“A Sickness to Erase History:” Sheryl Lee Ralph Champions Untold WWII Story

 “A Sickness to Erase History:” Sheryl Lee Ralph Champions Untold WWII Story

(Disney/Brian Bowen Smith)

Sheryl Lee Ralph has graced the stage for the last three decades. From Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, Moesha, Dream Girls, and most recently, Abbot Elementary, where she plays Mrs. Barbara Howard, her roles have served as a powerful voice onscreen. Now, she’s using her voice in a different way to share an incredible story on Black history that has been underwater for more than eight decades.

Lee Ralph is the narrator for the documentary The Real Red Tails. She takes viewers on an incredible journey of the WWII-era P-39 airplane found in Lake Huron, Michigan. Tuskegee Airman Pilot Frank Moody flew the plane, but he sadly died when the plane crashed into the Great Lake on April 11, 1941. Yet, his legacy, along with his fellow airmen, lives on. The one-hour special explores recovering the plane and the quest to solve a more than 80-year-old mystery.

“Thank God that I get to be a part of telling this wonderful story in a time when there are so many who are trying to erase, bury, act like it’s not important, the contributions of Black Americans to the totality of American history,” she tells The Buckeye Review when asked about her reaction to being to narrate the special.

Frank Moody is seen in his official military portrait,
class of 1944, single engine pilots. (National Archives and Records Administration)

In one way or another, Lee Ralph has always found a way of being at the forefront of advocating for people who are not always seen or heard. As someone who describes herself as a “victoriously aware actor.” In her interview with The Buckeye Review, she says it’s important for people to take the time to watch the documentary because it explores how the sacrifices made by those of African descent contributed to life in the United States as we know it today.

“Everything that has happened in the past should be taught and learned from,” she says. “Our history is not just for us. Our history is for everybody, and no matter how you look at it, it is a sickness that would try to say the contributions of those people don’t really matter.” 

With the documentary’s timing amid a Presidential Election year, she hopes it inspires people to recognize how the freedoms afforded to historically marginalized communities, such as voting, were only made possible thanks to people who fought for that right.

Over the last few months, Black celebrities have expressed their disappointment with what is seemingly the Democratic and Republican candidates for the presidency. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have earned enough delegates to win their respective party nominations following the primary elections.

Most recently, Cardi B has doubled down on her decision not to vote in 2024, despite using her platform in the past to urge young people and people of color to vote. In 2020, she even boasted to her followers about how she woke up early to vote for Biden. The Bronx native has seemingly turned over a new leaf in 2024 and stated she would not be voting in 2023 because she’s “unimpressed with Biden and Trump.”

(Disney/Frank Micelotta)

While Sheryl Lee Ralph didn’t name Cardi B specifically, she says celebrities using their influence to tell people not to vote in this election sets a dangerous precedent in a time when the stakes are high.

“Can you imagine if your ancestors decided not to vote because they had been and were being lynched? Can you imagine what your ancestors would have felt like had they decided not to fight for the right to vote after they had been enslaved and put into bondage for over 300 years?”

She goes on to say that much like the Red Tail pilots who were given the most challenging assignments, given the worst equipment to fly, and experimented on to fly, they still rose to the occasion and reached heights that weren’t expected of them. She hopes the pilots’ spirit of resilience is taken to the polls this year, especially young people and people of color.

“You have cast a vote for the opposition if you don’t vote. If you do vote […] you are at least giving some hope for the future,” says Lee Ralph, adding she is supporting the current President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the upcoming election. 

The Real Red Tails is now available on various streaming platforms. The special can be watched on National Geographic (Nat Geo TV), Disney+, and Hulu. 

Mitti Hicks

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