of Black men out like rag-dolls all the while treating Patriotism as a carrot on a stick. Something to achieve, in efforts to thwart State sanctioned violence, the cost undeclared.

The Price of the Ticket

When Isaac Woodard, in 1946, spoke of how Police Chief, Linwood Shull, used a nightstick against his eyes so profusely that his eyes were displaced from his skull, we learned very quickly Black men’s cost of seeking refuge in America’s bosom. Isaac Woodard was an honorably discharged Army veteran whose only crime, and the reason he was in the custody of Shull, was requesting a bus driver stop so he could use a restroom while en route to see his wife in Winnsboro, South Carolina. Woodard, a man who, given the brutalities of World War II, one could argue shouldn’t have made it to shore outside of a body bag, lent his body for this country only for the State to take from it what his foreign enemy could not. This was the cost.

For the Black men, much like Woodard, who expected what was due under the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the G.I. Bill, only to be denied just benefit for their service—this was the cost. For the veterans who served in The Great War, a generation earlier, who saw their families violently displaced, their deeds to property stolen, often sanctioned by local officials, before suffering the lows of the Great Depression, throughout the South and Midwest—this was the cost. For the Black Servicemen in Vietnam—the Bloods—who were forced to the front-lines to take the most oppressive violence of the North Vietnamese force, only to return to the boot heel of segregation—this was the cost.

I use these examples of Black military men in our history because the hope for many of these men was that, of the country, it will pay back what you paid up, for her. And not just of our veterans, but of all of our Fathers, Grandfathers and Great Grandfathers who sought the protections of Empire, which was already undoubtedly owed, but were left abandoned after having sacrificed that which some never did, and never will, have restored—the sovereignty of their bodies.

My Grandfather, a veteran, I do not argue is some victim of sorts, but one must think of how much of the flesh is given back when you pay it up for the flag.

At Benton Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1865. (Library of Congress/Liljenquist Family Collection)

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Letting the Flag Fall

I don’t mean to suggest that my Grandfather is a man absent the erotic, but I do mean to suggest that he deserves to explore the wells of sensations, apart from the toil related to being an Examplar Patriot. He deserves to discover how to properly express, without reservation, even the sensuousness of laughter. Release, apart from the sexual, but including even the sexual.

He, like so many of his age and older, deserve because their bodies were always meant for more than political puppeteering. Whether in War, on the picket line, laying track or in the field, so many of our elders were disemboweled of a part of their existence which requires a reprieve of acute political abuses to fully manifest. So many would pass along their closest association with the erotic, being in between someone’s legs and nothing more. They were worth more, their bodies worth more. So, of my Grandfather’s proximity to the erotic, I am unsure but I hope he knows he’s deserved of it, and its proper presentations.

Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.