Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Buffalo Soldiers One, General Lee Zero

By Charles Henry

Recently, a statue at West Point was unveiled honoring the service of the 9th and 10th Colored Cavalry, the famed “Buffalo Soldiers”. Earlier that week, the government of Richmond, Virginia, removed a monumental statue honoring the hero of the Confederacy, General Robert E. Lee. The statue of Lee was erected in 1890 and was the last of six figures to be removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue. The Black soldiers at West Point trained White cadets in handling horses but were also assigned menial duties and lived in separate quarters. While the representation of Black troops at West Point took a major step forward beyond the field that had been dedicated to them in the past, Lee still has a building, a road and a gate named for him.

The 9th and 10th Cavalry were formed in 1866 and served their country as segregated units until 1948. My father served in the 10th Cavalry from 1909 to 1912. He essentially grew into adulthood in the army bonding with his troop mates and his horse (both were nicknamed “Red”) and making the rank of corporal. From his stories, I got the impression that he would have made the army a career had it not been for the demeaning treatment Black troops endured. My father greatly admired, Colonel Charles Young (the third African American to graduate from West Point and the first Black national park superintendent), believing he should have been promoted to general.

If, as according to Benedict Anderson, a nation is an “imagined political community”, race presents a particular problem. “Nationalism,” says Anderson, “thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time eternal through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history.” These contaminations challenge the very core of the nation’s conception as a “deep, horizontal comradeship” despite any actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail. Ultimately it is this fraternal bond that makes it possible for citizens to die for other citizens who they will never meet or know. Racism destroys the bond holding together an imagined community and must be repaired or restored if the country is to survive.

What constitute an “American” are not beliefs arrived at inductively and analytically but rather acquired through exposure to narratives of American national identity. These narratives are competitive and come through mass and social media, formal education, and informal communal and social life. Collective identity narratives associate shared meanings with some, but not other historical and contemporary actors, whose actions and purposes they interpret and relate to a vision of what unites “us” and makes us a group. These narratives do not have to be fact based but they must be believable to significant audiences. By naming “our” heroes and “our” enemies and our shared triumphs and tragedies this collective identity not only represents but also shapes how we act in the present and future. By incorporating the “Buffalo Soldiers” into our national narrative we promote an equalitarian culture resting on mutual respect and trust for all and by removing Lee as an honored figure, we reject a hierarchical culture founded on White supremacy.