After my grandmother and my mother passed, I was left with two folded American flags – the ones that families are given after a military burial – that I had no idea what to do with. I was raised in a Pan-African/Black Nationalist/Cultural Nationalist Black Muslim household. To this day, I cannot even recite the pledge of allegiance in its entirety, since I’ve never stood for it. So what was I going to do with these American flags which are now part history, mine, and the worlds. Upon reflecting on them, I realized they were material objects, icons of a complicated story of Black folks and US racism and US imperialism.
Joining the military has been a way to claim citizenship and belonging for Black people in the United States. And it has also been a pathway for upward mobility. This second reasoning seems to tie “Aubrey’s Flag” and “Aubrey Jr.’s Flag” together. The military definitely served as a vehicle for upward mobility for Aubrey Sr. Three years after returning home, he joined the fire department and five years after that moved his new family from Harlem to the suburbs in Jamaica, Queens. It did not do the same for Aubrey Jr. whom, I’m fairly certain, joined the military as a means of doing something “constructive” with his life but only seemed to serve for nine months in 1977.
The bulk of the photos here are from my grandfather’s collection. He served in a segregated military. He was in the all-Black 352nd Engineer General Service Regiment. His regiment was part of what people call the “Forgotten Theatre of World War II,” the China-Burma-India Theater, and also his regiment was in Iran, the “Persia Corridor.” Their job was to build roads that would bring supplies to allied positions. With the help of researcher Dr. Maysan Haydar, our speculation is that he was issued a camera as part of his duties and that at least some of the pictures in his collection were part of the surveying work he did, especially those of terrain. This would explain the almost 500 photos he has from during the war.
He was a documentarian and archivist because a majority of his photos (before and after the war) are labeled! The labels are both matter-of-fact and some are interpretive. Some of these interpretative labels mimic an old-school anthropological approach – the kind that saw culture in very bounded ways i.e., we do this and they do that and also saw cultures as “primitive” or “advanced.” Some of that is definitely echoed in his labeling. Some other labels reflect a more intimate or nuanced relationship to people and places.
These photos also make we wonder about impact. If we look at where he was then and his activities and then compare that to some of what has taken place in those locations and the US since: nine years after his unit leaves Iran, the US supports a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected Prime Minister, Mossadegh; three years after his unit leaves the Indian subcontinent, India and Pakistan go through decolonization and partition; Burma also gains independence and later a coup results in repressive military rule and the US has grown to be an imperial power with a dangerous impact. What is the relationship between my grandfather and Black soldiers then and the US and the world now?