“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As an American, I’ve always read these words from the Declaration of Independence with a sense of awe and pride. But this year, things are hitting just a little bit different.
Because I’m reminded this year that when those words were first written, there was an asterisk by “all.” The founding fathers didn’t really mean “all.” They meant some. They meant white men with land and means.
But a promise was embedded in those words, that one day they truly would mean “all” and not just “some.” More than 200 years later, we’re still struggling to fully live up to the promise of those words.
This year, perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m considering what it must be like to read those words as Black American. I’m wondering in particular what it must be like for Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, Jr. to read those words.
Brown was recently confirmed as the next Air Force Chief of Staff. He is the first African American officer to serve as the top uniformed officer of any of the military branches. In the days following the murder of George Floyd, Brown released a video on social media. In the video, he answers the question, “What am I thinking?”
Brown answers the question with emotion and intensity.
“Here’s what I’m thinking about,” says Brown in the video. “I’m thinking about protests in ‘my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, the equality expressed in our Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution that I’ve sworn my adult life to support and defend. I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”
Heavy words from a four-star general.
Brown talks about how often he’s been the only African American in the room, and how he’s lived his whole life in “two worlds.” He speaks about not being recognized as a pilot despite the wings on his chest, and the pressure to perform perfectly because he knows he is expected to fail. He speaks of not having mentors who look like him. He speaks of difficult conversations with his sons, trying to make sense of the world they live in and navigate it safely.
But he also speaks of the future with hope, and with determination to make it better for those coming up behind him.
“I’m thinking about how my nomination provides some hope, but also comes with a heavy burden — I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force,” he says. “I’m thinking about how I can make improvements, personally, professionally, and institutionally, so that all Airmen, both today and tomorrow, appreciate the value of diversity and can serve in an environment where they can reach their full potential.
“I’m thinking about without clear-cut answers, I just want to have the wisdom and knowledge to lead during difficult times like these. I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead, participate in, and listen to necessary conversations on racism, diversity, and inclusion. I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead those willing to take committed and sustained action to make our Air Force better.”
I want to believe our country is closer to the ideal of “all” than it is. But when I hear the testimony of men like Gen. Brown, I know we have a long way to go. Even high achievement and a lifetime of service to our country have not insulated him from prejudice and racism.
I am thinking it takes moxie to persevere as Gen. Brown has done, and as indeed all Black people in America have done. I want to hear more of Gen. Brown’s story, and more of what he is thinking.
What would you ask Gen. Brown if you had the chance?
C.Q. Brown’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Q._Brown_Jr.