Presenter Information

Alan D. Meyer, Auburn University

Location

Panel 09: Kearney 310

Start Date

27-10-2012 8:30 AM

End Date

27-10-2012 10:00 AM

Description

In the summer of 1969, one year after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked race riots across the United States, Flying magazine published an article titled: “Can a Black Man Fly?” Despite the potentially provocative title, the author clearly had no doubts whether African Americans could master the complex technology of flight; that issue had been decisively settled during World War II by the famously successful Tuskegee Airmen. Instead, he wondered whether or not they were welcomed – or even allowed to enter – into the informal yet closely knit “community of pilots” that dominated aviation in postwar America. His question reflected a stark demographic reality: most civilian aviators at the time were white. Although the federal government did not track the race of pilots, anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. During the decades following World War II, non-white pilots were almost entirely absent from the pages of mainstream aviation publications. And in an interview conducted years after Flying published this article, Jesse Lee Brown, an African American who earned his private pilot’s license shortly after returning home from the Vietnam War, joked that he was considered “a rare bird” wherever he landed during flights around Alabama and neighboring states in the early 1970s. Even today, some estimates suggest that fewer than five percent of civilian pilots are non-white minorities.

The scarcity of non-white pilots is easy to explain in the immediate postwar era when racial segregation was legal in much of the country. Economics played a role, too. Private flying is expensive, and many minorities – who historically had lower incomes than their white counterparts – could not afford to become pilots even if they wanted to. However, formal barriers fell in the 1960s, informal attitudes regarding race began to change, and the economic prospects for minorities improved, yet private flying remained a mostly white activity. Why?

In addition to being mostly white, the community of pilots was also overwhelmingly male. In a book-length project nearing completion, I argue that postwar private fliers consciously created a culture that celebrated the mastery of technology as a hallmark of American masculinity. This, in turn, created an atmosphere in the cockpit and around the airport that, at the very least, made those who did not conform to these norms feel like unwelcome outsiders.

This conference paper represents the genesis of my next research project, in which I will examine the experiences of non-white pilots, especially African Americans. R.W. Connell’s path-breaking book Masculinities (1995) argues that different versions of masculinity, embraced by various subgroups of society, coexist side-by-side. This suggests that the masculine culture of postwar private aviation I describe in my first project was actually a form of white masculinity, created and defined by white males. Informed by Connell’s conclusions, as well as more recent work in the history of technology described in Amy Sue Bix’s bibliographic essay and other chapters in Bruce Sinclair, ed., Technology and the African-American Experience (2004), I argue that differing definitions of masculinity, as well as deep-rooted social and cultural expectations regarding who is (and is not) a pilot, help explain the longstanding dearth of non-white participants in private flying. This in turn helps shed light on the complex relationship amongst technical expertise, gender, and race.

Sources include the postwar experiences of former Tuskegee Airmen, records and oral history interviews related to the three largest organizations for African-American fliers in the U.S., articles from aviation magazines with a mostly white audience of licensed fliers, and popular publications aimed at minority, non-pilot audiences such as Ebony, Jet, and Black Enterprise.

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Oct 27th, 8:30 AM Oct 27th, 10:00 AM

’A Rare Bird….’: Race, Masculinity, and the Community of Pilots in Postwar America

Panel 09: Kearney 310

In the summer of 1969, one year after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked race riots across the United States, Flying magazine published an article titled: “Can a Black Man Fly?” Despite the potentially provocative title, the author clearly had no doubts whether African Americans could master the complex technology of flight; that issue had been decisively settled during World War II by the famously successful Tuskegee Airmen. Instead, he wondered whether or not they were welcomed – or even allowed to enter – into the informal yet closely knit “community of pilots” that dominated aviation in postwar America. His question reflected a stark demographic reality: most civilian aviators at the time were white. Although the federal government did not track the race of pilots, anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. During the decades following World War II, non-white pilots were almost entirely absent from the pages of mainstream aviation publications. And in an interview conducted years after Flying published this article, Jesse Lee Brown, an African American who earned his private pilot’s license shortly after returning home from the Vietnam War, joked that he was considered “a rare bird” wherever he landed during flights around Alabama and neighboring states in the early 1970s. Even today, some estimates suggest that fewer than five percent of civilian pilots are non-white minorities.

The scarcity of non-white pilots is easy to explain in the immediate postwar era when racial segregation was legal in much of the country. Economics played a role, too. Private flying is expensive, and many minorities – who historically had lower incomes than their white counterparts – could not afford to become pilots even if they wanted to. However, formal barriers fell in the 1960s, informal attitudes regarding race began to change, and the economic prospects for minorities improved, yet private flying remained a mostly white activity. Why?

In addition to being mostly white, the community of pilots was also overwhelmingly male. In a book-length project nearing completion, I argue that postwar private fliers consciously created a culture that celebrated the mastery of technology as a hallmark of American masculinity. This, in turn, created an atmosphere in the cockpit and around the airport that, at the very least, made those who did not conform to these norms feel like unwelcome outsiders.

This conference paper represents the genesis of my next research project, in which I will examine the experiences of non-white pilots, especially African Americans. R.W. Connell’s path-breaking book Masculinities (1995) argues that different versions of masculinity, embraced by various subgroups of society, coexist side-by-side. This suggests that the masculine culture of postwar private aviation I describe in my first project was actually a form of white masculinity, created and defined by white males. Informed by Connell’s conclusions, as well as more recent work in the history of technology described in Amy Sue Bix’s bibliographic essay and other chapters in Bruce Sinclair, ed., Technology and the African-American Experience (2004), I argue that differing definitions of masculinity, as well as deep-rooted social and cultural expectations regarding who is (and is not) a pilot, help explain the longstanding dearth of non-white participants in private flying. This in turn helps shed light on the complex relationship amongst technical expertise, gender, and race.

Sources include the postwar experiences of former Tuskegee Airmen, records and oral history interviews related to the three largest organizations for African-American fliers in the U.S., articles from aviation magazines with a mostly white audience of licensed fliers, and popular publications aimed at minority, non-pilot audiences such as Ebony, Jet, and Black Enterprise.