Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Questions of Racial Formation and Military Service: Doctor William Thomas Jr., Black Montford Point Marine, Receives a Congressional Gold Medal for His Service from a Young Marine of Color

I began our conversation about race, citizenship, and military service last week on Veterans day and continued it in this post. Here, I continue forward with that theme.

The United States Navy and Marines were extremely racist against black Americans. Yet, there were brave men who wanted to be in those branches of the military, and especially for the latter, count themselves among the United States' most elite soldiers and shock troops.

Doctor William Thomas Jr. is a double trailblazer. During World War Two, he was a Montford Point Marine. He was also a doctor and pathologist here in Chicago. Doctor Thomas fought the war for black uplift and progress both on the battlefield and at home. He deeply understood the many fronts of the Black Freedom Struggle.

Doctor William Thomas Jr. is a very smart man. He quite literally embodies the Wold War 2 era "Double V" campaign slogan for freedom at home and abroad.

If military service is a way of advancing citizenship in the context of racial formation, the visual of Doctor Thomas being awarded with the Congressional Gold Medal of Freedom for his military service, decades later by the very institution that discriminated against him in his youth, resonates with great power.

The narrative is amazing: you are a Marine, marginalized in that role by the establishment because of your color, but serve to the Corps' highest standards, come back to a country that Jim and Jane Crows you, and yet you still have the patience and generosity of spirit to accept an apology from the same organization which treated you so badly.

Those men and women who suffered so much under American Apartheid, and who somehow maintained their patience and courage possess a strength of character, which I, a person born many decades after them, still cannot fully comprehend.

One of the great challenges of the Black and Brown Freedom Struggles is that the children of their fight for liberty have been made so comfortable as to not want to reflect on the very recent history, law, and day-to-day practices that deemed black and brown folks a second class people (as viewed by the White Gaze) with no rights that a white person is bound to respect.

Our elders who fought and bled and died in the Civil Rights Movement were so successful that many of their heirs are now spoiled into a state of historical myopia and amnesia.

What do you think of the racial optics of Doctor William Thomas Jr.'s award ceremony? An older black man, one now considered an honored Montford Point Marine by the Corps, and subsequent recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, is given the latter by a young Marine of color, while the two other Marines, both white, stand peripheral to the ceremony.

I smile because I love America's ability to reinvent itself; we are a young country which can make up, reorient, and correct ourselves as need be. We are also great ourselves. This can be a wonderful trait. It can also be a horrible liability.


Learning is Eternal said...

I will never understand how any of our elders, from that generation especially, could fight for a country that would never fight for them or acknowledge them as humans yet, I don't view these soldiers as sellouts or toms. I know regardless of our treatment here in Amurr'klan military service targets black & brown youth for enlistment which isn't a hard sell when your broke and ain't seen nothing past your block/gravel road.

I still commend this brother for being academically inclined, making a decent living, living a life w/purpose outside the military.

CDV, the remark 'bout the heirs being spoiled... Is truth like the affects of gravity or O2 being essential to life.

chauncey devega said...

It is a puzzle which is why I introduce such a complicated and uncomfortable question. They sacrificed so much. I can't imagine the calculus they had to make.

The Sanity Inspector said...

My guess is that there was little "calculus" per se. In one doco on World War II that I saw, a former Russian partisan fighter was asked why she risked so much fighting the Nazis, after all the Soviet regime had done to her & her family. She just spread her hands and said, "It was the only home we had."

Shirley Hicks said...

Thank you for this story.