‘We Can Be a Better Country If We Know These Stories.’ The Complicated History of African Americans in the Military
There are as many different kinds of war stories as there are people who have been called to fight. There are inspirational war stories, gruesome war stories, sad war stories. But in all of them, necessitated by the very nature of war, there’s some kind of sacrifice. Understanding those sacrifices and why they were made can change the way we see the whole history of war — and of ourselves.
At least, that’s how NYU professor and journalist Yvonne Latty sees it. Her father was a veteran, but it was not until after his death, as she worked on the 2004 book We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq, that she was able to reframe the stories he had told her during her childhood. She came to understand more deeply how the sacrifices made by African Americans who had served in the U.S. military affected the opportunities that she herself would have in civilian life. She also saw how that deeper understanding could change the way she, and other people of color, saw the world.
“It makes me feel like I want to be the best version of myself that I can be, that I didn’t squander the sacrifices my father and so many others made so that I could have the opportunities I have,” she says. “And that’s the thing. If you know what your people have gone through — if you really, really know — there’s no stopping you.”
That’s just one reason it’s a problem, as she sees it, that far too many people don’t know. In the lead-up to this year’s February Black History Month observance — the theme of which is “African Americans in Times of War” — she spoke to TIME about that past and why it’s so often overlooked.