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Self-expression is hardly a part of life for cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.

So it was far from ordinary when 16 black women put their own spin on the traditional graduation photo, hoisting their fists in the air while posing in their dress uniforms, swords at their sides.

A social media firestorm followed. So did an internal inquiry at the school. Some viewed the cadets’ pose as a gesture of racial solidarity and strength. Others questioned whether it was a statement of support for Black Lives Matter.

West Point officials decided that the photo was not politically motivated and no punishment was warranted. Still, that outcome left some black female graduates confused: Why would anyone see controversy in how those 16 women celebrated their experience in the Long Gray Line?

“When I saw it, I said, ‘I wish me and my classmates had taken a picture like that,’” said Shalela Dowdy, a 2012 graduate and a friend of some of the women in the photograph. “But something clicked in my mind that not too many people would be happy about that picture. The fist stands for unity and solidarity, but some people are going to take this the wrong way.”

None of the 16 women would agree to be interviewed for this story. Speaking through black alumnae, they cited a need to focus on their graduation May 21, when Vice President Joe Biden will give the commencement address, and life after West Point. For some, that will mean active-duty service in the Army. They will become Army officers after leaving the academy.

The picture was one of several the women took in their traditional dress uniforms. A different photo, without the raised firsts, was tweeted by the chairwoman of West Point’s Board of Visitors.

Mary Tobin, who has mentored other black female cadets since graduating in 2003, said few are inclined to discuss their experiences publicly.

“To be a black woman at West Point is essentially to make a choice going in … that the majority of the time, you can never fully express your womanhood or your blackness,” Tobin said. “We’re told we’re all green. We don’t ever talk about it, because it’s hard enough for everyone at West Point to graduate.”

The application process at West Point is rigorous. Most cadets get in with a letter of recommendation from a member of Congress or the vice president. A medical and physical test is required.

Once enrolled, students are immersed in a campus environment that doesn’t focus on individuality, explained Donald Outing, West Point’s chief diversity officer.

“It’s about adopting the culture and the values of the military as an institution,” Outing said. “The mission requires us to develop soldiers and leaders to function and fight as one team.”

Sakima Brown, a 1998 graduate who was the first person from her hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, to attend West Point, said making it at the storied military academy meant you had to “shrink your blackness.”

Brown, Dowdy and Tobin described a campus life where even the most casual interactions among black students piqued curiosity. For example, they said, fellow cadets, and sometimes staff or faculty, took notice when more than a handful of blacks came together for meals on Sundays, when cadets were not required to eat with their companies.

“There were times we would sit at a table, and if there were more than two or three African-Americans, it was a problem,” Brown said. “People would come over and ask, ‘What are you guys doing?’ I have never seen 10 African-Americans sitting together at West Point. At three or four, the table would get broken up.”

Still, forging friendships was possible. Brown recalled the day an upperclassman stopped her on campus and whispered quickly, “Join the gospel choir.”

“She didn’t ask if I could sing or not sing,” Brown said. “You just joined the gospel choir. It wasn’t just about the singing. It was praying together, the support system. That was the only place you were allowed to be together, and it was once a week for two hours. During that time, you could talk about what was going on. It was the only place we were safe being together.”

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