The Persistence of Old Models / Old Beliefs

by Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                      Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, I had the good fortune to sit down with, break bread with, and drink good wine a couple of times with award-winning playwright, Black Theatre expert, and educator Paul Carter Harrison.  I have to thank fellow scholar R. Candy Tate for turning what was supposed to be our first meeting (to trade academic notes and talk shop) into a meeting where we added yet another spirited scholar to the mix.  This was one of those rare opportunities we graduate students receive where we can converse with someone who is, arguably, one of the first artists to seriously study Black Theatre and create a scholarly canon that tells us what Black Theatre is and what it is not.

However, I deliberately did not ask Paul about his many books (The Drama of Nommo or Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora).  Among the many things we discussed was his frustration and anger about what he considered to be some younger playwrights, actors, and directors’ pandering to the tastes of White audiences; and an unfortunate dumbing-down of theatre, television and film in an effort to appeal to audiences of all races for the sole benefit of entertainment just for entertainment’s sake.  He was not ambiguous at all; he was livid.  He saw a disturbing trend where some Black performers decided to cater to what White producers and audiences—even well-meaning White folks—wanted them to appear to be on stage.  No more martyred Black folks, he said.  Exactly how many times must everything WE do be a response to some other group of people?  Exactly how many times must we be characterized as long-suffering and stoic or, for that matter, be the super baadaass Black man who always manages to rush in and save the day?  He made his point.

He saw this pandering as something that, while it might be quite commercially satisfying,  stifled Black creativity and stunted artistic risk-taking while it simultaneously applauded and rewarded the mundane, the ordinary.  He noted that this lack of vision, this lack of adventurousness, would eventually cause a lot of artists to hit a commercial brick wall.  He did not bite his tongue about the fact that certain Black stereotypes and certain Black archetypes had become the norm in film, on TV, and on the stage.  While Paul is a part of my larger ongoing research, which will not be discussed here, he did make me think about not only why artistic and scholarly risk-taking is necessary for growth, but also why stereotypes are particularly dangerous.

After our two marathon conversations, I thought about how people on both sides of the political and racial aisle, so to speak, hold onto and cling to certain images and ideas about Black people.  I have to honestly wonder whether, WE Black folks have any real friends who actually know US; that is, friends outside of our own racial/ethnic group.  I am not kidding; I mean this.  Aside from the racist who assumes that at any given moment I will be spitting out watermelon seeds or that I have bred babies like rabbits, there are also those White folks that go to other extremes.  They are so hell bent on proving that they are not racist that they see beauty and goodness in everything and everybody that is Black—and that is a fallacy as well.  Blackness and Black people become a fetish.  One of the first things that makes us, Black folks, human is our ability to be great or weak, right or wrong, smart or dumb, honest or dishonest.  Any belief, sentiment, or romanticism that strips us of the full range of human expression denies us our humanity, no matter how flattering those beliefs and sentiments might be.  It is dangerous to hold onto those kinds of extremes and expectations.

Only a few days after my meeting and hanging out with Paul, one of my History students, a young White male, told me about this funny video he saw.  According to this student, someone filmed security personnel in a department store.  In the video, all of the security personnel were following all the Black customers assuming that the Black customers would be the customers who would shoplift.  However, while security was following all the Black customers, White shoplifters were stealing everything they could get their hands on.  Both my student and I laughed, but the humor quickly faded when we began to consider what really happens when someone makes assumptions based solely and purely on race, or I should say, on racism.  Now, anyone with half a brain knows that people of all races and ethnicities steal for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, this video—that I have never seen, by the way—said something else about misconceptions based solely on race.

When people buy into any stereotype it does something more than degrade and devalue the victim of the stereotype, it tells everyone else exactly who they need to victimize or who they need to “not look like” or “not behave like” in order to get away with whatever they are attempting to get away with.  I am not going to say anything about Trayvon Martin, this time.  However, for all of those frightened and paranoid White folks (and Black folks) who live in gated communities in Florida and elsewhere, I have only one thing to say:  Beware of respectable looking young White males who may be walking through your neighborhoods.

