The Army Lawyer | Issue 2 2021View PDF

null Dear Private Matthews

Major Awoniyi (bottom left) with her father, mother, sister, and two family friends on her first night in the United States in April 1993. (Photo courtesy of author)

Practice Notes

Dear Private Matthews


Sometimes, I feel like the poster child for the American dream. I have known what it is to live in want and in plenty. I have lived in a small structure in a rural village, walking miles every day to and from school. I remember crying one day on the long walk home because I broke the strap on my shoe. I was terrified of the punishment I would receive at home. These were my school shoes—one of only two pairs of shoes I owned—and my carelessness would upset my mother. We did not have the luxury to just buy new shoes. Later, my family lived in a one-room apartment (yes, one room, not one bedroom). At the end of the hallway, there was a hole in the floor that served as a toilet for everyone in the apartment complex. At the opposite end of the hallway sat a giant barrel. The women in the building would fetch water from outside and fill it; we did not have running water in our homes. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, I am embarrassed at the number of shoes in my overflowing closet, and I live by myself in a townhouse with indoor plumbing and (not one, but two!) toilets. It is not lost on me how fortunate I am.

When asked to write this personal statement, I really struggled. Despite the negative experiences that have shaped my understanding of race and how some in society view me, a Black woman, I was raised to keep my head down, work hard, and not complain. “Go along to get along.” My parents sacrificed everything to bring our family to America. I have been given opportunities I am not allowed to squander. I am one of the lucky ones. Who am I to criticize a country that has made so much possible?

America and I

While grateful, I also see that America, like so many of us, is a work in progress. The land of equal treatment to which America aspires is not yet the reality for all her children. It has not been mine. At a high school academic program, my roommate confessed she had been afraid to live with a Black girl for the summer. Fortunately, her fears were assuaged when she saw the Bible on my nightstand because, in her words, “Maybe I wasn’t ‘that bad’ if we shared the same faith.” As an adult, I have been followed in stores and purchased items I did not want just to prove I could afford to shop there. I have been called a diversity hire, the “N-word,” and “sensitive” when I dared to express frustration at comments targeted toward my race or gender. I have learned to jokingly laugh off these experiences so as not to be perceived as the “angry Black woman.” I have learned to sacrifice, stay late, and push hard in an effort to prove to others—and, admittedly, to myself—that I am not just a token, but that I deserved the position, the award, or the seat at the table. Smile, work hard, keep your head down. Go along to get along.

Yet, these past months have awakened something within me. I’m slowly finding my voice. I have had conversations that I have long been afraid to have. I have been forced to face some of the deep-seated experiences that have grieved me—experiences I pushed down because dwelling on them would neither help me nor honor my parents’ sacrifices. I have been grateful for the opportunity to have these conversations and share the experiences that have hurt and burdened me, yet also molded and motivated me to challenge the biases that try to put me in a box because of the color of my skin.

Though emotionally and mentally draining, these conversations have been largely positive. The times when fellow brigade staff officers, commanders, judge advocates, or paralegals came to my office, closed the door, and asked to have a frank conversation in a safe space have been—in a word—refreshing. Although I occasionally have to gently remind people that I am not a spokesperson for my race, these conversations have moved me as I’ve watched friends become allies when I’ve been vulnerable enough to share my heart. These experiences have brought me great joy. Yet, I remain skeptical. Will things really change? Are people really changing?

The Space Between Conviction and Grace

Almost seventeen years ago, seventeen-year-old Private First Class Awoniyi was going through basic combat training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Over the course of that summer, I built a friendship with a Soldier named Private (PV2) Matthews. Private Matthews grew up in a small town I can no longer recall. I was the first Black person he had ever interacted with in a meaningful way. Although skeptical of me at first, we became fast friends. As graduation approached, he and I spoke more of his family and I looked forward to meeting them. On Family Day, the day before graduation, parents could take their Soldiers out for a day pass. My family could not make the journey to South Carolina, so I spent the day on post with some other Soldiers. When we returned to the unit footprint to sign in at the Charge of Quarters desk, I saw PV2 Matthews with a woman I guessed to be his mother based on our previous conversations. Excited to meet her, I raised my hand above my head and waved at my friend, smiling as I began making my way across the room toward them. The look on PV2 Matthews’s face stopped me dead in my tracks. What was that—panic? Disdain? Shame? Fear? Whatever it was, it was enough to clarify the reality of our relationship. I watched PV2 Matthews place his hand on his mother’s shoulders and turn her away from me. I stood paralyzed and rejected, looking at the back of someone I naively believed had changed.

Private Matthews avoided me that evening after formation, breaking our routine of shining our boots together. He avoided me the next day after graduation as our platoon members said their goodbyes and exchanged phone numbers, promising to stay in touch. I am ashamed to say that I did not seek him out either. At the time, I was unable to forgive him for the hurt I felt. Looking back, I wonder if things would have been different had I shown him a little grace. I hope that his journey of uncovering his biases continued in spite of my pride and unwillingness to understand his internal battle.

Teaching Moments

After that experience, I can’t help but wonder if the conversations that have been taking place since the murder of George Floyd will bring real change. I watched some leaders remain silent, appearing to not realize that their silence was deafening. It led me to wonder if my community seeks real change or whether—like I have done on so many occasions—it is more comfortable to go along to get along. I am encouraged that we’re having diversity and inclusion conversations. I am encouraged that we’re looking at the racial disparity in the application of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I am encouraged that we’ve effectively banned the display of the Confederate Flag on post. However, this is not the first time in our military’s history that we’ve undertaken these very same efforts. As we confront these issues again, let us be mindful that our courage to call things out for what they are today sends a message to our force of tomorrow.

I hold on to hope. Many have the humility to look within, the empathy to listen, and the boldness to speak up. To these leaders, thank you for your courage; thank you for helping me find my voice. To those like PV2 Matthews out there—those who are grappling with what they believe, how they feel, and whether to take a stand—thank you for your honesty. It is only through this authentic, inner struggle that genuine change is possible. But only if we choose to lean into the uncomfortable.

Conclusion

I’m learning that I must show grace. Many want to be allies, but don’t know how. Some want to understand, but are afraid to ask questions for fear of being misunderstood or saying the “wrong” thing. Let’s create an environment where it is safe to have these conversations. Then, let’s move past them. We must be an institution that continuously critiques itself and seeks improvement. We cannot ignore the hard truths, placate, be complacent, or declare a premature victory. We have a duty to better ourselves, our organization, and our country. It is up to each of us to ask: How do I make real change for the good of our military? Our society? My neighbor? And, how do I go about this with courage of conviction and grace? It is only then that we can begin the journey toward healing and understanding. Only then can our collective American dream be truly realized. TAL


MAJ Awoniyi is the Chief of Justice for the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.


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