Black Enough to Die, but Not to Live: Historic Black Oppression in the Military

Being Black and maintaining professionalism in Western society has always been a sort of catch-22. It’s generally understood that as a Black person achieving a professional look is the equivalent adopting as many white looking characteristics as possible. For Black women this means sacrificing the unique beauty of our naturally kinky textured hair to straightening. Whether that be chemically processing our kinky strains or braiding them up to hide under a wig, the attempt to look professional has taken us more effort to achieve than our white female counterparts. This task of looking ‘professional’ is especially burdensome for our sisters in the military where hair regulations can cost you your career.

Just this past January the Army finally approved of Black women wearing locs (with restrictions) while enlisted in the military. This past fall, Green Beauty Channel made an incredible educational video that was instrumental in the Army’s policy change. As a hairstylist myself, I’ve serviced a few Black women in military who struggle to find a way to maintain an ‘acceptable’ look. Black women struggle enough trying to find a way to style our hair without spending to much time or money to make it look ‘neat’ and ‘tidy’ for the workplace. In the military hair regulations make it especially hard for naturally kinky textured hair so much so that hair regulations effectively ban one from wearing natural hair. It’s intolerable that Blackness in its natural form is an unacceptable look. In 2017, although I’d rather be optimistic, its no surprise that the army has been hesitant to embrace it’s Black soldiers when we look at the history of Blacks’ involvement the military

Historically, African Americans have been barred and alienated in the military. In 1863, there were political and military influences that finally pressured Lincoln to issue the emancipation proclamation. Contrary to popular belief Lincoln did not issue the proclamation because he had a sincere interest in freeing slaves. Lincoln said himself, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery…What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union”. Lincoln did not care about the well being of slaves, he wanted to use them and as a result soon after the proclamations release Blacks living in those free states flooded the white house to join the Union army. Although slaves were freed as a result of military necessity they were not fully embraced as equal members of the force. In response to these new draft laws, angry whites in retaliation held riots, such as the New York draft riot in 1863 which resulted in the death of 1,155 people.

Influential abolitionists such as Fredrick Douglas, John Rich, William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner were in support of Black troops, some like Douglass worked directly to recruit Black troops. These abolitionists were instrumental in converting Black’s previously held beliefs that they were unaffected by the war as second class citizens. They wrote famous editorials popularized within the Black community that liberated the way previously enslaved people thought about fighting in the war, that proved it as an act of self-improvement and empowerment.

picture taken from Ebony Pictorial History of Black America Vol. 1 p.269

Although the government and white’s position was overwhelmingly against the conscription of Blacks into the “white man’s war” as they were told, the Union Army quickly realized that the enlisting of Blacks would be a key to a swift victory, giving the North the manpower it needed over the South. As the enlist of former slaves in the military became more acceptable recruiting posters targeting Blacks were circulated throughout their communities. Black soldiers served ins positions such as cooks, spies, infantrymen, but there still was a general opposition to Blacks in the army, stemming largely from bias, prejudice and an irrational fear of racial equality. Blacks weren’t readily trusted with weapons for fear that they would betray or rebel. This was an irrational fear as Black soldiers were instrumental in fighting for the country’s independence in the War of 1812. Despite this Black soldiers continued to be optimistic about their involvement in the Civil War, seeing it as an opportunity as Fredrick Douglas explains, “let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Blacks looked past the many obstacles in front of them because they saw the value in their participation.

Along with enduring gross racial prejudice and a disproportionately high mortality rate, Blacks were frustrated by the discriminatory pay rate in comparison to whites for the same level of (and in some cases more) work. Although Blacks were recruited with the promise of receiving equal pay, in many cases they did more work and were paid half the rate of whites. Some Black soldiers attempted to close the pay gap through protest and were killed. Finally in June of 1864 Congress passed a law equalizing the pay rate, however by this time many Black soldiers were in financial crisis and many had already died without ever receiving fair compensation for their service before any action had been taken. On top of this, Black soldiers were also denied the status of prisoners of war. Those who were taken captive in war were usually tortured and sold into slavery. Mississippi U.S. Representative Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation that stated any Black soldiers captured would be “treated as insurrectionists and traitors and killed”. Although Blacks were used in war, they were not given the same protections and privileges as white soldiers.

With this history in mind we can see how African Americans have been marginalized in the military throughout American history, so much so that there are racially targeted policies that bar Blacks from fully being accepted in our forces today. This is why the #YestoBlack hashtag is circulating social media. We must continue to be unapologetically Black in all aspects of our lives, personal and professional.

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