African American Military History is a relatively new sub-field of both African American History and of Military History. Michael Lee Lanning’s
The African-American Soldier
was written in 1997 and Gerald Astor’s
The Right to Fight
was written in 1998. Several other books have been written since.
There are several questions raised by the study of African American Military History. First and foremost is, “How does African-American Military History reflect both discrimination and the often heroic struggle to overcome discrimination?” Gerald Astor implicitly acknowledges the importance of this question by the title of his seminal work in this field. The right to fight is clearly a mixed blessing. While most humans are willing to give their own lives for their countries under certain circumstances, we should note that the life instinct in humans is almost always stronger than the death instinct. In other words, it might even seem that being deprived of the right to die may not be nearly as bad as other forms of discrimination. Yet African Americans historically have wanted inclusion in the military as well as in all other walks of life.
African Americans were deprived of the right to fight - especially before the Civil War. Once that right was granted, African-Americans were confined to segregated units until after World War Two. African-Americans were given some of the most dangerous assignments -especially in unpopular wars. Nor have promotions within the military been easily forthcoming - even though there have been major improvements here since the late 1960’s. Finally, African-Americans have systemically been denied recognition for valor and courage.
Yet as Michael Lee Lanning observes in
The African-American Soldier
, African-American heroism under fire is everywhere to be seen. His subtitle “From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell” is most appropriate. The names and stories of these African American heroes are just starting to be mentioned.
The second question is, “Has the military been ahead or behind the rest of society as far as equal opportunity is concerned?” The easy answer is that, despite all the discrimination African-Americans have experienced in the military, the military remains the most progressive institution in America. General Colin Powell has maintained “the military has given African-Americans more equal opportunity than any other institution in American society” (Lanning 285). He may well be right, but my observations above imply that the military should be the most racially progressive institution in any society - given that the right to die is a mixed blessing. The other supposedly progressive institution in America in regard to race is the entertainment industry. Once again, one could expect this - since entertainment performed by black Americans has always been largely for the benefit of White Americans. Thus I am not disputing that the military, like the entertainment industry, is ahead of the rest of society. I am merely arguing that one could logically expect these two institutions to be ahead of the curve.
A third question, raised by Alan Gropman in his essay review “African-American Miltary History: We Can Do Better,” is “How accurate is the scholarship in this field?” Gropman maintains the scholarship so far is sloppy, even slipshod. He is very critical of Lynn Homan and Thomas Reilly’s
Black Knights: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen
(Gretna, LA: Pelican Press, 2001). I must admit that identifying Thurgood Marshall as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court is a fairly major error. (Gropman 334) Errors like this suggest that the appalling lack of respect given African-Americans by historians for so long may have- in some cases- been replaced by an exaggeration of African American achievements.
The case of Peter Salem, an African American Revolutionary War figure, may be instructive here. In 1976 Burke Davis clearly states that Salem “took aim at Major Pitcairn as he was rallying the … British troops, & shot him thro the head….” The major fell dead just as he was shouting to his men, “The day is ours.”(Davis 15). Davis provides no footnotes at all in his book, though he does include a bibliography. Lanning maintains “Salem’s accomplishments at Bunker Hill lack official substantiation.”(Lanning 9) Astor fails to mention Peter Salem at all. I believe Lanning’s treatment of Peter Salem is far preferable to either Davis’ or Astor’s.
It would seem as if this dispute and others like it are case studies for an essay discussing the biases of professional historians. But the issue here is actually one of methodology rather than bias. Documentation of bravery under fire depends on oral accounts more than other branches of history does. These oral accounts can be extremely difficult to substantiate, making the military historians’ craft an especially difficult one.
Gropman is correct, however, in maintaining that African-American military histories must meet the standard of scholarly accuracy. He is somewhat critical of the other two books he reviews: Gail Buckley’s
American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm
(New York: Random House, 2001) and Robert Edgerton’s
Hidden Heroes: Black Soldiers in America’s Wars
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001). My problem with Gropman is that he claims “there is not much quality to choose from” (Gropman 33) without even mentioning Astor or Lanning.
A final question for discussion is, “What were the key periods of progress in African-American military history?” I strongly believe that African-American history in general can be characterized by what I call the stock market theory: there have been many peaks and valleys but the long-term trend toward equality is upward. This theory applies to African-American military history. Here I would say the peaks are represented by the Revolutionary War period, the Civil War period, World War II, and the period from Vietnam to the present. The Revolutionary War period marked the beginning of African-American military involvement, The Civil War period marked the expansion of involvement, World War II is significant for desegregation, and the post-Vietnam era is important for progress toward equal opportunity in access to leadership positions.