Throughout his life, I watched my father, a Black man born in 1930s Alabama, address his elders as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” He raised my siblings and me to do the same with phrases like “Yes, sir” and “Thank you, ma’am,” uttered to friends, relatives, and strangers throughout our youth. Because my father spent almost three decades in the U.S. Air Force, I’d assumed this practice was a manifestation of military decorum.
I especially noticed my dad’s formality when we ran errands together and he’d “Sir” and “Ma’am” other Black strangers his own age, even those arguably younger. I always took this to mean that he saw himself as a perpetually young man, despite his five kids and his crown of gray hair. Now I understand the habit differently. I suspect that he was acknowledging these strangers as veterans of a kind, participants in an unnamed American war in which he and they had long served, were serving still.
My father’s father was a veteran of World War I. He served in the Army’s 340th Labor Battalion in France. Far and away, most Black soldiers in my grandfather’s day were assigned to labor and service battalions rather than combat units. The perception of Black people at that time was marred by stereotypes of indolence, cowardice, and ineptitude, which had been seared into the American imagination by racist films, folktales, minstrel shows, and other sinister mythologies. America’s racial hierarchy, encoded by the plantation system and enforced via segregation laws, barred Black men from serving in positions of command over whites in the armed forces. This was not an aberrant but rather a national mindset—one codified in official U.S. military policy.
The relatively small number of Black WWI combat units—like the celebrated 369th Battalion, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters—found themselves on the receiving end of taunts, threats, and even the violent mistrust of their white counterparts. Racial tensions within the U.S. military were insurmountable enough that the Harlem Hellfighters were reassigned to French command, though, according to Black veterans’ accounts of the war, most of the racism and second-class citizenship they endured within the military went unremedied. Decorated for the heroism and indispensability of their service abroad, Black soldiers nevertheless found themselves fighting what many describe as a war within the war, and returning home to familiar racialized conflict in civilian life. W.E.B. Du Bois rallied Black veterans to confront the intractability of this dynamic in a manifesto titled “Returning Soldiers,” published in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, in 1919:
by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
My father’s older brothers—my uncles Melvin and Robert—served in the Army during WWII, and returned to civilian life in the South after the war. Back home, they bumped up against the realization that the opportunities promised to veterans nationwide by the GI Bill were out of reach. Because in the South, government-guaranteed job-placement programs and home- and small-business-loans were administered by local bureaucrats and officials whom Jim Crow laws had shaped and trained, my uncles did not buy houses or become entrepreneurs. Opportunities to use the new skills they’d developed in military service were routinely reserved for white veterans, while vets like my uncles were offered work as janitors, cooks, and processors in meatpacking plants.
Each of my uncles had first entered the workforce after seventh grade, but Black veterans with high-school degrees hoping to take advantage of college tuition-assistance programs were met by roadblocks, too. They were barred from enrolling in universities not yet integrated. And historically Black colleges and universities found themselves unable to accommodate the increased demand for matriculation. My uncles, and countless other Black veterans, made do without these opportunities.
In the California of my youth, it was men like my uncles whom my father addressed with “Hello, sir” and “Thank you, sir.” Some of the men and women whom he set out, in his way, to honor and to properly see were veterans of military service. All were veterans of the slow, constant, unnamed war playing out in the American imagination: A war founded on the false premise that Black men, women, and even children are inherent threats to the safety and prosperity of white men, women, and children. A war in which all, wittingly or not, all have been made to fight.
Some fight to recover from the effects of racism’s psychic blows. Others fight to adhere in deed and mind to the unnatural confines of racial hierarchies. Those who insist they do not and will not fight must struggle against evidence and reason in order to deny the ways that all in this country have been sorted, classified, and labeled—some as victors, others as villains, still others merely tools with which the spoils of battle might be leveraged.
“Thank you, sir.” “Thank you, ma’am.” My father, a career airman and veteran of the Vietnam War, understood this other conflict. He transmitted this understanding through a deliberate form of regard: I recognize you. I acknowledge the courage and the vigilance with which you are made to navigate life in America. Not because of what you have done, but because of how America has long insisted you—has insisted we—be seen.
He put one war behind him. Can we muster the courage to lay down our arms in the other?