A “Black” Family Tradition
Recently on Facebook, I saw pictures of one of my friends, retired Air Force colonel Michael Black, promoting his son, Clinton, to captain. One of the pictures that jumped out at me was one in which Clinton was presented his grandfather's captain bars.
I knew Clinton’s grandfather. He was an army colonel who led mentoring efforts at Scott Air Force base when I was a company grade officer. As I saw Clinton accepting his captain bars from his father, I was reminded of his grandfather’s legacy and impact on my life. I reflected on how impressive it was that three successive generations of men in the Black family had now served in the armed forces.
In attendance at Clinton Black’s promotion ceremony was a black major general select and black brigadier general select. As I scrolled through pictures of the promotion, I wondered what Clinton would do if he had a question about what he should do next in his career. What would he do when he needed mentoring, counseling, guidance? Could he call upon his retired colonel grandfather, his retired colonel father, or even the major general or brigadier general that attended his ceremony? I think the answer is yes to all the above.
I wonder if Clinton thinks becoming a colonel in the military is attainable? Every son wants to run faster, shoot better, be taller than their father, etc. Somewhere around our teenage years, we start sizing our dads up for areas where they might be vulnerable and can be beaten, surpassed, forced to give us “our due.” I think within the Black family tradition, we find the key to removing one of the greatest obstacles for African Americans to make full colonel or above--believing that it can be done.
I have noticed a pattern amongst several of the African American general officers that I know or have studied. Many of them have fathers that served in the armed forces. In fact, five of the nine African American men to achieve four-star rank had a father who served in the military.
I have never met retired Gen Darren W. McDew, but here’s a little bit about his family tradition:
“GEN Darren W. McDew USAF – Retired grew up in a military family. A child of the sixties, son of an Air Force Sergeant, McDew moved frequently and was ‘born and raised to be an Airman.’ As he watched his father go to Vietnam, and as he saw the POWs return, McDew knew he too would pursue a military career.” (Veteran Crowd , 2020)
Retired Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr. was the son of Air Force major Edward A. Rice Sr. (Fikes, 2017) Here’s a quote from Gen. Rice about his father’s influence on his decision to go to the Air Force Academy:
“I grew up in the Air Force. My father was in the Air Force, spent 20 years there, brought home some literature about the Academy. I always say he put it where I could find it. Uh, he denies it…I had an idea of what the Academy experience was all about and had a real connection to that; aspired to go to the Academy. And certainly was fortunate to get an appointment.” (Association of Graduates, 2021)
I have already shared the military upbringings of retired Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris and Brig. Gen. Dana Nelson. Here’s a little about Lt. Gen John D. Hopper Jr.’s background:
“John D. Hopper junior was born in Clarksville, Tennessee. His father retired from the army as a master sergeant. His maternal grandfather served in the army during World War I and his brother spent 4 years in the Air Force. In his early years, he lived in a number of different places where his dad was stationed.” (Walton, 2012)
Gen. Larry O. Spencer and Lt. Gen Ronnie D. Hawkins Jr. were two of my mentors. Here are the stories of their military traditions.
“Gen. Larry Spencer, USAF (Ret.) was born and raised on the Horseshoe—a tough inner-city street in southeast Washington, D.C. Both parents lived in the rural south under Jim Crow and ‘separate but equal’ laws. Spencer’s father was a career Army soldier who lost his left hand during the Korean War, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and worked two jobs.” (Spencer, n.d.)
“On July 30, this country and the armed forces lost a trailblazer, Chief Master Sgt. (ret) Ronnie D. Hawkins Sr. He had celebrated his 87th birthday less than a week prior, on July 25.
Hawkins was the first African-American chief master sergeant at Goodfellow Air Force Base, having moved his family to San Angelo in 1969. Hawkins grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, as did his wife, Loretta, who preceded him in death.
Hawkins had an illustrious 27-year career in the Air Force, joining the military upon graduation from high school in Leavenworth in 1949.
That career took him on many assignments, including Newfoundland, Pakistan, Alaska, Texas and two tours of duty in Vietnam. He retired from the military at Goodfellow in 1976, and shortly thereafter he moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
I have had the honor of writing about Hawkins' namesake, Lt. General Ronnie D. Hawkins Jr., several times, and I have been amazed at the Hawkins' legacy of military service, dating back to the time of Buffalo Soldiers. It has been carried on by the sons and grandsons of Chief Hawkins, and I would have to assume that legacy will live on.” (Butler, 2018)
I was looking at some names of colonels recently selected for promotion to brigadier general. I saw the name Alfred K. Flowers, Jr. I was stationed at the Pentagon with his father, retired Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers.
