It was a grave day in history. United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Barnard Kemter began explaining the legendary origins of Memorial Day when his microphone was abruptly muted by a white supremacist organizer. The audience never got to hear him speak about the brave people who gave their lives to ensure that their children would never live a life in chains. They never got to learn that Memorial Day is a tradition pioneered by 10,000 Black Americans in Charleston, SC to honor the sacrifices of Black soldiers who quite literally fought for our freedom in the Civil War. Black History was censored by the Hudson American Legion, in real-time, in front of a large crowd. This day in history is not a page from the chapter of the 1960s. This was Memorial Day 2021 (May 31st).
This new marker of antiBlack audacity comes at the heels of the groundbreaking series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, where two fictional yet iconic Black veterans are finally highlighted on-screen after decades of being an essential piece to the Marvel Universe. The nuances of Sam Wilson carrying on Steve Roger’s legacy are important. Steve Rogers will always be the personification of what it means to be American. This is due to his phenotype as much as it is to his character. Wilson and Rogers essentially have the same values and very similar experiences, but Wilson was cognizant of the potential backlash he would face as a Black man in red, white, and blue.
In fact, the entire show was ridiculed for its socio-political underpinnings. The incorporation of Isaiah Bradley, the original Captain America, was “controversial” in itself. Never mind the comic book origins and lore, Bradley’s existence is a threat to the American way. Some viewers argued that the show was too explicit and overzealous in its display of racism in America. Sam and his sister, Sarah, struggled through financial discrimination in the aftermath of the blip. Added elements of government experimentation on Bradley (and numerous other Black soldiers) seemed to upset fans even more. Imagine Black people being used as sacrifices for the advancement of “Western” medicine and technology (surprise!). Any Black American, and especially Black veterans, will tell you this storyline is far closer to reality than many want to admit. The syphilis experiment at the Tuskegee Institute is perhaps the most infamous case of non-consensual experimentation on Black veterans (and Black people as a whole). Historic discrimination and disenfranchisement facilitated by the American Medical Association, and other organizations across the globe, have yielded a great deal of distrust between Black Americans and the institution of Western medicine.
Isaiah Bradley has a point when he says, “No self-respecting Black man would be Captain America”. The United States and the world over has, by-and-large, been unkind to Black people. Muhammad Ali was sentenced to 5-years in prison because he refused to go to war for a country at war with his own people. This rejection of the American lie by both Ali and Bradley serves as beacons of hope and heroism for many Black Americans and beyond.
For the liberation of our people…
It’s no coincidence that the Black people of Charleston, South Carolina pioneered the Memorial Day tradition on May 1, 1865. Two years prior, THE Harriet Tubman was appointed to lead the Massachusetts 54th Infantry in the Combahee River Raid. She, along with 150 Black Union soldiers, successfully dismantled Confederate strongholds in Beaufort, South Carolina. In the process of which, liberated no less than 700 enslaved people in a single night. Tubman was known by many as “Moses” or a “conductor of the Underground Railroad ”, but she is rarely celebrated as a military strategist. Harriet Tubman was the first woman, of any race, to lead a United States military operative. Yet this knowledge is largely unknown in mainstream America. The question we should always ask ourselves is “Why?”.
Our heroes are more than martyrs. They are more than renegades. They are brilliant leaders with the awareness and foresight of a better future. They change the course of history in favor of our people, and subsequently for all people on the margins of society. They didn’t do it for money or fame (but they still deserve it, let’s not get it twisted). One thing Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Isaiah Bradley, and Sam Wilson all have in common is a deep-seated love for self and the Black community. The liberation and equity of marginalized communities are always their priority. Even in Bradley’s resentment, he admitted that his motive was always to serve his country. It was nice to see Wilson ensure Bradley’s service was recognized. May we continue to do the same for Mother Harriet, the Black veterans who inspired Memorial Day, and our real-life heroes around the world. We have them, and their influence, to thank for our progress as a people.
Harriet Tubman & The Combahee River Raid
USPHS Tuskegee Syphilis Study
Veteran’s mic cut when he speaks of Black people’s role in Memorial Day creation