I’m finally back from exam purgatory and what’s a better welcome back than discussing the paradox of black soldiers . Today’s Memorial Day, a holiday set aside to commemorate those that died in service to the ideals of the United States. Indeed, memorials are important because in theory they help societies remember the principles they were founded on. Yet, we cannot pretend that Memorial Day itself isn’t paradoxical after all black people died fighting for a society that view them as subhuman. The shooting of Crispus Attucks is heralded as the first death of the American Revolution yet while Crispus laid dying on the streets in Boston slavery flourished. In fact, while white men debated concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happyness, black people were subjected to the whip and chains of slavery throughout the thirteen colonies. During the Revolutionary War some would join the British is hopes of securing their freedom while approximately 5,000 men would serve in the Continental Army. Historian Edmund Morgan’s 1972 article “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” examines how revolutionaries could claim “All men are created equal” but yet still believe and actively defend the institution of slavery. These men died believing in a better America one that the current Black Lives Matter movement indicates is not here yet.
When the War of 1812 rolled around enslaved men were tempted yet again with the chance to be free after with many running away to join the British. Others sided with the US against the British invaders. The Civil War presents probably one of the most unique cases of black soldiers because although slavery factored as the major reason for the war, there were black soldiers on both sides of the fields. Black soldiers fought for the confederacy and the Union.
The World Wars of the twentieth century moved the discussion to questions of equality. Black soldiers returning from these wars after losing fellow black brothers encountered the same racism despite their heroism in combat. Events such as the Red Summer in 1919 only further confirmed white America’s ingratitude for the black lives sacrificed for the American way.
At the dawn of the Civil rights movement African Americans fought in the Korean War. They would not see significant change till the 1960s. Even after the Civil Rights Movement ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968, black people were still treated as second class citizens. African American served faithfully in the Vietnam War despite its imperialistic mission and a draft that compelled them to fight. Noted figures such as Muhammad Ali (see video below) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raised valid critiques about the paradox of a black person fighting in Vietnam when the US refused to extend all the rights of citizenship to African Americans.
The Gulf Wars, the war in Afghanistan, and the never ending War on Terror continue to not only demonstrate the long tradition of African Americans fighting for the US but also how they fight for democratic ideals not fully extended to them. Take for instance the case of Anthony Hill who was shot on March 9, 2015 by a police officer. Hill was unarmed. Hill was also naked. Hill suffered from mental illness and struggled to get help from Veterans Affairs. Hill is one of the latest in a long line of black soldiers who fought for democratic ideals that did not include them. Though today is Memorial Day we also have to think about the black veterans who are most likely to be homeless, unemployed, or imprisoned. What about the black men and women like Hill who though they came home from the war continued to fight and some sadly die at the hands of white supremacy?
Perhaps an interesting point to end on is the recent feel good video circulating the web of the Haiti-born cadet Alix Idrache whose single tear while in formation expressed his joy of graduating from West Point. A truly touching video yet I instantly recognized the paradox of a black Haitian man serving in the US army considering the long history of the Haitian embargo, the racist stereotypes about Haiti perpetuated by the US, the US occupation, and US’ continued meddling in Haitian affairs and elections. As a black immigrant I’ve seen many like myself who joined the military in hopes of getting their citizenship after years of being undocumented or as a way to get ahead. Many of us hail from countries who also experienced the imperial power and presence of the US in one way or another which places black immigrant soldiers in an historically interesting place.
This post isn’t making a specific argument as much as it is to show that today is certainly a paradox for black soldiers. Today I celebrate all the nameless black soldiers that served in all the wars in the name of American democracy, equality, and freedom. Ideals we have yet to see fully materialize.
See my post expressing gratitude to a black vet here.
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