While I am sure most of these young White men will not be planning to commit any crime or do anyone any harm, one of them might have decided that since he did not look a certain way that he could get away with certain things.  When you buy into and believe those old models and old beliefs, eventually, someone figures out that all they have to do is make sure they do not fit the model.  After that, they can get away with anything!  And for those folks who might be feeling guilty for believing the worst stereotypes about Black people,  the last thing you need to do is stop for some poor Black guy on the side of the road at midnight, just to prove a point.

The majority of us Black people work hard, pay our bills, take care of our homes and lawns, and never ever hurt anyone, but that does not mean that all Black people are saints.  If we could just let these old models and old beliefs go, we could proceed in this world based just on facts rather than assumptions.  Now, I have a Black elder statesman of Theatre and a young White male student to thank for raising the level of the discussion.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

Soldiers, Scholars, and “Black Redtail Angels” in Southwest Atlanta

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre & Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student                                               Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

“White American bomber crews reverently referred to them as “The Black Redtail Angels” because of the identifying red paint on their tail assemblies and because of their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters as they provided fighter escort to bombing missions over strategic targets in Europe.” –Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Dryden (1920-2008) from A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman

Back in early December 2011, I received an email from a cousin that contained a trailer from the movie Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen directed by Anthony Hamilton, produced and largely funded by George Lucas.  Not long after I received the email with the trailer, I was thinking about my one and only meeting with the late Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. “Chuck” Dryden.

I had called Dryden when I briefly served as an intern for a World War II Oral History project.  When I called him, he looked at his Caller ID and determined that I was calling from a phone in Southwest Atlanta.  He told me to hang up the phone and come on over.  With no hesitation, I drove to his home, which was about six minutes from my own.

Dryden was a decorated Tuskegee Airman, and one of many Tuskegee Airmen that lived in Atlanta, which is home to more Tuskegee Airmen than any other city in the nation.  A member of the famous 99th Pursuit Squadron, and later the 332nd Fighter Group, it was Dryden who led a group of six Black fighter pilots in aerial combat in Italy in 1943—This was the first time in aviation history that Black pilots in the U. S. Army Air Corps engaged an enemy in aerial combat.

I spent an afternoon at his home in Southwest Atlanta back in the summer of 2007 where he told me how he had to be perfect as a fighter pilot if we were going to stop Hitler’s Third Reich and if he and others were going to prove that Black men made excellent fighter pilots.

That afternoon I learned that he was much, much more than a fighter pilot.  I had owned his memoir A Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman for years, but at that time, I had not yet had an opportunity to read it in its entirety.  However, from what I had read and from my conversation with him, it was apparent that he was very much a scholar.

We discussed history, politics, art, World War II, U. S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the upcoming “Democratic Presidential nomination” of Barack Obama, and of all things: my Master’s thesis.  He insisted that I tell him more about my research on the White politicians that made up the Georgia Know-Nothing Party, a group that did not want Georgia to secede from the Union as the South reeled from the election of Abraham Lincoln.

I should add that we also talked some mess!  I noticed a picture of Dryden and his beautiful and brilliant wife Marymal Dryden.  She was not there when I visited, but I remember reading one of her essays.  The handsome couple stood there in the photo with the Arizona sunset as their background.

“You remember that scene in the movie Waiting to Exhale where Angela Bassett burns up all of her ex-husband’s stuff in the car,” he asked.  “Yeah,” I answered.  “Well, we are standing right there in that same spot where she burned up everything.”  We both burst into laughter.

He could not stand upright, as he had been afflicted with a severe stroke.  Yet, his mind was razor sharp.  He thought U. S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was dangerous.  Moreover, of more than a dozen WWII vets that I spoke with, ALL of them thought this way.  In less than a year after my wonderful visit, Lt. Col. Dryden passed on to the ancestors.

