Picturing Black History

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Transcript: Charles Young: The Life of a Soldier, an Interview with Paul McAllister

Paul McAllister

My name is Paul McAlister, I’m now an ABD going into my fourth year in Ohio State’s History Department. I’m coming from North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, where I did Air Force ROTC and commission to the Air Force, and I’m studying African American military history broadly. I’ve come to the study of history kind of growing up as like, it’s helped me put the world into context, more than just kind of like knowing and reciting facts, it’s a way that people can understand the world they live in, in the sense that these things are happening, and it helps you kind of like, put the pieces of them together, if that makes any sense. So I think it’s important to the lesser known moments of black history, because in a certain way, that’s where you can find a lot of easy nuance and I say, easy in the sense that for more better known figures, there’s so much, I guess, popular discourse around people like Martin Luther King, Jr, or Malcolm X, that it can be kind of hard to get more detail into more kind of cloudy areas of what they thought and how they interacted with the world. But in studying lesser known moments, you learn new things, and it’s easier to kind of absorb new information, and that can help you nuance those figures, when you kind of turn back to them and see how they were interacting with each other and interacting with the world around them. The bigger figures kind of overshadow their context in a certain way and if you’re concentrating on smaller events, or smaller figures, who they may or may not have been interacting with or who they were in conversation with, you can kind of illuminate the world that they were living in, or that the events were happening in much more easily. What inspired me to kind of want to write for the picturing Black History Project is there was a lot of buzz about it, I guess, in the Department, and it seemed like a really cool opportunity to do a kind of multifaceted review of an important figure and an important event and it seemed like a really fun thing to do, so that’s kind of what drew me to it. For me, my research and kind of writing process, I thought about what figure would have been I want to study and I found Charles Young, and I decided I really wanted to write on him, and from there, it was just a matter of searching for pictures, different pictures of Charles Young or things that were related to him or helped put the world he lived in into context and then from there, kind of outlining the story of his life and drawing it and tying it more directly into the images that I had searched for, as I was kind of contemplating and studying how I wanted to kind of tell the story. The reason why Charles Young is such a prominent figure in African American military history is that he was the third African American to graduate West Point, the United States Military Academy at West Point, at the time of his retirement, the highest ranking African American ever in the United States Armed Forces he was retired with the rank of Colonel, and during his time, his figure and the stature that he had was very much in the kind of center of a lot of discourses with other people such as W.E.B DuBois, you taught at Wilberforce University here in Ohio, which was a very prominent center of black learning at the time, it still is. So he was part of very central to a lot of discourses that were occurring around the time and his name, he was a famous figure in the African American community naturally. For Charles Young military service was inspired by his father who was an enslaved man who had escaped his master and went to fight for the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, and his father kind of imparted on him the idea that service was a means by which you could give back to your country by which you could assert your manhood. Military service during the late 19th, and early 20th century for many African Americans was kind of like, it was seen as a way to kind of assert manhood during a time and within a nation that constantly denied African American men, manhood, it was seen as a very respectable job and career path it paid well, it was difficult, obviously, but it paid relatively well it had opportunities for advancement, and it was an opportunity. Soldiers were seen as people who serve the nation, valiantly loyally, and so on behalf of their entire race, could make claims to full citizenship rights and full privileges as citizens in a way that perhaps everyday people wouldn’t have the kind of not stature but position to do so as you go into World War One and the ability to serve is opened up to a wider swath of people many see that as like an excellent opportunity to project on behalf of the entire race sending large amounts of people to serve and support the nation that here’s a chance for us to make a massive effort at gaining citizenship rights by saying we’re here we’re supporting the nation we’re fighting for it. Obviously, that doesn’t work out as planned and the discourse switches from trying to earn citizenship rights to trying to fight for citizenship rights by the end of the war. But that’s kind of the ideologies that go into it. In my piece, I talk about the kind of paradoxical service of Charles Young. It’s paradoxical in the sense that I think many of the common discourses around Young and the Buffalo Soldiers are kind of as I’ve laid out, like they were soldiers who went to fight for the nation, they fought valiantly, and they’re looked upon as kind of the symbols, and rightfully so they did do all these things. They did fight valiantly, Charles John was very accomplished in his military career and intellectually and what have you. But their service also comes at a time when the United States is fighting, it’s kind of a series of small wars, as we might refer to them, or imperial wars, and that these troops are being used to go to places like the Philippines to suppress Filipino rebels during the Philippine American war, or they’re being sent to places like Cuba, or they’re being used on even before that on the frontier to suppress and police and enforce restrictions on Native American populations and tribes and what have you and even Charles Young he, in his various roles as a military attache, to both Haiti and Liberia, he’s collecting intelligence on those nations, or he’s playing a role in suppressing the native peoples living within those nations. So that’s where the paradox comes in. For African Americans, Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers at writ large, are these kinds of symbols of striving and advancement, but their striving and advancement is complicated by the fact that oftentimes, they were used as in being that they were soldiers, they were used as an instrument of a kind of racist imperialist state, to suppress and conquer other black and brown peoples and this is something that they are aware of, even at the time, and which prompted kind of complicated discourses within their journals between each other and other intellectuals, and what have you. So it was something that they are aware of, is a kind of nuance that I think gets glossed over or forgotten sometimes when we discuss them. In negotiating their position, there was a degree I think, of buying in to the ideas that they were set forth to enforce and that they were advancing ideas of civilization or that in advancing these ideas of civilization, they would carry the race forward, and that has its own kind of complicated nuances within it but for many, that’s kind of what it boiled down to, and for Young especially, he wrote a book that talked about the kind of difference between certain races and their abilities slash worthiness, and how they earned it is a very complicated topic and discourse that’s also very specific to the time period in which they were existing. I don’t want to forget that but, even projecting into the present day, we can see kind of, perhaps parallels in terms of how people negotiate their military service. Coming from my background, I think the Buffalo Soldiers, so those African American, which was the colloquial name for all the African American units that were formed after 1866, and served in the United States Army, I really think their history is important. One because it shows it really is a history of like a collection of people, these units, which existed and served very well, very valiantly, under a very racist US Army that did not really support them in the way they deserved to be supported or could have supported them. But it also ties you into kind of broader currents of the extent to which minority serving the state what their activism looks like, both internally in response to the state. So the role of chaplains in the Buffalo Soldiers units in educating soldiers, but also pushing back against the kind of racism of the army is a good place, but also the role and the conflict between themselves and outside of them with other black and brown peoples as they were used to pursue the aims of the United States. It’s a very rich, sometimes tragic, sometimes frustrating, kind of story, and I think it really gets to kind of the nuances of the African American experience during that time period in terms of ideology in terms of physical action and that sort of thing.