Much Ado About Raised Fists

by on May 17, 2016 · 3 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Culture, Education, Military, Politics


By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos

Here we go again, with yet another “incident” fueling right-wing outrage about black people and symbolism. The latest was over a photograph of 16 black female cadets who had come together to celebrate their upcoming graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The New York Times reported:

The gesture, posted on Facebook and Twitter last week, touched off a barrage of criticism in and out of the armed forces as some commenters accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.

West Point opened an investigation on April 28 into whether the women violated Army rules that prohibit political activities while in uniform. Now, as the women wait to hear if they will be punished, they are gaining supporters who say they were simply making a gesture of solidarity and strength.

The elite public military academy, which trains many of the Army’s future leaders, is overwhelmingly male and 70 percent white. The 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in a graduating class of about 1,000, a meager 1.7 percent. But the Army has long tried to play down race and gender to create a force where “everyone is green.”

The good news in all of this is that the cadets have been cleared:

West Point has said that 16 black female cadets did not violate any Department of Defense or Army regulations by posing with their fists raised in a photo taken ahead of their graduation from the academy.

No punitive action will be taken against the women after an inquiry found that their gesture was intended to demonstrate “unity” and “pride,” a statement from the institution said.

Black women have a long and often unrecognized history of serving in our military. But this tempest in a tea party pot is really not about the military, except for the fact that the armed forces are symbolic of our nation’s strength and have traditionally been a male domain and preserve. The criticism is simply part of a historical continuum that attempts to repress any and all expressions of black pride, and our solidarity and success against the odds.

The raised fist has a long history as a symbol.

White House Photo: President Obama fist-bumps a U.S. soldier at Camp Victory in Baghdad

White House Photo: President Obama fist-bumps a U.S. soldier at Camp Victory in Baghdad

The raised fist (also known as the clenched fist) is a symbol of solidarity and support. It is also used as a salute to express unity, strength, defiance, or resistance. The salute dates back to ancient Assyria as a symbol of resistance in the face of violence.

Groups, movements, and organizations worldwide have embraced it to represent their struggles. In the context of the never-ending struggle for racial equality here in the U.S., it has taken on a more specific meaning—that of black power and black pride.

In the U.S social hierarchy, “power” is something we as blacks were forbidden to have or strive for. We have always been allowed to have symbols of inequality. As long as we “knew our place” and accepted it humbly, we were allowed to live as second-class citizens, reinforced by figurative and literal nooses and burning crosses to remind us what would happen if we ever dreamed of stepping over the line.

I will never forget living in a southern town where if a white person was walking toward you on the sidewalk, you were expected to give way or move off into the street. Modes of address were racially stratified. We were never allowed the dignity of “Sir” or “Mrs.” We could not stare, or look a white person in the face.

And so, in the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s we raised our eyes and our fists and embraced both black pride and our growing power in the battle against inequality. The Vietnam War played a crucial role.

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement, 1965-69, blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam. The majority of these were in the infantry, and although authorities differ on the figures, the percentage of black combat fatalities in that period was a staggering 14.9 percent, a proportion that subsequently declined.

Many black GIs who survived ‘Nam returned to the States and joined militant groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They brought with them a fist—and not a passive fist. They brought a fist salute that had morphed into a greeting. This was known as “the dap” and has remained in active usage as “the fist bump,” now risen from the ranks into common usage. It has even entered into the hallowed realm of the White House, where it is used often by President Obama.

Black photographer and artist LaMont Hamilton, who is a Smithsonian Fellow, has developed a history and study of the “dap.”

Five on the Black Hand Side: Origins and Evolutions of the Dap

Five on the Black Hand Side is a project exploring gestural languages that were born in African American communities during the 1960s and 1970s, including the “the dap” and the black power handshake. When we see youths, athletes, or even President Obama giving a fist bump or dap, we think of these gestures as mere greetings and are not aware of the origins and historical significance of these languages.

Historically, the dap is both a symbol among African American men that expresses unity, strength, defiance, or resistance and a complex language for communicating information. The dap and the black power handshake, which evolved from the dap, were important symbols of black consciousness, identity, and cultural unity throughout black America.