I will delve into the rich military history of our current Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, and recently confirmed Gen. Anthony J. Cotton in separate chapters, but clearly, a pattern has been established. What kinds of lessons are these military fathers passing on to their sons and daughters? What things are they sharing with them that have caused them to be so successful at such a high level in an environment where very few black men and women have found success?
I’m closing this chapter by sharing the family stories and traditions of a third-generation Air Force major, F-22 pilot, Nathan Dial. Nathan is an aspiring author whose story was shared in the Air Force Times. I promised him that I would include his story in my next book to encourage his brilliant writing talent.
His family traditions/stories might not resemble those of the families I have mentioned above, but I believe some of the underlying themes shared in Nathan’s story clarify the black family tradition of military service:
“[Editor’s note: This is the second of three commentaries by Nathan Dial regarding race relations in the Air Force.]
Over three generations of military service, my grandfather, father and I show the progress and institutional inconsistencies of the United States when it comes to race. The evolution of ‘The Talk’ between Papa Dial, Cortez Dial and I show that Black Americans have more opportunities but still do not have equal opportunity.
‘The Talk’ is a rite of passage in the Black household, when guardians make their Black teenagers fully aware that they must navigate the world differently because their blackness causes a change in how people with authority implement the rules. ‘The Talk’ is rooted in the reality of the Black guardian’s experiences.
My grandfather served in WWII as an enlisted soldier in a segregated military. When he returned to Chicago, he could not vote, use the GI Bill, nor obtain a mortgage if the house was near the miracle mile because of his skin color. His life experience taught him being Black meant he could have life, some liberty and zero justice. Those experiences caused him to explain to his son there are two Americas — and expect less than what is on paper.
Born in 1951, my father went to segregated schools until high school. He experienced white flight when Chicago’s Lindblom High School went from 90 percent white to 90 percent Black by his senior year. He became the first college graduate in our family and commissioned as an Army officer in 1973.
Two years later, Papa Dial visited my father in Germany. When they went through the gate, a white enlisted police member saluted my father and said, ‘welcome, sir.’ My grandfather made my dad go through the gate two more times. After the third time, my grandfather began to cry because he never thought there would be a day when white men would have to salute his son. At that moment, my grandfather experienced progress because he learned being Black was no longer an absolute exclusion from what was on paper.
As a military man, my father stressed three principles during ‘The Talk’ with me. Institutions are always right, give utmost respect to people with authority and find white mentors. Being a man who navigated integration, he spent the beginning of his career trying to figure out if he was denied opportunities because of his talent or due to unwritten rules of which he was unaware. Although the regulations provided the path to advancement, he perceived there was a game within the game. Therefore, to have a chance, he needed white advocates because almost all rooms lacked people of color. Therefore, he had the ‘opportunity’ to be what he wanted if he performed and a white superior officer vouched.
The first time I saw my dad cry was my senior year at the U.S. Air Force Academy after the graduation parade. He explained he never thought he would live in a reality where his son was the highest-ranking cadet under a Black president. Through my performance at USAFA and Barack Obama’s election, my dad learned if a Black man had the requisite talent, the system could allow him to reach his full potential.
If I have children, I will use a sports analogy when I give ‘The Talk:’ There are no home games.
In sports, the home team has an advantage because they have the fans’ support and referee deference. There is an understanding that if there is a grey area, the home team will receive the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, to win a competition, the away team must build a substantial lead to ensure the refs do not make a bad call which cost them the game in the final moments. Although Black people can compete in the arena, we must overcome the inevitable bad call rooted in implicit or explicit bias. Normally, the bad call comes from a person who says, ‘I don’t see color.’ Therefore, I ask my white colleagues to Give | Seek | Ask.
Give. Give yourself the grace to be vulnerable. It is OK to admit, I do not have a lot of experience around people of color, and it makes me uncomfortable. We are all human. Therefore no one is perfect. But, we should all work to better ourselves.
Seek. Seek information about the experiences of people of color in your office and community. By gaining knowledge, you will become more comfortable. You can educate yourself through books and documentaries. Afterwards, reflect on your moments of uneasiness with race and challenge yourself to locate the reason behind your discomfort.
Ask. Ask your white colleagues how many experiences they have in mixed-race groups personally and professionally. Through consistent conversations, progress will occur.
Nathan Dial is an active duty Air Force officer and pilot.” (Dial, 2020)
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