My dad, like many young men and women of color, joined the armed forces for the job and the paycheck.
I have pieced together snippets of his story over the years combined with what’s taught in school — and we are taught bullshit stories about war in school — because he doesn’t talk about his time in the service much.
I’ll tell you how the Vietnam stuff started to come up.
I worked at a cell phone store in the early 2000s. It was one of my first jobs in my early 20s. We kept phones on display in the window and many days I worked alone. One day, a guy — a Black man with a fatigue jacket on — came in and ripped the phones off the display.
I called my dad. Because we are raised not to call the police. I was a Black woman reporting a shoplifter — the police could have come and arrested me. This widespread awakening to Black people’s experience with law enforcement is all new, this “wokeness”. But we have always been terrorized.
I then phoned the owner to tell him about the robbery, he reported it and the police eventually brought the guy for me to ID. My father, who had rushed to me by then, asked the guy, still wearing his fatigue jacket — “You were in ‘Nam?” The man replied yes, that he was now homeless.
“You scared my daughter. If you would have told me you were a vet, I would have given you all I had.”
The man was remorseful. He even apologized to me. I think my dad understood that the desperation that led him to join the army was similar to the desperation that led this man, after coming back from the war and finding himself homeless, to shoplift a cell phone store.
My dad arrived in Vietnam in 1968. He was 18, coming out of high school on the South Side of Chicago at a time when over-policing and police brutality was on the rise and, with it, gang activity. My father didn’t want to be pressured to join a gang and he didn’t have a plan for college. So, he enlisted. It was the most patriotic and honorable option he had. He joined out of desperation.
His infantry became his family. For the first time, he made white male friends, many of whom had never had a Black friend. He also found racism there. Not all white soldiers wanted to fight alongside Black men — he’s told me about white men who murdered Black soldiers knowing they would be marked a casualty of war. More often than not, Black men had to be on the front lines, in the worst situations, disciplined at higher rates and passed over for promotions. My father spent 72 days in the jungle. He had swampfoot and all that crazy stuff.
He survived. He came home when many of his fellow troops did not. But when he came home in ‘72, he did not find the equality and freedom that he had fought for, like the enslaved people who fought in the wars of 1776 and 1865 and Black soldiers in every war since.
My dad did not share many feelings about July 4th when my brothers and I were growing up, just like he didn’t share much about his time in Vietnam. I do know that the fireworks drive him crazy, as they do many soldiers with PTSD because the pops sound like guns going off in the jungle.
The history of American pride has (at least) two different perspectives and versions — it is black and it is white. Our holidays are whitewashed. Black and Indigenous people’s history is erased. When a soldier dies today there’s a whole ritual, but the enslaved people who died in our wars were buried in unmarked or mass graves. That’s what Memorial Day is about. Yet Black people have been marginalized in that narrative.
Juneteenth comes right before July 4 and it is almost a quiet, private day that Black people get to enjoy. There are no special plates and balloons and candy at the store. It is about the Black man’s liberation. July 4 is not. The Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal. “All men created equal.” Slaveowners wrote those words. The July 4th holiday has not evolved to encompass and commemorate Black people’s history.
Yet, July 4 is still a day of rest for Black families, as well as for the Black armed forces. When we have a paid day off, we want to enjoy it. Being Black is about burying pain for today’s happiness. Black parents have uncomfortable conversations with their kids about police, about the doctor, about their teachers, about their non-Black classmates. The last thing you want to do is ruin your kid’s fun in the pool on your day off.
The 4th of July cookout is a time to go outside and experience joy with family and friends. It’s supposed to be festive and celebratory. It’s just bittersweet because you know the reality of the Black soldiers who put their life on the line in 1776. You know the history. And right now, Black people feel like there’s no choice but to say something because they keep killing us.
There have been been a lot of discussions recently around [white] comfort. When you grow up Black, the number one thing you are taught is not to bring up race issues to your white peers. We learn we will go further by not making white people uncomfortable. It’s a constant fight for acceptance. Keep them comfortable and show them an example of Black excellence.
But what we need is white people’s comfort with the discomfort. If you’re white, let someone Black or Indigenous bring up points of history that you may not want to hear and listen, be supportive instead of centering your own narrative. It’s the same with all the issues. It’s about education and awareness. This is how we can evolve our cultural understanding, as we are slowly starting to with holidays like Thanksgiving. Let July 4th evolve.
Nicole Briggs is a long-time retail professional with a background in retail and wholesale sales, event management, and corporate communications. Her expertise lies in client relations driving sales and building impactful teams. She is originally from Chicago and currently lives in Los Angeles.