Black Americans have actively participated in every war and military skirmish since the United States was first conceived, even as a colony. But it was during the Spanish-American War in 1898 that black soldiers first had the opportunity to leave their own reluctant country for another – in this case, Cuba.
Until that time, scant few black Americans who didn’t have international family ties, work for someone who traveled abroad, or have the independent means to do so themselves, actually left the United States. The military – while segregated and just as unwelcoming as society at large – afforded young black men (and later women) the opportunity to visit other places, interact with other societies, and even become more cognizant of their worth as citizens. True, militaristic forays into foreign lands could hardly be considered pleasure cruises, but it was a chance to go, to see, to explore.
Estimates suggest over 350,000 black Americans served in Belgium and France during World War I, and films such as The Tuskegee Airmen, Miracle at St. Anna, and Red Tails (SEE IT NOW!) depict African-American experiences abroad during World War II. For the first time, black American men and women were getting to see the world in large numbers – at least on leave – thanks to Uncle Sam, and lots of folk stayed abroad, a prospect that seemed a helluva lot more appealing for some than heading “home” to Dixie.
Even today, the armed forces provides an opportunity for thousands of young people to experience the world (just ask Fidel), and despite my personal feelings about war and military intervention, I recognize the military’s importance in broadening the horizons of many fly brothers and sisters who came before me.
Image: Tuskegee Airmen Col. Benjamin Davis Jr. and Edward Gleed, 1945 (Source: US Library of Congress)