America ignores Black woman hero of 2009 Somali pirate hijacking


“Casting call for pirates sparks excitement, unease,” read a recent headline in a Minneapolis paper. It was about auditions for local Somalis to portray pirates in a Sony Pictures flick about the April 2009 sea hijacking of an American ship, the Maersk Alabama. Turns out some Somalis are concerned that the image of their entire community will be tarnished by the misdeeds of a few men.

How well founded those concerns may or may not be, the news items brings back to mind a different issue. When the original story broke, much was made of the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, emerging as a hero after being rescued from a five-day standoff by Navy snipers shooting three of the pirates who’d been holding him in a lifeboat.

There was such fuss over Phillips that, right after the rescue, President Barack Obama stated, ”I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew. His courage is a model for all Americans.” Obama even had Capt. Phillips and his wife come to the White House.

Phillips got himself a nice book deal out of all the attention, titled A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. The cherry on top of the whipped cream: Columbia Pictures optioned the book, bought the rights to tell Phillips’ life story and snagged one of the industry’s most bankable stars, Tom Hanks, to play the part.

There’s no word on who’s going to play Rear Admiral Michelle Janine Howard. Or, for that matter, if she’s even going to be portrayed in the film at all. In all this, in fact, Rear Admiral Howard’s name has been not very much more than a footnote.

Who is Rear Admiral Michelle Janine Howard? Oh, just the person in command of the fleet of ships that saved Capt. Richard Phillips. No big deal was made about her, though. Indeed, you had to stumble across an obscure mention in any of the news media — print, radio, television — to find out she had anything to do with this internationally publicized crisis at all, much less that she was in charge.

That is because Capt. Richard Phillips is the kind of hero America loves to fall all over — a White man. And Rear Admiral Michelle Janine Howard is the kind of hero America loves to ignore — a Black woman. I wonder whether Barack and Michelle Obama had her over for tea, crumpets or whatever the hell they serve in the White House like they did him.

There certainly don’t seem to be any quotes floating around with President Obama praising her handling of the situation, just Obama’s gushing over this White man who had to have his fat pulled out of the fire. By a Black woman.

It really is sickening — enough to turn a buzzard’s stomach — how determinedly entrenched racism and sexism remain in this nation’s collective mindset. Rear Admiral Michelle Janine Howard, by being relegated to obscurity, her critical role in the whole affair being patently overlooked, is a damning example of both racism and sexism in a supposedly enlightened day and age.

It is to her credit that Rear Admiral Howard has never gone on record to register a complaint. Evidently, she just looked at it as having done her duty and gone on with the rest of her career.

Obama, Hanks and the opportunists at Sony Pictures should all be ashamed of their callous disregard for the individual to whom they actually owe a great deal of gratitude. Whether the movie’s a hit, a flop or falls somewhere in between, one thing about it can be guaranteed: It won’t have a shred of integrity to it.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.