Ida Mae Irby
24” x 12” • Acrylic on Canvas
This painting is inspired by a female marine who served as an artillery sergeant in the Marine Corps. Camouflage is an element of disguise, while a portrait highlights unique features. Here the female patriot is highlighted and distorted. She blends into the military culture, but one cannot ignore her unique individuality.
Fine art has adjusted to technological augmentation, which is an essential tool for telling the history of our nation. Many public interfaces involve the creation of an interface between the human and technology. New ideas, symbols, values, perceptions, and beliefs are shared through digital rapid public communication. Today the aesthetics of digital art cannot be separated from its social and political context. These multidisciplinary methods can be seen in my illustrations and paintings.
Inspired by the experiences of DeAndria Hardy
by Robert LeHeup
For DeAndria, to be a black woman in America is to be a minority, squared. It is to know two fold that you will be looked upon as lesser, in spite of your qualifications. It means that you have to work twice as hard as a black man to get the same respect, which is still less than that of a white man. It means that if you carve out your own place in the world, it isn’t because the world or anyone else gave it to you. It’s because, in spite of all the brazen entitlement and hidden trials and damning judgments that were laid upon you each day, you took all of that and built up something better. Something stronger and lasting, because you had to work harder for it. So what does it say about someone who has reached this level of strength and courage, that they would turn to those who weren’t given a chance and then offer them one?
DeAndria’s mom had warned her about joining the Marine Corps. It wasn’t just the inherent danger, where she might get deployed to a combat zone and either come back with less than you had when you left or not come back at all. The warnings had been shown in the history of the Tuskegee Airmen. It had been spread on pamphlets dropped from the sky by the North Vietnamese. It could be seen daily in the news, where African Americans were treated like they were somehow lower in the eyes of God, in spite of how passionately they filled their lungs in songs of prayer. She had gone down list upon list of why DeAndria shouldn’t join. But DeAndria already knew all of that. Short and athletic, her frame had already forced a style of dynamism that can only be found in existential trenches, where she had already become a scrapper.
By the time she joined in May of 2009, there had been new regulations put into effect in regard to haircuts for females. It would later be pointed out that these regulations did not take into account a lot of aspects of African American hair, which made the process of being within the stringent standards a matter of taking hours where it might take white people minutes. So as a fresh recruit who had just begun the process of being broken down so she could rebuild stronger, she had arrived at the doorstep with hair that was perfectly in “regs.” So when a black drill instructor had to come to her defense against a white drill instructor who had said otherwise, what her next few years would look like started to hit home.
In time, she made it to the fleet Marine Corps, meaning that she had graduated bootcamp, as well as the school that trained her for the job she would have for the next few years. Working in Ammunition Logistics, she was brought into the fold of the culture, if only on the rim, where she had her expectations tempered through blunt honesty. With a disparate number of minorities in that company, there was a majority-empowerment that had defined the culture.
In that environment, where everyone is meant to be darker or lighter shades of green, there was a casual racism that seemed to be adopted by everyone. As in, everyone. The side comments, the comfortable sneers, the contests to see who could be more offensive in regard to both racism and sexism seemed to be the sort of banter that the men were used to. That meant jokes like “we’re gonna put you to work because that’s all you guys are familiar with” would be told by black people as much as white. No one corrected anyone.
Still, she knew she was not alone. She had been pulled aside by those who shared her common struggles, the understood support having been set culturally. You do this to ensure you aren’t taken advantage of because of your race or sex. “You look after me and I’ll look after you,” like a battle-buddy, but the war is both subtle and at home. Add to that she was a female and it was in her best interest to never go anywhere alone. Knowing some of the depths of human depravity, more security was better than less. If something went wrong, then 9 times out of 10, they’d believe the other person. But it was more than that.