Not long after his death, a young woman in one of my history classes informed me that she would be attending the United States Air Force Academy.  In one of our conversations where we talked about everything from the fact that the Air Force had fewer Blacks than any other part of the armed services, she told me that she met Lt. Col. Dryden before his death.

When I asked her about their conversation, she looked me straight in the eye and said that Dryden’s face lit up when she introduced herself and told him she was planning to go the United States Air Force Academy.

He told her, “When you get to the Air Force Academy, you give THEM HELL!”  We both laughed because we knew what he meant, and we offered no apologies for his pointed audacity-filled instructions to her to kick some you-know-what at the Air Force Academy.

Nearly four generations her senior, Dryden let this young sister know that his expectations of her were high.  He also knew that his vote of confidence in her abilities would buttress her against any doubts she might develop should she encounter those individuals who thought the United States Air Force had no need of Black female officers and pilots.  Like every other Tuskegee Airman I know of, Dryden never lost his swagger, his sense of possibility.  Like many other men and women of his era, he expected much from himself and from all of us who were born after him.

Dryden and my parents were contemporaries.  I am a late born child—my mom turns 91 years young this year.  If my father were living, he would be turning the age of 92.  The men and women of Dryden and my parents’ era not only lived long enough to see the world change, but they were largely responsible for changing it.

Folks my age and younger often complain about what needs to be done to create racial and economic justice.  Many of us have been vocal critics of our elders, and often our analyses of what did or did not work in the past have been correct.  However, if there is any lesson to learn from the “Black Redtail Angels,” and our elders from the World War II era and beyond is their dedication to education and their examples of extreme sacrifice.

These men and women—Black and White— those in the military and those keeping the home front, were in their twenties when Adolph Hitler threatened to destroy any semblance of racial or ethnic equality in Europe and elsewhere.  I shudder to think of how different the world might have been had he and his minions been successful.

We often forget that the Third Reich did not just target Jews for extermination.  It exterminated and planned the extermination of Poles, and all Slavic peoples, persons with mental and physical disabilities, Gays and Lesbians, and yes, Afro-Germans.

We owe folks like Lt. Col. Dryden and Lt. Col. Hap Chandler, a White fighter pilot from Toccoa, Georgia.  Not long after I met Chandler, I learned that he had shown up at a meeting of Georgia’s Tuskegee Airmen to thank them for keeping him alive and to apologize for the awful way that “members of my race treated you.”

Chandler also had that same swagger, intellectualism, and expectation that I noticed about Dryden.  In the late 1940s, he also belonged to that small but growing number of White veterans who had to reassess their erroneous beliefs about alleged “Black inferiority” that remained endemic to every aspect of American life and was the very basis of the social and economic order of the American South.  I should add that Chandler was cool.  He drove a Jaguar and arrived for his interview wearing a suit and tie and holding hands with his seventy-year-old girlfriend.

The Tuskegee Airmen, and other Black World War II veterans came back home to the United States and demanded equality from a country that denied them the very thing they had fought for abroad.  The modern-day Civil Rights movement began with the efforts and work of all of these men and women.

They went to college (or back to college) in record numbers under the G. I. Bill.  They sought advanced degrees, pursued well-paying skilled jobs in new industries, started businesses, and swelled the numbers of the Black middle class so that you and I could do much of what we are able to do now.  They bought homes and sent kids to college.

They registered and voted in every election.  They marched with and sometimes paid to get civil rights activists, students and radicals out of jail.  They set examples for us to follow and repeat, and made some mistakes for us to study and avoid, but they never stopped moving and searching for new ways to create a more just and equitable nation for their children and grandchildren.

They did all of these things without computers, cable television, the Internet, email, blogs, social media or cell phones.  We should do no less.  Peace.

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.