Family  /  First Person

The Meaning of ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’

“I’d assumed this practice was a manifestation of military decorum.”

Throughout his life, I watched my father, a Black man born in 1930s Alabama, address his elders as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” He raised my siblings and me to do the same with phrases like “Yes, sir” and “Thank you, ma’am,” uttered to friends, relatives, and strangers throughout our youth. Because my father spent almost three decades in the U.S. Air Force, I’d assumed this practice was a manifestation of military decorum.

I especially noticed my dad’s formality when we ran errands together and he’d “Sir” and “Ma’am” other Black strangers his own age, even those arguably younger. I always took this to mean that he saw himself as a perpetually young man, despite his five kids and his crown of gray hair. Now I understand the habit differently. I suspect that he was acknowledging these strangers as veterans of a kind, participants in an unnamed American war in which he and they had long served, were serving still.

My father’s father was a veteran of World War I. He served in the Army’s 340th Labor Battalion in France. Far and away, most Black soldiers in my grandfather’s day were assigned to labor and service battalions rather than combat units. The perception of Black people at that time was marred by stereotypes of indolence, cowardice, and ineptitude, which had been seared into the American imagination by racist films, folktales, minstrel shows, and other sinister mythologies. America’s racial hierarchy, encoded by the plantation system and enforced via segregation laws, barred Black men from serving in positions of command over whites in the armed forces. This was not an aberrant but rather a national mindset—one codified in official U.S. military policy.

The relatively small number of Black WWI combat units—like the celebrated 369th Battalion, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters—found themselves on the receiving end of taunts, threats, and even the violent mistrust of their white counterparts. Racial tensions within the U.S. military were insurmountable enough that the Harlem Hellfighters were reassigned to French command, though, according to Black veterans’ accounts of the war, most of the racism and second-class citizenship they endured within the military went unremedied. Decorated for the heroism and indispensability of their service abroad, Black soldiers nevertheless found themselves fighting what many describe as a war within the war, and returning home to familiar racialized conflict in civilian life. W. E. B. Du Bois rallied Black veterans to confront the intractability of this dynamic in a manifesto titled “Returning Soldiers,” published in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, in 1919:

by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.
We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.