He had 188 combat missions during the Vietnam War in the various locales across Southeast Asia where he was stationed. As we spoke, he unexpectedly asked me, “You do know you’re directly related to a Tuskegee Airman, don’t you?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Lt. Wellington G. Irving, of Belzoni, Mississippi, Tuskegee Airman and member of the 332nd Fighter Group, was my Uncle David’s first cousin, making Irving my maternal third cousin. Irving was killed in action over Germany in 1945.
It was an incredible revelation. My family had never talked about Irving, so to be connected to someone who was a part of a courageous story being told in an upcoming movie was very exciting. I was overwhelmed with pride. My uncle put him in context.
“Nicole, Hollywood might have you think these men were “magic negroes,” he said. “Really, they were just doing their job, the same way I did mine when I flew in Vietnam. We didn’t think of ourselves as heroes.”
It was a sobering reminder that we often laud people for their accomplishments more than we do for their basic human worth.
Through the “myth of the magical negro,” Hollywood often portrays African-Americans as heroes only in self-sacrificing or mystical circumstances, and only when they come to the aid of white people. Think Will Smith in “Bagger Vance,” Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones,”or Michael Clark Duncan as John Coffey in “The Green Mile.” The characters--all with special powers--exist mostly as a plot device, ignoring their complexity as human beings.
The message is: You are invisible until I need you.
I didn’t want to commit this same sin by taking some vicarious credit for my heretofore unknown cousin’s service as a Tuskegee Airman. While it was perfectly reasonable for me to be proud of his accomplishment, I also reminded myself that Wellington Irving was more than a talking point. He was a human being who had, outside of his military service, led an ordinary life with an upbringing that I would unfortunately never know.
Heroism is often richer and more complex than stories of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Most heroes are not supermen or superwomen. Most heroes come from ordinary backgrounds but, through perseverance and courage, achieve extraordinary results.
My father, Wilfred Moliere, and his brothers – my first heroes - are good examples. Fishermen and machinery operators, these men held less prestigious titles than fighter pilot, but their influence on me was immeasurable. They were the hardest working men I knew. Yet, they always found time to remind me that I was destined for greatness. I wanted to achieve for myself, and them.
My dad overcame the absence of his own less-than-perfect father and became a dependable provider and husband who recently celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary. His life is a testament to this reality: It doesn’t matter what type of man your father was; you can choose differently. My dad never used his upbringing as an excuse to do less than his best.
The heroes in my family are not just men. My maternal great grandmother, Laura Generette Brooks, mother to my great Uncle David and aunt to Irving, was a college graduate at a time when it was rare for an African-American woman to be educated in the South. She also hated her given name so much that she had it legally changed to Lawrence. Through this incredible woman, my mother’s family boasts an unbroken line of female college graduates that spans four generations.
From both sides of my family, I learned that I could do, and be, something special whether or not I held an impressive title or became famous. We must be quality people before we can do quality things. The potential for heroism, like any other element of character, is revealed in our everyday choices.
Here’s hoping that ‘Red Tails’ offers inspiration for young and old alike, and brings the courage and triumph of the Tuskegee Airmen fully to life.
Nicole Moliere is a writer, artist and speaker. She is the creator of SoulCreole.wordpress.com, a new social commentary and empowerment blog focused on African-American art, culture, lifestyle and wellbeing. Follow Nicole on Facebook and Twitter @SoulCreole. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more on The Root DC