Today We Learn About: Heroism of African-Americans in War

The concepts of heroism, and the hero have no greater chance for display than in the context of war. Throughout the last six weeks, the class has repeatedly examined instances of different ethnic groups, mainly African-American and Caucasian, living out their own personal interpretation of what it means to be seen as a hero in the setting of war. Often we are provided with a wonderful theoretical view of these interpretations through the writings of various African-American poets as well as authors, and it is through this view that we have come to understand that the concept of heroism goes far beyond carrying a gun, reaching into territory that spans from ideals, to words and actions.

Merriam-Webster defines a hero as, “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities.” What this definition does not touch on, is that no matter what your achievements are, no matter the noble qualities you display, if you were an African-American in the military throughout most of American history, you would never be seen as a hero to the white public and military alike. To overlook this point would be irresponsible, but to debate it in this context would be fruitless. The intent here is to show the actions and attitudes of those men who would strive to personally feel, in their hearts and minds, as heroes, and how the outside majority viewed this.

African-American soldiers often seemed to feel a need to overcompensate for the racism that was thrust upon them. Blackman tells his platoon, “We don’t have anything to prove to anybody. We’ve done it over and over and over again. No heroes. Just do your jobs.” (Williams 2) But this does not stop his squad from putting themselves in harms way, and likewise does not stop Blackman from taking bullets in order to prevent the deaths of his men (Williams 2). Why would Black man go against his own teachings? The answer is clear. He is a man of strong moral fiber, who knows right from wrong, and he knew instinctually what must be done. This display that most would call heroism is simply Blackman acting in a manner that he feels to be appropriate in the context of his actions. He feels that there are certain actions that must be taken from time to time, and carrying out these actions does not make a man a hero, or even more of a man. It makes him an individual who is aware enough to follow through with the messages that his heart is sending.

Blackman is celebrated for his heroism in the form of medals and promotion but shuns these gestures as “Just one of those things … Could’ve happened to anybody.” (Williams 251) It is clear that Blackman does not view himself as a hero, and that others, such as Woodcock and Doctorow find Blackman’s achievement as “impressive” (Williams 251). With these contrasting opinions on the events, it begs the question; can a humble man ever consider himself a hero? From all accounts it appears that the designation of “hero” is one that is imposed upon an ordinary who acted with a clear head in extraordinary circumstances. Arthur Ashe puts it plainly, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

Many times the heroes we learn of commit remarkable acts, and are recorded in history as remarkable individuals. Such is the case in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s, “Black Samson of Brandywine.” Here we are told of an African-American soldier that, armed only with a scythe, decimates many British troops during the Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777. This poem does not detail the exact actions of Samson, it only vaguely describes that Samson cut through the troops like a mower, leaving many dead (Dunbar). Why then is he viewed as a hero? Much can be said about the era in which the actions took place. We are dealing with a time when African-Americans had not been granted freedom, and were largely considered second-class citizens. In 1903, when the poem was written, there was still much work to be done on the equality of man. So Dunbar cites this individual as a hero for the act of defending the country at the side of those who oppress him. Could it be that Samson was forced to fight, and only given a scythe? Certainly. Could Samson have been given the option of fighting or death? Likely. Still, following through and lending his own life in order to defend the liberties of a nation has been and likely always will be the mark of a hero; even that hero only committed his acts to save his own life.

Phillis Wheatley presents the notion that at war can pass his heroic qualities on to his next of kin in her poem, “On the Death of General Wooster” (Wheatley). Here we contemplate the fact that Wooster was seen as a hero to African-Americans, a hero that has been lost. With this a void is created that must be filled, but can this role of hero be filled by an individual who had no prior hero experience? Wheatley believes so, and thus cements the notion that one does not decide to become a hero, but that this designation is in the eye of the beholder. Further, heroic acts vary so greatly that nearly any person, given the appropriate circumstances can fill these shoes. It matters little that large groups choose not recognize certain individuals as heroes, in this case the tendency of Caucasians to trivialize the deeds of African-Americans, all that really matters is that the hero in question is honest with themselves and striving to be the best person they can, white or black.

A hero is nothing specific. Any person can fill these shoes, those some view as a hero, others view as nothing special. As Alexs Pate puts it in the Introduction to Captain Blackman,

“My notion of the hero, of the African-American literary hero, is one that focuses on the character as maker of his own destiny in a world that is aligned against him. Characters like this, capable of absorbing all that society throws a them, including divine providence, still manage to wrangle their way into a consciousness of self-determination … They take chances. They are sometimes reckless, but they are smart, capable, and above all, self-conscious. (Williams v)

It is not that we view ourselves as heroic, or even as having the classic qualities of a hero that is important. It is that we act with a certain degree of humanity and humility in everyday life that will be the true test of our designation long after we expire. Those who hold their heads high, and make their mark on those around them will be remembered. Those that strive to be heroic, committing selfish acts along the way, will be remembered as just that.

Works Cited

Dunbar, Paul Laurence.  “Black Samson of Brandywine.” SPARK>Course Content>Readings. Original Publication Date: 1903.

“Hero.”  Def. 1c. Merriam Webster OnLine.  2007-2008.  Merriam Webster.  6 Mar.

2008 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hero&gt;.

Wheatley, Phillis. “On the Death of General Wooster.” SPARK>Course Content>Readings. Original Publication: 1778.

Williams, John A.  Captain Blackman.  Minneapolis:  Coffee House Press, 1971.

Introduction by:  Alexs Pate.

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