It would be a support system, where achievements would be lauded, expectations were tempered, harsh criticism was a compliment. After all, as a black woman, you have to work twice as hard… twice as hard. This was further realized by her company gunnery sergeant, who had taken her under his wing to make sure she went as far as she could. Classes, places to volunteer, directions for how to succeed beyond expectations, he gave her the template for being an undeniable asset. She found solace in his help. She knew he wasn’t doing it for any other reason than to make sure she did her best, in spite of her perceived limitations. He had seen beyond what people thought defined her and addressed the soul that was waiting there.
But that didn’t stop other Marines from approaching her with less noble intent. Things like an officer from an adjacent company making a big scene at the Marine Corps Ball because he thought her hair was out of regulation, as though she could just pop into the bathroom and fix her bangs, rather than the eight hours she’d spent earlier that day having one knot after another slowly twisted. But the gunny had her back, and in the end, it was for the right. Her hair, as always, was within regulations. But beyond that, the necessity of looking after one another, regardless of rank, was and is felt through generations. And she felt that.
So in June of 2012, when the time came for her to deploy overseas, she was disappointed to hear that the gunnery sergeant wasn’t going with her. Instead, while he remained at his post in the US, while she and her platoon trained the local Senegalese government on proper ways to create supply points, firing ranges, and coordinate supply. A combined operation, there would be several different nations involved, all training together, all sharing far more in common than not.
Though she wouldn’t have shirked going to a combat zone, she thought a place like Senegal was right up her alley. She was going to a place where, instead of violently forcing you to come to terms with your own death like Afghanistan might, you’d be allowed to know peace in the vastness of nature, limited only by the gift of time. She was going to the Motherland, where Steve Harvey said it was like “going home to a place you’d never known.” This just felt right, because in America, being black is a definer. No one knows where anyone else came from. No heritage associated. In Senegal, you could feel the historic nostalgia in your marrow.
When she got off the plane, she was hit by the reality of it. Everyone looked like her. All the beautiful shades in which black men and women come, hair textured like hers, faces hinting at familiar features as though any one of them might be a relative. She would no longer have to come to terms with being the only black woman in the room, but could find the solace of being a part of a group. Part of something larger; a massive, teeming family held under the divine dome of big-sky country, desert meeting cloudless sky in a sign of mutual respect. But all of that would have to wait.
Before really exploring, she and her company had to get in formation for a roll call and gear check, then everyone was told where to pitch their tent that they would be living in for the foreseeable future. Being one of three women on the entirety of the base, it had already started uncomfortably, especially because now everyone knew where she’d be sleeping. But she was too caught up in the wonders of a new country to let that defeat her. It was as though the world were a present just waiting to be unwrapped.
Rather than just a chow hall, the Senegaliese women had been bussed in to cook, the smells of the food as filling as the food itself.
“Don’t call me ma’am! Call me Aunty or Mama.”
The joy of that could have made her tear up.
“That’s right, mama! Give me some of what you’re cooking! Don’t tell me what’s in it, mind you, but I’m gonna eat it!”
And then there were the Senegalese men jogging in formation past her, tall and glistening with sweat, clothes unkempt, yet uniform. The cadence called was more civilian than military, a song carried on the light breeze of a hot day, bolstering them to put one foot in front of the other. They made silhouettes as they passed the sweeping, staggering sunset, hints and wisps of clouds passing languidly, a far cry from the knots of pent-up barometric pressure that would hang over the base back in the states. Vast and untamed, there was a beauty to its raw lack of shaping. And as the sun set, she went back to her tent, having marked it to know it was hers amongst all the others, and went to sleep to the sounds of Africa.
When she awoke the next day and lifted the flap of her tent, she was greeted by a different reality. A large group of African men from different nations were milling around as they waited for breakfast directly across the street. As she got out of the tent, their eyes went wide and they started talking and gesturing to one another, then to her. It made her eerily uncomfortable, but she tried to push that feeling down so she could do her job. She was a strong woman and better than to let this compromise her job.
