Editor’s note: Jemar Tisby, PhD is the author of “The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism”. He is a professor of history at Simmons College in Kentucky and writes regularly at JemarTisby.Substack.com. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.
As a young man in the 1960s, my uncle joined the Air Force. Like so many before and since, flying delighted him. The ability to transcend our natural ground-bound state and soar among the clouds in a machine slicing through the air at hundreds of miles an hour captured his imagination.
But he never became a pilot. He never even had a chance. Not because of his abilities or abilities. Because of his skin color.
Even though there had been black pilots before such as the famous Tuskegee Airmen, becoming a black pilot in the Air Force at that time seemed about as realistic to my uncle as raising his arms like wings and hope to take off.
I never failed to notice that my uncle, a fun-loving guy who always had a joke on his tongue and a good time on his mind, talked about his military years with a hint of sadness – the kind of longing unresolved that only a denied dream can cause. He died in 2019 at the age of 72.
His discharge records, which my aunt read to me after his death, indicated that he had attained the rank of Airman 2nd Class and served as a “Vehicle Operator/Dispatcher.” There was a note that explained that the civilian equivalent of his position was “driver”.
My uncle’s story is disappointing, but shortly before he started his military service, there was a black man who broke the color line in the military like an airplane breaking the sound barrier. His name was Jesse L. Brown; he was the Navy’s first carrier aviator and fought in the Korean War. The Sony Pictures film, “Devotion”, which will be released on November 23, shows part of the story of his life.
Adapted from Adam Makos’ book of the same name, “Devotion” tells the true story of Brown – a little-known and underappreciated black pioneer, portrayed in the film by the increasingly ubiquitous and accomplished actor, Jonathan Majors. . It also features his relationship with his wingman, Tom Hudner, who is white and played by actor Glenn Powell.
Unlike many similar films, “Devotion” does not depict Brown’s long and arduous journey to becoming a pilot. When we meet him in the film, he has already realized his dream of becoming a naval aviator.
Yet “Devotion” shows the many indignities black soldiers faced, even after achieving elite pilot status. For black people, being a “first” is a feat, but getting in is often a gateway to even greater challenges.
In the film, Brown engages in a spooky ritual just before the many times he gets on a plane. Without going into detail and spoiling the film, Brown re-enacts the trauma of his racist experiences and in doing so strips them of their power to undermine his confidence in the cockpit. This practice also gives him the courage to deflect ongoing attacks on his identity with poise and serenity.
The film also depicts the sacrifices endured by Brown’s wife and young child. Every military family faces loneliness and anxiety when sending their family members to work. However, not all military families need to remind their loved ones that they have as much right to serve as any white man.
The intimate conversations between Brown and his wife, Daisy, reveal the hidden burdens of black military families. Along with facing the constant possibility of her husband being killed in the line of duty, Daisy strengthens her partner’s resolve to remain calm amid the hostile white noise of racism. These are the battles that black soldiers and their families have fought on the home front even when the bullets weren’t flying.
The film also focuses on the friendship that developed between Brown and his wingman, Hudner. The two could hardly have been more different – Brown, born into a poor family of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, and Hudner, raised in a three-story Victorian home in New England. At the time the two men met in the Air Force, both were pilots, but their experiences in the military would never be equal.
As the two get to know each other, Hudner tries and fails and tries again to be a loyal wingman. Through a firm but calm example, Brown shows his well-meaning but naïve winger that black people don’t need a savior, they need solidarity.
I couldn’t stop thinking about my uncle while watching “Devotion”. The ambitions, limitations and timing of this film are remarkable, as the indispensable service of black soldiers is a subject that receives attention beyond the big screen. “Devotion” hits theaters shortly after the release of a groundbreaking book about black experiences in the military. Historian Matthew Delmont wrote “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad” to highlight “the unsung contributions of black troops”.
In both the film and the book, black people serve or attempt to serve their country and risk their lives to support American ideals abroad while being denied those ideals at home. Black soldiers in World War II had to engage in a Double-V campaign – “victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home”.
One of the stories Delmont tells in his book focuses on the 94th Engineer Battalion, an all-black force sent to rural Arkansas for training maneuvers. As the 200 men attempted to find recreation in nearby towns, repeated conflicts sparked by white racists led military leaders to order black troops to camp farther from town.
While hiking to their new campsite, a downpour started. Delmont recounts how, guns drawn, the local white police ordered the black soldiers off the road and into the ditch beside it. The soldiers had to complete their march towards segregation in “muddy water up to their knees”.
The particular instances of racism that black soldiers faced only punctuated the long sentence of racism that lingered in their daily lives in the military. Black soldiers were generally relegated to non-combat roles, particularly in the kitchen as mess men and as common laborers in a variety of physically demanding and undesirable jobs.
Henry Stimson, Secretary of War during World War II, said confidently: “Leadership is not yet entrenched in the black race and trying to make officers commissioned to lead men into battle – colored men – is a disaster for both.”
Thinking of my uncle, Jesse Brown and the soldiers of the 94th Battalion, I am struck not by the various military conflicts in which they were engaged but by what connects their experiences. They were all veterans of the relentless fight for dignity that black people face in a nation that values them for their work but not for their humanity.
“Devotion” and “Half American” are crucial offerings at this time in our history. The work of storytellers and historians reflects the fact that the exclusion of stories like that of Brown and countless other black troupes implicitly defines who counts as a true patriot.
Conventional historical records tend to value a kind of Captain America image of devotion to the nation – a vigorous white man whose military service is not only valued but heralded.
Where does that leave the black soldier? Where is the place for people like Brown, who fought racism every day of his military service and sacrificed everything for his country?
What is the place of black soldiers in World War II whose home uniforms did not make them heroes but made them targets for racial terrorism?
What is the place for people like my uncle who wanted to serve their country and live their pilot dreams, before being fired because of their race?
Despite his disappointment with the military, my uncle still served four years faithfully. I don’t know if my uncle ever knew Brown’s story, but if he did, I hope the pilot inspired him to hold the line in the war for black dignity.
As we again see signs of American-style fascism in politics, education and other sectors, the elusive victory over racism at home takes on renewed urgency.
True patriotism is not unconditional devotion to one’s country. True patriotism demonstrates devotion by relentlessly demanding that one’s country live up to its stated ideals. In this sense, black soldiers have been among the most dedicated, if unrecognized, patriots this nation has ever seen.