By Mikel Kwaku Osi Holt
I fully acknowledge having an ulterior motive when I wear one of my “Vietnam veteran” ball caps when I venture into “certain” communities outside the central city. And patriotism is generally not the primary reason, other than on Veteran’s Day. Until my “marriage” to the VA hospital last year, I would generally only wear one of my ball caps as a cushion against racial profiling. Sometimes I wear it to prick the conscience of those who benefit from my and other veterans’ service. And to be honest, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that I learned to appreciate the brownie points we Vietnam vets received over the last decade primarily because of the sacrifices of veterans who have served
If those overlapping perks sound a little confusing to you, let me clarify. My cane, walker and gray hair give me an advantage over most Black folks when I travel through suburbs with reputations for racial profiling, by police, store clerks and prejudiced or unjustifiably fearful White folks. My gray implies I’m older and thus more responsible or less criminally inclined (in case you haven’t heard, all Black males—including seven foot tall millionaire basketball players, Black boys over three, and
teenagers who sing in the choir but forgot their belts on a particular day—are guilty until proven innocent.
The cane and/or walker garner some sympathy, particularly since just about everyone, if they live long enough, will find themselves with a handicap sticker hanging from their car mirror. As teenagers and young adults, we may think ourselves immortal, but as age creeps up on you, you soon realize why there are no atheists in foxholes. The Vietnam Veteran cap is icing on the cake.
In fact, it places me among the select survivors who risked our lives for American principles we, as Black Americans, were not allowed to benefit from ourselves.
As Muhammad Ali said after refusing to be drafted (a year or so after he was declared unfit for military service, a determination that was reversed as soon as he became a member of the Nation of Islam): “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.” Moreover, unlike the thousands of veterans who honorably served in the various Gulf war campaigns—from the Crusades to Afghanistan—Vietnam veterans didn’t return home to a hero’s welcome or discounts from
restaurants and reduced price Cheerios. Instead, protestors waited for us at the airport, spat on us and called us baby killers.
Ironically, while I was initially disgusted at the reception, I eventually came to realize that one of the rights we fought for was their right to protest. The Vietnam War was supposedly fought to stop the spread of communism and to provide one side in that civil war the opportunity to live under
a democratic form of government where everyone is supposedly treated equally under the law, and individual rights and opportunities were the rule and not the exception. I explained as much to a class at Kettle Moraine Lutheran School a couple of weeks ago. My brother-in-law and I were invited to discuss the Vietnam War with a senior history class. Much of what we told them came from first hand observations, and was different than what they may have read or seen on television. I’m sure we burst a few bubbles, particularly to those who viewed all veterans as heroes and military service as a responsibility of good citizenship.
Some were surprised to learn that most of those who served during the Vietnam era were, in fact, drafted and that the war was ultimately ended in part because of worldwide protests. (Incidentally, similar protests of another civil war—100 years earlier—ended with the murder of dozens of Black “citizens” in New York. Those protests were also staged by Whites who refused to be drafted,
most refused to fight in a civil war over slavery. To illuminate their position, mobs filled the streets in violent protests that included lynching every Black person they happened across.)
Our lecture before the students was fulfilling for two reasons: I was impressed by several posters in the classroom that denounced the evils of slavery and applauded Black heroes like Frederick Douglass. Apparently, the students in this suburban community in Jackson were more appreciative, and better educated about Black History than Milwaukee Black students.
Secondly, after the class several students stayed around to talk with Rev. Clarence Thomas and I about Vietnam and the world we came back to. They also provided each of us with a card thanking us for our service. It was signed by all of the students, most of who commented on our lecture.
The thanks those students offered were similar to what I hear repeatedly when I’m in predominately White areas (or shopping centers) from strangers. On Halloween, a young White kid of nine or 10 noticed my cap and saluted me as he too proclaimed, “thank you for your service.” I assume he was thanking me for being a vet and not necessarily because of my tour of Vietnam, which he probably knew very little about.
I sincerely, and graciously, acknowledged his comments, even while I was taken aback by his kind words. Outside of the VA, I can’t remember a Black adult, much less a child, ever commending me for my service. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing, or maybe because Black America’s historic distrust of government institutions. It’s no secret that during the draft, the majority of soldiers were poor and minority. The rich, including George Bush, avoided the draft. Despite that fact, for many of us, the military offered a chance to learn a trade, and after service to attend college with the GI bill.
I don’t regret my military service, and will tell all who will listen, that it allowed, or forced me to mature, see the world and experience things I would probably not have otherwise. The military was a microcosm of America, and I confronted racism and bigotry in the military that altered my worldview and fueled my incentive to enlist in the civil rights army. But here too, those experiences helped make me the conscientious person I am today. Which takes me to another reason for wearing the cap when venturing into predominantly White areas.
Maybe in a small, almost insignificant way, I’m helping to bridge the racial divide, providing White folks, many of who’s opinions of Black folks is limited to biased media images of Black on Black crime, dysfunctional Black families and children with names they can’t pronounce. We’re invisible people, until they need someone to stand between them and terrorism. We’re assorted stereotypes until a courageous, unwavering force and an immovable object is needed to block the path of a dictator. And we’re the ones they grasp their purses around, or cross the streets until they need a sacrifice for democracy, strength and determination against oppression. A small percentage of Black Americans are criminals. A far larger percentage have put their lives on the line to protect the freedoms that Americans enjoy.
We are the descendants of Crispus Attucks, the first “American” to die in the Revolutionary War; the great, great grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers who protected the settlers who opened the west, and the grandchildren of the Tuskegee airmen who protected the bombers that helped end WWII.
We are, in many respects, more American than most. Deserving of opportunities ignored despite our sacrifices. Give us our due, and imagine where we would be if America lived up to the promises we fought for.