This year, the Henry Ossian Flipper dinner was open to faculty, and I went. It was a fine event. The dinner celebrates the first black American cadet to graduate from West Point, and celebrates as well a cadet who graduated under the most challenging of circumstances, and who served his country and lived his life, quotidian, under those same circumstances.
There’s a lesson to be had not only from Lieutenant Flipper, but from the cadets: a lesson that challenge, that difficulty, is quotidian, for some more than others. (Lieutenant Flipper’s account of his time as a cadet is genuinely remarkable, and well worth reading.) In 1877, Henry O. Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from the United States Military Academy, and in 1881 he was court-martialed for embezzlement and for conduct unbecoming an officer, and was dismissed from the Army in 1882 upon conviction on the latter charge.
He fought both charges for the rest of his life. In 1976, 36 years after his death, his dismissal was commuted to an honorable discharge through the efforts of those close to him, and in 1999, he was posthumously pardoned by President Clinton. In the words of this year’s commemoration dinner program, “the President recognized an error and acknowledged the lifetime accomplishments of this American soldier.”
The dinner was the first time I’d eaten in the mess hall with the cadets. It’s an experience, sitting down with more than four thousand other people at one meal, in a place where there’s already so much history, and being conscious of all that much more history. Each year, the Henry O. Flipper Award is given to the graduating cadet who distinguishes himself or herself through “leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties,” but for Lieutenant Flipper — as for so many of our cadets and officers-to-be — those “unusual difficulties” are the stuff of everyday life. Quotidian.
That’s maybe what I’d take, at least, from the recent words of the daughter of another Army first; from Elizabeth Alexander, daughter of the first African-American Secretary of the Army. Some have critiqued Alexander’s inaugural poem, categorized its flaws, but however I might feel about those flaws or shortcomings, that stanza of praise for the everyday work of “figuring-it-out at kitchen tables” is what does it for me.
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.