Black history is American history

  • Published
  • By Capt. Darren Turner
  • Squadron Officer School
Every year in February, we reflect on the contributions that black people (I intentionally avoid the usage of African-American, which I will explain later) have made on our society and our respective cultures. Often, we take this month to reflect on the contributions of black Americans from a purely ethnic standpoint: We place the emphasis on their blackness rather than their contribution to America, and this narrow focus on ethnicity makes us miss the big picture - black history is American history. I intentionally do not use the term "African-American" because the hyphenation somehow sets us apart from those considered to be "American" despite our common nation of birth, shared sets of ideals, and, in the case of those of us who choose to serve, our love of country.

Black History Month is often used to highlight important or influential black American figures from American history. While this is not an ignoble pursuit, it is a waste of the opportunity to do something greater - the opportunity to view history through the eyes of the black men and women who saw themselves as Americans first, even if the society they existed in could only see the color of their skin.

One such man is Doris Miller, a football player from Waco, Texas. Miller enlisted in the United States Navy on Sept. 16, 1939. This date is significant for two reasons. First, the Navy had a segregationist policy that was not disbanded until President Harry S. Truman passed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Second, he was stationed on the USS West Virginia on Aug. 3, 1941, and was on duty at 6 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

At the time, due to the Navy's policy of discrimination and segregation, black Americans could only serve in the role of stewards or cooks despite their competencies or desires. When the Japanese attacked, Miller abandoned his task of collecting laundry and began rescuing injured shipmates by pulling them off the main deck. He then manned a .50-caliber machine gun and returned fire to the Japanese aircraft, downing at least one. His actions resulted in him being the first black American to be awarded the Navy Cross and, more importantly, his actions served as a rallying point for other black Americans who were interested in military service. Sadly, two years later, Miller and 645 other sailors were killed in action when a Japanese torpedo struck the USS Liscome Bay at 5:10 a.m. off the coast of Butaritari Island.

The story of Miller is strangely commonplace and unique. It is a story so commonplace that it has been enacted thousands of times throughout history, from Rome, to Britain, to the United States. His story is commonplace because it is one that is told so often that it has become a cliché: A farmer from a small town who possesses a strong sense of patriotism and duty leaves home to serve his country and demonstrates exceptional courage only to meet a tragic end before he can see the fruits of his labor and sacrifice. Miller's story is unique because he answered the call of a nation that did not view him as an equal. Miller's story is unique because his valor inspired a nation of black Americans to answer the call at a time when military service was not seen as worthwhile or noble.

As we reach the end of this month, it is important to remember that our history is not centered on the story of any particular ethnic group. The American culture that we all belong to is built on our shared stories and experiences. Admittedly, some aspects of our history are cause for great shame and reflection, but they are ours to own and learn from, and we should always strive to focus on the similarities that we have as Americans rather than the miniscule differences that can separate us from one another.