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The real story of the Tuskegee Airmen

Published Feb 15, 2012 9:41 PM

During Black History Month, it is important to tell the real story about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American aviators who were allowed to fly airplanes in the U.S. military.

The U.S. had a legal apartheid system of racial segregation following the defeat of Reconstruction, also known as the “Jim Crow” era, that included the military. At that time, Tuskegee, Ala., was one of the most racist cities in the country.

In a country where “white supremacy” is still the law of the land, back in 1941, six Black cadets out of thousands of applicants were determined to pursue their dream of becoming airmen as they entered the second phase of basic military flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, under white Southern military instructors. Almost 1,000 Black airmen eventually were trained and sent overseas to fly escort planes for whites who flew bomber planes over Germany.

Acceptance of the airmen into the Army Air Corps squadron in Tuskegee was an experiment that was designed to fail, to prove that African Americans were not up to the challenge of flying in battle. Expectations of them were low.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was successfully pressured by the NAACP, the Black press and their demands for the Air Corps to take steps towards recruiting Black men into their ranks. The Tuskegee Airmen’s historical role helped pave the way for the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, despite receiving very little publicity.

The experience of these airmen is the subject of a new movie and also of a long-running off-Broadway play in New York City. Both focus on the same subject but portray the airmen from different perspectives.

Different viewpoints

The title of the movie is “Red Tails,” the name given to the Tuskegee Airmen by the white crews they were protecting on bomber raids, due to the red color painted on some tails of the planes that they flew. It was produced and mainly financed by George Lucas and directed by Anthony Hemingway. It features Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., though neither one is seen flying in the combat scenes.

The movie focuses on the all-Black squadron in their segregated, ramshackle boot camp, with their dilapidated planes, while stationed in an Italian town. After much protest and many demands the airmen are finally given permission to fly in combat with decent planes against the Nazi Germany air force.

Lucas states that “Red Tails” had been a vision of his for some 20 years and took two years to produce. He says he personally undertook financing and distributing the film because Hollywood refused to support a movie celebrating Black war heroes.

This film, however, does not cast too favorable a light on the behavior of some of the main Tuskegee Airmen, nor does it capture the true essence of their struggle within the racist military.

The squad leader, for instance, is depicted as an alcoholic. Another pilot acts as a jokester in camp and while engaged with the German air force during dogfights, performs aerial stunts.

When a racial fight breaks out between an airman and a white pilot in an officer’s club in an Italian town, it abruptly ends when one of the white pilots suddenly recognizes one of the Black men from being in the cockpit of a plane shadowing his plane. The incident somehow magically changes into all the men smiling, hugging each other and enjoying drinks together.

The racism the airmen experience in the military and society in general is too often downplayed. Quite a bit of poetic license and stereotyping are displayed, which contradicts Lucas’ supposed aims.

In contrast, the play, “Black Angels over Tuskegee,” is poignant, much more realistic and features more believable characters. It is written and directed by Layon Gray, who also portrays one of the airmen in the play.

The play uncovers their hopes, dreams and tribulations as they cope with their racist surroundings. It is an entertaining, powerful and inspirational drama in which the airmen perform their duties with pride, dignity and perseverance as they rise to the challenges to become superior fighter pilots with the unrealistic hopes that somehow their acts of patriotism will instantly eradicate white racism.

Though not as well-known as the actors in “Red Tails,” the cast members in “Black Angels” are talented and dramatize the story with depth and sensitivity. Though there is humor in the play, it’s not displayed as clowning around. It’s deeply moving, and the audience shares their victories and feels their pain.

“Black Angels over Tuskegee” opened off-Broadway in January 2010 and is still running. The men are first seen arriving on the Tuskegee army air force base in a cold waiting room to find out if they “qualify to serve.” They display the courage to excel in the midst of racist insults and deliberate attempts by white soldiers to make their lives more difficult while studying for the exam they are expected to fail.

They fight hard to dispel stereotypical images of Black men. Close to a hundred of these airmen lost their lives overseas either in combat or by accident.

In reality, following their discharge from the service, Jim Crow signs reading “colored only” and “white only” awaited the Tuskegee Airmen back home. Along with the rest of the African-American population, the airmen were targets of discrimination, oppression and domestic terrorism. Even Black veterans wearing their uniform were victims of lynching. n