There wasn’t a vehicle for her and her crew, so she had to walk roughly a mile to and from the Ammo Supply Point, or ASP. This wouldn’t typically be an issue. Athletic and driven, walking a couple of miles daily was nothing, in spite of having to trek through open Africa. But there was something missing, as though she had just realized she had forgotten to pack it. Times like this, when she would have to travel a significant distance, she would find one of her people and buddy up. What she found instead was a strange vacuum.
The other two women on base, both caucasian, didn’t work at the ASP and didn’t share her schedule. And because of the culture and expectations everyone had, she wasn’t comfortable being escorted by a man. If something happened to her, she knew she would not be able to tell anyone. Everyone had already concluded that “stuff happens overseas,” meaning your word against his and all of a sudden you’re out of ammunition. To add insult to injury, she was no longer a part of the minority. No longer the sort of person that was given the option of solidarity. Thousands of miles from home, surrounded by familiar strangers from both Senegal and the Marine Corps, she was alone. This was when she decided to always be armed.
Surrounded by nothing but men, female attention was craved, and so she became a target that had been agreed upon by every male on base. It took about a week before people started messing with her tent, walking by making loud comments and lewd suggestions defensible with the caveat “I’m just playing.” A week after that she would wake up to Marines and Senegalese men waiting across the road, grabbing their crotch and smiling at her while her pupils were still adjusting to sunlight. It was around then that she began to take extra duties at the ASP, as often as not simply staying there, rather than going back to her tent. Worst case scenario, if something happened to her, at least she’d be able to identify the aggressor.
While working at the ASP, she had made friends with a man who had spent the better part of his adult life flying back and forth to America from Senegal. Married and with children, she felt the man’s good intentions, and so had developed a tentative relationship of camaraderie. Not to the point that she would let him escort her, but a conversation can go a long way. He explained to her that there were very defined roles in Senegal between men and women. The men fight in their military. The women cooked for them. This made DeAndria the anomaly.
But understanding and patience are two different things. As time progressed, her torments got worse. The male Marines began joining with the Senegalese in displaying themselves to her night and day, propositioning her, trying to expose themselves, and whispering about her as she walked by. Instead of getting upset, she tried to focus on the positive aspects of where she was. The food was delicious, the women were each “mama” or ”auntie,” and the cadence of the Senegalese men, melodies carried on warm wind… had been infused with her name. They had changed words to one of their songs and were singing about her. Singing and sneering.
It got to the point where unless something was dire, she didn’t go back to her tent. She was always armed. If not a pistol, then a rifle, always at arm’s reach. She had hoped that her work and volunteerism was looked upon as motivation, rather than fear of assault. Couple that with the makeshift shower they’d created for the ASP and she rarely had a need to leave.
That shower… That shower was a game-changer. It was an oasis, where she could wash off the grime thrown at her daily and find a sense of safety and peace. Granted, she couldn’t take a gun in with her, but you can’t work professionally with people right next to you and smell like you went bad.
She did what was needed as well as anyone else could, kept her head down, and in time, she left Senegal. Dakar was a quick stop before flying home, the logistics of the journey taking days to line up. But the time was quickly approaching. She was so close to America that she could feel it reaching out to her. Could feel the warm embrace waiting. But by then, no longer knowing support, she didn’t think it was safe to reach back. Didn’t feel it was objectively a good idea to leave herself vulnerable in that way. She needed to look after herself because no one else would. Thank God she was always armed. Armed and ready for duty.
A few days before her group was to fly back to the states, she was approached by her platoon sergeant. Her work ethic was now unquestionable, so she had no idea why she was being pulled aside. She could barely control herself when he told her she had begun developing a “bad attitude.” Patiently, she tried to explain it to him. Tried to break it down Barney-style how the injustices forced upon her were an indictment on the very military she had sworn to fight for. That she had been abused day in and day out for months. That she was doing her best in a bad situation. But her voice fell on deaf ears.
“There’s no reason to have a bad attitude. Everybody’s dealing with stuff.”
