On January 20, 2009, Barack Hussein Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th President of the United States. Obama never dug holes and buried the bodies of colonial patriots. He never wore a blue Union soldier uniform and fought for a country that once enslaved him. He never rode with President Teddy Roosevelt. He was never used in parades and ceremonies as a performance soldier, never to be taken seriously as a combatant. He wasn’t mocked in Britain by Americans, referring to him as a beast with a tail. He never served as a cook aboard a naval vessel and neither was he drafted into the jungles of Vietnam against his will. And yet on a cold day in January in Washington, DC, a 4-Star General initiated a salute to him and called him sir. He embodied over two centuries of struggle for the right of African-American soldiers to prove they were capable of defending their country and securing their respected place as full citizens. He wasn’t there as a soldier or a naval petty officer. He was the Commander-in-Chief. And yet, like many who came before him, he was still not accepted in his role, an expectation of second-class citizenry held by many.
Of course, the glass ceiling was finally broken and the thousands of African-American soldiers who served before Obama became the Commander-In-Chief would be the shoulders on which he would stand. However, their struggle was not an easy one and for more than a century proceeding even General Colin Powell’s appointment as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they would face racism and constant disrespect to their humanity as they sought to participate in the Armed Forces, making their contribution to their country.
African-American soldiers have fought in every battle and war that the United States has been engaged since the Revolutionary War. Throughout that time, they have had to meet changing expectations of successive generations of white politicians and military officers. They were forced to prove themselves in repetitive campaigns of battles that made their presence necessary only as an afterthought. They were mighty in battle, disciplined, and noble in their behavior. These were competitive traits of humanity that many whites over the years have found threatening to the social idea of what a Negro was and his place in society. Despite the expectations, the African-American soldier continued to fight and prove that the race was worthy of equal citizenship and the benefits of freedom. Many lived to tell the story, but many more died knowing that they were only equal to whites as deceased corpses on a battlefield.
The racial overtones of American society played a key role in what would eventually be the racial overtones in the American military. White civilians who would one day become enlisted men or officers in the military originated within a society of racism and prejudice. Their expectations of African-Americans were imbedded within their conscience and shaped their mentality for social interaction and that of military interaction. The African-American endured unimaginable social strife as compared to modern American society. They were expected to remain in their assigned positions in life and never challenge the social structure that created such positions. In employment, they were expected to be servants or take low-paying, menial jobs. If they were teachers, they could only be teachers of other African-Americans. The expectation of them was to always show courtesies to whites and never question the rules.
Despite their acceptance into the service during World War II, African-American soldiers faced unnecessary racial expectations. However, the racism they faced didn’t come from Europeans abroad, but from their own white combatants. Seabags and war gear were not the only thing that traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, racial social expectations of the African-American hitched a ride. According to Paul Fussell, in his book The Boys’ Crusade, white American soldiers required that African-American soldiers be treated the same overseas as they were at home. “They (whites) expected strict segregation abroad, and in the United Kingdom they refused to use facilities open to black and white alike. There was loud British objection to this unlawful and distasteful social segregation,” Fussell wrote. The British women preferred the company of African-American soldiers to that of white American soldiers. This only elevated the white soldier’s resentment towards their African-American counterparts.
President Obama would eventually exceed the expectations of even his critics and those who doubted the American people and the climate of the political and social climate of 2008. In a speech given on March 18, 2009 and Obama is recorded stating “it requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.” Obama would be the curtain call to the expectations set for African-Americans. However, even he would not be able to enjoy the presidency without racism and prejudice, for as the honeymoon of his election in 2008 began to fade, so did his popularity and a return to previous notions of prejudice. It didn’t matter that he was the President of the United States or the Commander-In-Chief of the United States Military, he was, to many, just another African-American standing in the way of a preconceived notion that nothing like what he represented was expected or acceptable. As author Andrew Amron wrote of the idea of maniless and white character, no African-American was ever supposed to exceed the expectation of whites or put himself in a position that makes him better than whites. “They were (African-Americans), however, incredibly dangerous to the psychological well-being of white men who considered themselves the only ones capable of such ‘civility and restraint’. Their self-ascribed white identity depended on it.”
*** This is an excerpt from a Master’s Degree research paper I submitted at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. If you would like a copy of the full document, email me. Thanks for your interest.***