If pictures are worth 1,000 words, the same must be said for symbols. But the words that people see in them can greatly vary depending on the lens they use.
For many, the Confederate flag is looked upon as a visual ode to a time no one living today even saw, yet many idolize it with a sense of nostalgia. On the other hand, a lot of people can’t ignore the centuries of slavery and racism that raised the flag in the first place. While this juxtaposition isn’t surprising, it can often be divisive like many other symbols that touch on racial identity and history.
For example, this year’s graduating class from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point holds more than 900 cadets, according to CNN. 18 of them are black women. 16 of those same black women got together for a group photo that’s bringing out vastly different reactions from the public and military alike.
The cadets’ photo was taken to honor a long-standing West Point tradition where graduates dress in their formal attire and strike poses in front of Nininger Hall that resemble those of their predecessors more than 200 years ago. While the cadets in question took multiple shots, the one that’s gotten the most circulation shows them holding their fists in the air and looking on tot he camera with stoic faces.
After the photo was passed on to a blogger by the name of John Burk, he published a piece and called it “completely unprofessional” and criticized the cadets for doing so while in uniform. The women are now reportedly under investigation for “political expression.”
“This overt display of the black lives matter movement is not, in itself wrong, but to do so while in uniform is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the USMA stands for…” wrote Burk.
I’m not a member of the military and all of my connections to it are at least two degrees of separation away. So this isn’t an attempt at telling them how to do their jobs. But this is an attempt to clear the air and explain things that somehow got overlooked up until now.
First of all, to Burk and anyone else who has a problem with this photo, let’s have a conversation about what counts as “political expression.” Self-pride is not always political expression. Acknowledging one’s own blackness is not always political expression. Even yelling “I’m black and I’m proud!” from the rooftops is not always political expression. It may make some people uncomfortable. But there’s not always a political agenda behind it.
Do you know why? Because – say it with me – black people are not a monolith. We come with a variety of beliefs, opinions and thoughts all our own as individuals. To assume that my acknowledgement of my own black pride is the same as saying “I’m black and I think [insert political message here]” is inaccurate.
Hell, for all we know, the women in this picture could represent four different political parties and the one thing they agree on is black solidarity. What political message could you find there? And, contrary to what many seem to believe, a black fist in the air is not automatically an attack on anyone else for being different.
Secondly, Black Lives Matter isn’t interchangeable with every act of black solidarity. It’s actually a separate organization and not just an umbrella term that you can throw out to lump all black social expression together into one neat place. If placing these cadets under that imaginary umbrella is the only way to hold on to the argument that they’re being political, that option may no longer be on the table.
There’s also a picture circulating of members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. posing in front of what appears to be the same building while proudly representing their organization. Would someone also deem that as unprofessional and a political message? It seems like it would require an equally large leap in judgement to do so.
Let’s keep in mind that this is a photo. It’s not a video with the cadets chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and it doesn’t even have a caption to suggest that they would be. They’re raising their fists. A lack of knowledge behind what this action truly means in its purest form can lead one down a troublesome path of inappropriate accusations and incorrect assumptions.
Lastly, while it may be against protocol, if black members of the military did decide to come together and publicly say “Black Lives Matter,” punishing them for it would basically be a confirmation that the military doesn’t agree. Can anyone else say media nightmare?
At the end of the day, I do understand why the military can’t support “political expression” among its ranks. Differing opinions in a system that’s designed to assimilate the individual for an ultimate cause can’t have its members debating over the latest election and building tension from within. But this isn’t that. Everyone knows that these women are black from the moment they see them. Now they also know that they’re proud to be.