The next night, after she had voiced her concerns to the sergeant in charge, she was going through her typical turn-in routine, the last step before sleep being to take a shower. Ah, the shower… The one place where she felt she could exhale, break down and clean the events of the day before collecting herself, then grabbing her weapon and continuing her duties. She was so close to finishing when a Marine busted the curtain wide open and asked “Whatchoo doing?”
She was exposed, stripped of dignity, but held her own and looked at him, saying “The fuck you think I’m doing?! Could you please leave?!”
And he did, after pausing to take her in like a painter looking to capture shadow. Like a man intent. Closing the curtain dismissively, he vanished into the pitch of the night. Into the dark wilds. Leaving her standing there, one light dangling from the ceiling, refusing her the dignity to which she’d held fast five minutes before. One damned light just standing there. Proud in its electric power. Confident that if it were broken… if she were to reach out and crush its thin, fragile shell with her hand… she might die from it.
When she told her platoon sergeant the next day, he hesitantly claimed he would take administrative action, so in the following days, true to form, nothing happened. No paperwork. No “Let’s hear your side of the story.” Just the empty silence of well-greased machinery.
They left a few days later.
It took six months before the emotional impact of those events really took hold. Her heart rate and blood pressure had begun to skyrocket for no perceivable reason. She would get dizzy and have panic attacks and want to both run away and lash out in one smooth motion.
It wasn’t about a boy being a dumb boy. It was about how this young man had plotted. Waited for the right moment. It was about the joy when he timed it right. The confidence he felt when he let her know he caught her naked. Caught her exposed because you can’t bring your rifle into the shower.
In the one place she could afford to…
In the one place…
She was afraid to have solitary lights turned on at night. Maybe it was the light itself. Maybe it was the dark context. The surroundings. The impending, dangerous nothing that is waiting patiently to do what it wants with you and not care what happens afterward.
The Marine Corps said that they could address her issues. But that meant she wasn’t deployable. So she was honorably discharged and left to the wilds of the civilian world, her support system called into question on the most basic levels. Not knowing who she could reach out to, she fell. A shut-in. A person so intimidated by the outside that the only company she kept were her mother and sister. But as she was falling, they caught her, still just as supporting as they had been before she left. Evenings spent with junk food and bad television were significant steps toward her remembering the feeling of solidarity. And with that solidarity, she had the strength to reach out and get the support she’d earned.
But after seeking help from the VA, as well as veteran-focused nonprofits, she was hit hard by the reminder of what it means to be a minority, squared. Back to being in rooms where she was always the odd one out. Back to awkward kindness and doubt. But she was strong. Adaptable. With support, she pivoted to help others fill a space she had once deeply needed. A presence who was around just long enough that she could truly recognize the quality of its absence. A space that had been missing since she left her gunnery sergeant years before. And one that took her mother and sister to help her find again.
Having been let down by so many others, she created BattleBetty, a female veteran focused nonprofit that helps address issues like sexual assault, homelessness, and any other support these women might need. Having been laden with shame, judgment, and all manner of vitriol, she took what she was given and built with it something far greater. Not because the world or anyone else gave it to her, but because she was strong enough to overcome all the obstacles laid before her. This amount of courage and strength could stand all on its own. But with the support it now provides to so many others, DeAndria took her pain and created something beautiful. Something powerful.
Now, whenever she goes to nonprofit or military events, especially military nonprofit events, she’s still often the only black woman in the room. The minority, squared. But that’s just two more sources of strength.
She’s not afraid of dying.
She’s not afraid of speaking Truth to Power.
She’s not afraid to brave the violence we all cast upon one another, instead acting as a beacon of strength for anyone courageous enough to reach for it. She’s a scholar, but as much, she’s a warrior, fighting tooth and nail for every inch of battleground won.
But she’s still scared of light in pitch darkness.
Note: Original Art will be on exhibition through August 2023.
Art will not ship until September 2023.
Where applicable, we offer reproduction prints on canvas to enjoy in the mean time, for an additional $100 charge. Canvas prints will be cropped to closest available size.
Out of stock