Tuesday, April 11, 2017
April 11, 2017: Aviation Histories: The Tuskegee Airmen
[April 16th marks the 150th anniversary of aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of key moments and figures in aviation history, leading up to a weekend post on the Wright Brothers themselves!]
Why we need to continue working to remember a particularly impressive group of American aviators.
I don’t see many movies in theaters these days (something about the two blockbuster action films of mine that take up most of my free time, and with whom I do tend to see any theatrical releases I get to), and so I’m not usually very invested in which ones do well and which don’t. Moreover, my general fan boy frustration with George Lucas over his increasingly mercenary endeavors with the Star Wars franchise, one of this AmericanStudier’s foundational childhood texts, during the final years of his ownership of that film property before the sale to Disney made me even less likely to root very hard for a Lucas film to succeed. Yet despite those factors, I’ll freely admit that I was hoping for much bigger box office performance and buzz for Lucas’s most recent movie, 2012’s Red Tails, a historical action film based on the lives and World War II experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen.
It’s important to note, as that hyperlinked Tuskegee Airmen website does in its opening description, that African American soldiers have been a part of every U.S. military effort; since Harry Truman desegregated the army after World War II, in 1948, it’s fair to say that the Tuskegee Airmen were thus in one sense not pioneering but rather culminating, the final impressive African American service in the face of a segregated and circumscribed military role. But in other important ways the Airmen did represent a significant step forward: created as a result of extended pressure and work by African American civil rights and media organizations and allies, the squadron performed prominently and heroically, contributing directly to the changed climate that made Truman’s actions possible at all. In many crucial senses, then, the Airmen’s legacy is overt and indisputable, whether our national narratives or histories do full justice to their efforts and impacts or not.
Yet as anyone who has read this blog for more than a couple minutes knows, I think more full and accurate national narratives and histories are pretty important too. Partly that’s just because the Airmen deserve to be better remembered, to have their contributions recognized for the amazingly meaningful American histories and stories they were and are. Partly it’s because our national narratives about African Americans still tend to break down into either victims (of slavery, of Jim Crow, of racism in general, and so on) or threats (too many contemporary narratives to cite, but here’s one good example), and the Airmen provide a welcome alternative to either role. And partly it’s because they offer all of us a rare and crucial combination: the opportunity to remember with more accuracy and complexity some of our more painful American histories, and at the same time to be inspired by the best of what America has been and can be. Lucas may have stated that second point most clearly when he said that young black kids “have a right to have their history … made corny and wonderful just like anybody else does.” Word, George.
Unfortunately Red Tails didn’t do as well as it should have (yet—it can and hopefully will have an extended post-theatrical afterlife), so that important American work continues. Next aviation history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories you’d highlight?