May 12, 2016

On the Raised-Fist Photo by Black Women Cadets at West Point

Black female West Point cadets raise their fists in a recent photo.

The most interesting thing about the black female West Point cadets who raised their fists in a recent photo were all the words used to explain it. (The photo was based on and mimics that famous image known as the “Old Corps” photograph.) On the one hand, several in the NY Times article equated the gesture with Black Lives Matter. A West Point graduate and mentor to many of the woman in the photo swung the opposite way.

(O)thers who have spoken with the cadets said that evoking Black Lives Matter was not their intention, and that the raised fist that was once a sign of militant uprising is now often a pop culture symbol of strength and pride that has been hoisted in such mundane settings as this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

“These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé,” said (the mentor).

If all culture seems to disintegrate into pop culture, I actually do think the mentor got it exactly right when she added:

For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood. That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country.

That is, become one of the 1.7% black, female cadets out of the West Point graduating class.

The reason photographs are so powerful is because they function like radar, or like antennae. The fact is, this photo channels the culture of uprising and black activism just as much as it does unity, pride, sisterhood … or Beyoncé. That’s because the photo, beyond whatever the specific motive was, is a mirror of the times.

With that in mind, it’s hard to overestimate how hard the military is working to stay in step without undermining its own culture. Which is why I wasn’t surprised at how, and how fast the military review of the photo came down. (FYI, the expression of “unity” and “pride” won out, or put another way, the showcasing of the women’s “awesomeness.”)

By not taking any action against the black woman cadets, the military acknowledged the complexity and the interplay of contemporary forces. Still, that the General in question equated the gesture in the photo above to raised fists at a football pep rally (the Army-Navy game, no less) was indeed a nonsense rationale. To the extent that the military understands that racial and identity politics is that close to the surface these days, especially when it comes to the tiny number of black female cadets in this overwhelming white man’s world, perhaps the policy ultimately governing black female cadets and empowerment these days is actually: “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

(photo: via AP. Cadets set to graduate from West Point ignited a recent debate when they raised their fists in this photograph. They will not be punished, the   academy announced on Tuesday.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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