As with much of the African-American experience when it comes into contact with the mainstream, Black veterans have experienced things quite differently than their white counterparts. Indeed, the first American casualty in the incident that sparked the American Revolution was a Black man named Crispus Attucks.
Black combatants fought and died in every war ever undertaken in the name of Old Glory. It used to be something of a tradition for there to be at least one veteran in every black familial unit, often there were more. My sister served in the U.S. Army, and I grew up on daydreams of fighting the “evil” Soviets in a war-torn European city at the outbreak of World War III in the early ’80s.
Nobody ever told me that Memorial Day was created by freed slaves on May 1, 1865. What makes it even more peculiar is that I came up in an inner city public school system with a relatively large number of “conscious” black teachers and instructors. I wasn’t aware of this until well into adulthood.
I was but one of millions of young black kids who were strung out on action movies and bloated patriotism. Half the 10 year olds on my block wanted to be G.I. Joe, the other half was partial to Rambo. I fully believed in all I was taught that the military stood for until my teenage years.
But with growth and time came the understanding that escaped us all as children. Life was not as monochromatic as those movies had led me to believe.
The stories that I later learned would chill me to the core, stories of proud black WWI veterans returning from Europe’s Western Front in 1918 to hatred in a South still sizzling with the detestation of the failed Confederate state.
That same hatred terrorized the descendants of former slaves who fought in World War II. White southerners were offended because they were “spoiled” by the praise showered upon them by white Parisians as they marched in victory.
Some survived the mud and blood of hand-to-hand combat in the jungles of the Pacific, only to come home and die of lynching in their own hometown as white onlookers cheered.
The American military system seems to be in desperate need of overhaul. After the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as mounting pressure to intervene in Syria, damning statistics about the way the military treats it’s own – not to mention it’s enemies – paint a dark picture of the military culture.
It is in the crucible of military service that our countrymen often say is the mark of a true patriot.
Yet, American military history is pockmarked with the deaths of black serviceman via military tribunal, such as the mass execution of 13 black soldiers following the 1917 Houston riots, or the high court martial rate of black soldiers relative to their white counterparts in 2018.
Black serviceman have had to fight battles on the homefront and abroad. Freedom is the bell often rung when America’s gears of war begin to churn anew.
But the freedom black serviceman often encounter is much less than that they so gallantly fought for overseas. The dualism of the African-American experience can be easily observed through this paradigm, and America herself is found derelict in the aftermath.