Black people have always had a complicated relationship with patriotism in the United States. And few events spark the same emotion and topic of patriotism like the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2021.
The attacks ended the lives of nearly 3,000 people — around 270 of whom were Black — and remain the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil to date.
But we must remember
I was in the third grade on September 11, 2001. And while our publisher Glenn Burkins has a theory I might have been “a little too young to really remember,” I do. I remember the day so vividly that I can even conjure the same emotions I had in those moments. It was a normal morning at Merry Oaks Elementary School, and Mrs. McCullough was near the front of the room, teaching something. I can’t remember what, but I do know another teacher burst into the room through a connecting door and got her attention.
Mrs. McCullough, who was usually pretty even-toned, was noticeably alarmed. Their exchange is a little blurry in my memory, but I know that another teacher was in the background, panicking. Her daughter or son — or someone she loved — worked in a building in New York City…that a plane had crashed into.
Then, one of the teachers was on the phone. “Turn on the news,” she said.
In those days, each classroom had a big-back TV on a wheeled cart. Someone, though I don’t remember who, wheeled out the cart and turned on the news. I can remember most students scooting their chairs toward the screen.
Not very long after, a second plane entered the frame of the screen and crashed into the neighboring tower. One kid laughed; he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what was happening. None of us did.
But we knew something was wrong.
I remember looking at Mrs. McCullough for an answer, but for the first time in two years — she had been my second-grade teacher too — she didn’t know what to say.
Sensing the adults’ panic, some kids started to cry.
This is where my memory ends.
I don’t know what happened next. I don’t know how I got home that day. Did school end early? Did my mom pick me up? While I’m not sure of those details, I can look back and feel the same sense of confusion and helplessness that engulfed the room.
Today, when I think about September 11th, far beyond Mrs. McCullough’s third-grade class, I often think of many stories I didn’t hear growing up — the ones of the people who look like me.
I’ve watched many documentaries about the victims, survivors and heroes of the day, but many of the stories, like much of American history, excluded the experiences of Black people on that day.
Here are a few people I’m thinking about most today.
Wanda Anita Green and CeeCee Ross Lyles were flight attendants on United Flight 93. Lyles phoned her husband during the hijacking. Her husband later said that they prayed together before she told him to tell their children she loved them, saying: “We’re getting ready to do it now. It’s happening.” The “it” was an attempt by the passengers to regain control of the plane after terrorists had taken over the cockpit. Minutes later, the plane crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania. Lyles, Green and other passengers are credited with saving countless lives by helping to prevent it from reaching the hijackers’ target in Washington, D.C.
Asia Cottom and Rodney Dickens were both young students on American Airlines Flight 77. Cottom, a sixth-grade student, was headed to California with her teacher, Sara Clark, for a National Geographic Society conference Cottom had been chosen to attend. Dickens was flying with his elementary school teacher. Not long after takeoff, hijackers took the lives of everyone on board when they crashed the plane into the Pentagon.
A dozen Black firefighters — Gerard Baptiste, Vernon Cherry, Tarel Coleman, Andre Fletcher, Keith Glascoe, Ronnie Henderson, William Henry, Karl Joseph, Keithroy Maynard, Vernon Richard, Shawn Powell, and Leon Smith Jr. — gave their lives in service of rescuing others at the Twin Towers that day.
I’m choosing to remember the flight attendants for my sister, Che, who is a flight attendant and takes the same risks every day.
I honor the students for everything they could have been, but were not allowed to become.
And I remember the fallen firefighters for my father-in-law, John, a retired firefighter, who risked his life in service of others for many years.
Who are you thinking of today? I’d love to hear your — or their — story. You can share it with me at email@example.com