The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) announced that the 2018 theme of Black History Month is “African Americans in Times of War.”
ASALH stated that the theme “give[s] us cause for critical pause in our studies…to consider the specific and unique issues faced by African Americans in times of war.” While “pausing,” the paradoxical nature of this experience becomes apparent, and brings with it questions of dissonance as it relates to identity and a sense of home.
The black military experience is one frayed with dissonance, both on the battlefield and upon returning home to the United States. The idea of home is brought into question after being abroad. Toni Morrison’s astonishing 2012 novel, Home, screams of this idea in the form of protagonist Frank Money – black bodies experience newfound autonomy overseas, only to be denied such when returning home. We see this idea displayed across space and time – domestic and CET. Through the use of film, both documentary and (fictionalized) feature, we see the entrance of African-Americans into the canon of military history bestowed a dignity that perhaps only film could allow.
Filmmaker and documentarian William Miles creates such a space in his Men of Bronze (1977). The film depicts the 369th Infantry Regiment, and their journey fighting alongside French troops during WWI. The documentary style highlights the dissonance felt by black soldiers, after being in Europe then returning home to the United States. In her book Struggles for Representation, Black Film Center/Archives founder Phyllis Klotman emphasizes this idea when referencing an interview that Miles conducted in the film, stating that “Williams, who was wounded… grimly recalls the injuries of racism [at home].”
A similar sentiment is captured in Miles’s 1992 film, Liberators. In an interview with the New York Times about Miles’s life and the film, Buchenwald survivor Benjamin Bender is quoted praising the black regiment who came to his rescue: “black soldiers of the Third Army, tall and strong… carrying the emaciated bodies of the liberated prisoners.” The documentary form allows for the commemoration of the black soldier as a heroic figure, while also allowing the brutalities of racism upon return to the United States to be described candidly by its survivors.
Inspired by some of the works of Miles, filmmaker Jacqueline Shearer went on to make The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (1991), a documentary that depicted black soldiers fighting on behalf of the Union, in hopes of carving out a space that they could begin to truly call home. For these individuals, failure was not an option – “any Negro taken in [Union] uniform will be summarily put to death.” The politicized nature of the film shows how vital these black soldiers were to the surrender of the Confederacy.
The noteworthy narrative film Glory valorizes the 54th Infantry, though it is criticized for failing to focus on the personal and political experience of soldiers as well as romanticizing the battle at Fort Wagner for the sake of driving the narrative. It is through this that the idea of dissonance reappears, not only in the lived experience of the soldiers, but also in the methods through which their stories are told. Documentary and fiction are both useful, but lend themselves to different affective ends.
The nature of war creates dissonance in many cases – young people are sent with nebulous objectives that they may not agree with and asked to fight for their countries. The historicity of the black experience in America would create additional layers to this dissonance. Experiencing autonomy abroad and returning to a racist society has proven to be a situation that makes one question the nature of home. In the case of the earliest black soldiers, freedom had yet to be determined; home was but a construct heavily masked behind the lack of physical autonomy over the body. Though the concept of home can be nebulous, the use of film allows for us to contemporarily ruminate on the dissonance experienced by these brave individuals.
All the films mentioned can be obtained for screening, teaching and research via collections in the Black Film Center/Archive. Notably open for research is the William Miles Collection, obtained in August 1997. This collection includes long-form interviews that would later be used in Liberators, as well as miscellaneous photographs and a military insignia medal.