Reflections on the US Black History Month 2023
This Black History Month, SHL’s Maggie Baldwin reflects on the journey of the Black community in the US and what we can learn from their history.
My grandfather passed away a decade before I was born, and most of what I know of him related to his time spent in one of three all-Black battalions fighting in WWII. Pieced together from memories passed down, battlefield souvenirs, and medals of honor, his story always played out in my mind like a blockbuster film. I accepted his service in Europe without thinking much about what it meant in relation to his reality back home in the U.S., where racism and discrimination remained embedded into the laws and culture. In recent years I’ve taken a closer look, discovering a new dimension to his story–the role the “Double V” Campaign played in inspiring him and his peers to join the fight. Popularized by the Black-run Pittsburgh Courier in 1942, the Double V Campaign began like so many other historical movements - with the action of a single concerned citizen.
As the U.S. became embroiled in combat overseas, the government created a slogan to boost morale and inspire patriotism at home. Along with the rest of the country, James G. Thompson watched as “V for Victory” slogan appeared everywhere, calling for an end to tyranny and hate overseas. A Black man from Kansas, Thompson worked at a factory manufacturing defense aircraft. Due to segregation laws, he was prohibited from stepping foot on the factory floors, limiting his job to working in the cafeteria. Elsewhere in the country, the American Red Cross was refusing blood donations from Black people, citing the supposed inferiority of African DNA.
Frustrated by the hypocrisy of the government’s PR campaign, Thompson sent a letter to the Courier titled “Should I Sacrifice to live ‘Half American’”- laying out the inconsistencies between the nation’s fight for equality abroad and the second-class treatment of African Americans at home. He proposed a “double V for Victory” call to action instead: victory over the Axis of Evil and the institutional evils in the U.S. The Courier took the message further, publishing imagery of a “Double V” logo and adding the slogan “Democracy at Home-Abroad.”
The messaging was quickly embraced by the Black community, especially the hundreds of thousands who had enlisted in war intending to see combat but instead put in servant roles. Despite feelings of alienation, many still saw the promise of prosperity hinted at by the American Dream and were ready to die to prove they were just as human (and valuable) as white Americans. My grandfather was one of the many. He survived the war but barely lived to see racial equality begin taking root within our legal system, much less our culture.
Despite feelings of alienation, many still saw the promise of prosperity hinted at by the American Dream and were ready to die to prove they were just as human (and valuable) as white Americans.
What we can learn in this Black History Month 2023
One of the beautiful things about Black History Month is that it invites us to take a closer look at the past. In doing so, we uncover footnotes that add depth to the stories we thought we knew by heart and a more nuanced perspective on present-day events. I cannot help but contrast this part of my grandfather’s history with our modern-day experiences and the scrutiny today’s activists receive for marching or kneeling. How many people still fight for the same principles their parents and grandparents struggled for?
History is so recent; for many, it is not even history but their lived experience. We take for granted how slowly progress comes and how much pain we ask fellow humans to endure before we see them as such. Whatever the method, fighting for something greater than yourself takes courage, and I cannot think of anything more patriotic than that. So let’s celebrate this Black History Month with understanding, empathy, and respect for the Black community.
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