THE ONLINE backlash against 16 black female West Point cadets who took a raised-fist photo in uniform is a fascinating study on race and politics in America.
The picture has led to a U.S. Military Academy probe on whether the raised-fist gesture represents banned political activity. It has sparked a debate on the loyalty of the cadets. But most of all, it's forced us to consider what it means to be black.
Perhaps that's because so many Americans believe blackness is something to be ashamed of. And for those Americans, the very idea that blacks would openly embrace who we are seems ridiculous.
So when we hoist a fist to say black is beautiful, or wear natural hair in a corporate environment, or speak our truth above a whisper, such actions are viewed as a political statement against whites.
But embracing our blackness has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with identity. Too bad that's not the reason the picture went viral.
It should have gone viral because 16 black women were poised to graduate from the institution that topped Forbes' list of American colleges in 2009. But instead of going viral as an example of black excellence, the photo went viral because a legion of critics drowned the moment in hate.
Detractors said the women's raised-fist posture was meant as a political statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others characterized the women's raised fists as an anti-American gesture. Still others dared to say these women, who tested their mental and physical limits in order to walk among America's best and brightest, secretly despise the country for which they might someday fight as Army officers.
It's ironic, really, because these women, who are poised to graduate from West Point in May, have already proved themselves to be among America's elite.
According to West Point, only 7 percent of the 15,000 people who applied to the institution in 2012 were accepted as cadet candidates. Only 16 percent of the 1,150 cadets were women. Only 9 percent were African-American.
In other words, these women have already beaten the odds. Yet their reputations are threatened because anonymous commenters attached political meaning to a photograph. Meanwhile, the women in the photo have not commented on their action or any meaning behind it.
I, for one, am pulling for these women, because they carry the legacies of the black soldiers who came before them.
Soldiers such as Dr. Eugene Richardson, a 90-year-old Tuskegee Airman who told me black Army officers endured humiliation during and after World War II.
When they returned to America's shores, Richardson said, black officers who'd flown in combat missions against German pilots were forced to ride in segregated train cars, while German prisoners of war were ushered to the front.
Black soldiers, Richardson said, were subject to harassment in Southern towns because whites wanted to remind them they were still subject to Jim Crow.
But that ugly history is not the only reason I'm pulling for these women. I'm pulling for them because John Carlos, who remained unbroken and unbowed when I spoke to him two months ago at Rutgers University, has lived their experience.
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Carlos was one of two black sprinters who stood on the winner's podium and raised his gloved fist in a black power salute. He was roundly criticized for the action. In the wake of it, he lost nearly everything, from his place on the Olympic team, to his reputation, to his wife, who later committed suicide under the pressure.
Carlos told me not much has changed since he took that stand.
But I disagree. I see change in the eyes of those 16 black women, staring out at us from a photograph with raised fists.
Their eyes say they are the progeny of black soldiers. Their fists say they've fought to make it to this moment. Their posture says they're ready for the battlefields to come.
When 16 black women make such powerful statements without ever uttering a word, that's not politics. It's simply black pride.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).