The dap originated during the late 1960s among black G.I.s stationed in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. At a time when the Black Power movement was burgeoning, racial unrest was prominent in American cities, and draft reforms sent tens of thousands of young African Americans into combat, the dap became an important symbol of unity and survival in a racially turbulent atmosphere. Scholars on the Vietnam War and black Vietnam vets alike note that the dap derived from a pact black soldiers took in order to convey their commitment to looking after one another. Several unfortunate cases of black soldiers reportedly being shot by white soldiers during combat served as the impetus behind this physical act of solidarity.

Such events, combined with the racism and segregation faced by black G.I.s, created a pressing need for an act and symbol of unity. The dap, an acronym for “dignity and pride” whose movements translate to “I’m not above you, you’re not above me, we’re side by side, we’re together,” provided just this symbol of solidarity and served as a substitute for the Black Power salute prohibited by the military.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a response to the uproar over Obama’s fist bumps in ”The sacred art of giving dap.“

When I got my first job around white folks, in the mid-90s, I had to stop myself from shaking my co-worker’s hands every time I saw him, as was normal among the brothers. This has changed over the years, I think, with black culture going mainstream. So when I was working at TIME, for instance, I had some white friends who I shook hands with every time I saw them, because they were acculturated. Others I didn’t because they weren’t. But I shook hands with every brother I saw, whenever I saw him for the first time during the day. And then maybe again during the course of conversation. And then maybe again when I left. It just depended.

For those of you saying that you’d have to be from Mars to have never seen someone giving dap, dig this quote John dug up from over at Human Events:

“Michelle is not as “refined” as Obama at hiding her TRUE feelings about America—etc. Her “Hezbollah” style fist-jabbing—mouth-twisted anti-American speeches is STRAIGHT from ISLAM!”

Oh my white people, we have so very very far to go…

Heaven forbid a black POTUS and FLOTUS should ever demonstrate their blackness in public!

The controversy over the black female cadets came on the heels of the uproar from the “threatened by blackness” right wing over Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance. Her song and costumes referenced the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and produced expected squawking from Rudy Giuliani and his Faux News ilk.

Much less attention has been given to the art and artistry of black expression, and the central role it plays in our continued survival and resistance under the yoke of white supremacy—a supremacy which is currently well represented by Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the polls.

That art, whether graphic or musical or danced should be celebrated—not feared and excoriated. One such example is a new exploration in dance.

LaMont Hamilton’s exploration of the “Dignity and Pride” Dap experience has now been translated into performance in “Dapline,” a collaboration with dancer/choreographer/artist André M. Zachery.

Hailed as “rich in emotional nuance and gestural beauty” and one of the best dance shows of 2015 by the New York Times, Dapline! is a choreographic collaboration between LaMont Hamilton and André M. Zachery stemming from Hamilton’s project, Five on the Black Hand Side.

Both projects are long form meditations on the ritual handshake, “the DAP”, a conduit for black identity and solidarity and easily interpreted as an acronym for dignity and pride.

The dap has historic symbolic origins to a state of black consciousness of the late 1960s among black G.I.s during the Vietnam War. At a time when the Black Power Movement was burgeoning, racial unrest was prominent across American cities and draft reforms sent tens of thousands of young African Americans into combat, the dap became an important symbol of unity and survival in a racially turbulent America. Through movement, sound and visuals, Dapline! attempts to elicit that space in between, where the dap moves intergenerationally, stirring sensations of love, brotherhood and solidarity.

Dapline explores the art of black expressive culture, the art of the quotidian and interstitial existence of black expressive culture preparing an opening for black folks to see themselves as works of art.

The raising or touching of a fist to express victory, achievement, respect, pride, protest, solidarity, and love is only offensive and threatening to those who continue to occupy and usurp places of power and privilege.

I make a fist and raise it in a salute to the graduating cadet sisters at West Point, to our POTUS who is nearing the end of an epic two terms in office, and to my brothers and sisters in the communities across this nation who refuse to give up the struggle for equality.

Dap on!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

rick callejon May 17, 2016 at 11:05 am

Reminiscent of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Power to the people!


Frank Gormlie May 17, 2016 at 11:12 am

I have memories of those old barracks.


Frank Gormlie May 17, 2016 at 11:13 am

I’m happy just to see that there are 16 African-American women graduating! When I went to West Point briefly, there were only 2 Black men in our company of about 100 – no women back then, of course.


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