Activism

Here's Why the West Point Cadets Raising Black Power Fists Aren't Offensive

History is your friend. Don't revise it.

This article was originally published at Revelist.

The internet's in a tizzy after a viral photo of Black female cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, hit social media. Sixteen graduating seniors are posing in ceremonial garb for the "Old Corps" photograph, which is a long-held West Point tradition, according to the Military Times. 

However, these bold cadets took it a step further than snapping photos in military regalia: Their arms are extended and their hands are clenched to convey the traditional Black Power fist.

Immediately, the women were bombarded with criticism for seemingly dishonoring a military tradition. Popular blogger John Burk drew attention to the photo in a viral blog post.

"This overt display of the Black Lives Matter movement is not, in itself wrong, but to do so while in uniform is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the USMA stands for," he wrote.

Burk also accused the women of violating the Department of Defense's military code, which according to the Military Times "provides a list of political do's and don’ts for service members and cautions against 'partisan political activity' when in uniform." He even compared the Black Power symbol to the nazi salute in an email to the New York Times.

"No one dares speak up in public against them due to being accused of being racist," Burk said. "What happens when... cadets identify with a group that has been known for inflicting violent protest throughout various parts of the United States, calling for the deaths of police officers, and even going as for to call for the deaths of white Americans."

The military and school are currently investigating the photo, according to West Point's director of public affairs.

"We can confirm that the cadets in this photo are members of the U.S. Military Academy's Class of 2016," Lieutenant colonel Christopher Kasker said in a statement to the Military Times. "Academy officials are conducting an inquiry into the matter."

Here's what makes all of the hysteria seem idiotic: The cadets took the official photo as instructed.

Furthermore, the Black Power fist is—more than anything—a sign of unity, resilience, and resistance. It is not associated with a singular group, though it has been historically connected to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Lives Matter Movement has continued the work of Black freedom, so of course, they also employ the Black Power fist. Even Beyoncé recognizes that this symbol is just that: a symbol. It is representative of the work toward Black liberation.

This is remarkably different than the nazi sign, which was a symbol of destruction. It wasn't about liberating an oppressed people. The symbol pledged allegiance to hatred and the extermination of groups of people. 

History tells us this: White power has historically been about purifying a race of people and oppressing others. Burning crosses on lawnsredistricting communities, and re-segregating schools in the name of a race's power is different than empowering and uplifting a marginalized group. 

In 1968, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged a protest at the summer games in Mexico City that also included the Black Power fist. 

Smith said in the HBO's 2014 documentary "Fists of Freedom" that he and Smith wanted to draw attention to America's ills.

“We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” Smith said. "I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it."

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

Others, including West Point officials and alum, have rallied to support the cadets.

Brenda Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point grad, told the Military Times that these students love West Point and the Army, and the photo is only divisive because of America's racial misremembering.

"I would not have re-tweeted the raised-fist photo because I am well aware that our culture views a black fist very differently from a white fist," she said. "I knew it was their expression of pride and unity, but I am old enough to know that it would be interpreted negatively by many white observers. Unfortunately, in their youth and exuberance, it appears they didn’t stop to think that it might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph."

Or maybe they did. 

Wanting equality is not hatred. Seeking freedom is not separatist. These cadets seemingly understand that. Why can't we all?

Update from AlterNet: West Point announced Tuesday it would not punish the cadets for the photo. 

Evette Dionne is a writer, editor and scholar. She is the senior news and identity editor at Revelist. Follow her on Twitter @freeblackgirl.

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