Serving America – In What Context?
In 1735 when the French colonists of Louisiana pursued the Natchez War against Native Americans, they mustered free and enslaved African Americans into two military companies that came to be known as the Corps D’Afrique.
The soldiers of the Corps D’Afrique fought against Indigenous People as well as against Africans who had fled slavery to live in freedom among the Natchez.
The paradox of Black folk in America standing on both sides of a conflict where white supremacy plays a part spans the entire history of this nation.
During the American Revolution, Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, comprised mostly of freed slaves, fought on behalf of the British, while John Glover’s integrated Marblehead Regiment and the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, also known as “The Black Regiment” because of the large number of Black soldiers in its ranks, fought against the British.
In the War of 1812, the British Colonial Marines – comprised of Black men who had escaped from slavery – burned down the White House and were in the vanguard of the British forces at the Battle of Bladensburg where the Americans were routed. During that same war, the Corps D’Afrique fought on behalf of the United States against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson, who commanded the American forces at New Orleans, even wrote to then-U.S. Secretary of War James Monroe that it was a “free man of color” in the Corps D’Afrique who shot and killed the commanding general of the British forces. Both Jackson and Monroe were slave holders.
During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Black combatants fighting for Britain were motivated by a promise of freedom, while those in America’s ranks were fighting for a country they knew would continue the practice of enslaving Black people.
When the American Civil War broke out, the Corps D’Afrique was organized in 1861 as the 1st Louisiana Native Guard to fight on behalf of the Confederacy. But when Union forces captured New Orleans, the unit was disbanded, and it is reported that as many as 10 percent of their number enlisted in the Union Army to fight against the Confederacy.
The involvement of Black folk in the violent history of the United States is complicated and complex, with many aspects that are unseemly today. In the Black community, there is still a huge compilation of human detritus left over from the American War in Vietnam – men and women broken in body and spirit from a war of white supremacy against people of color half a world away minding their own business.
There were reasons why African Americans took part in the War in Vietnam, but it can hardly be said that those reasons were justifications. No African American who took part in that war can say that they had “no choice.” Choices were evidenced by Black folk who left the country to avoid the draft, or who, like Muhammad Ali, simply refused to take part in a racist war.
To many Black Vietnam vets, the words, “Thank you for your service,” ring hollow because there was no service for the good of our community, or our loved ones or even for this country. In fact, our participation was only in service of a global agenda of white supremacy.
African Americans must keep in mind that our actions should be taken on behalf of governmental policy only when we understand the context in which our participation is situated. This understanding is required not only for our participation in the military, it is required for our participation in law enforcement as well – and then, perhaps even more so.
Soon, the courts of justice will judge Alex Kueng, the Black former Minneapolis police officer, for his participation in the death of George Floyd. But the Black community is judging him now. It was Kueng who held down George Floyd’s back while Floyd, with his hands cuffed behind his back, was pressed against the pavement with Derek Chauvin’s knee in his neck. After only three days as a full-time police officer and only his second day on the street, Kueng forever will be associated with the public lynching of a Black man in broad daylight on a street in Minneapolis.
It has been reported that Kueng had said he wanted to be a police officer in order to protect people of color from police abuse. His reasoning was that diversity could change the Minneapolis Police Department, which has a long history of demonstrated racism. Now, because of his participation in George Floyd’s murder, Kueng has been confronted by hostile strangers while grocery shopping and his sister reportedly has said that she plans to change her last name out of embarrassment over what he has done. But most significantly, he is facing the very real possibility of a murder conviction and spending many years in prison.
Alex Kueng’s dilemma, as painful as it is, can be a valuable teaching moment for people of color in America. For more than 400 years, we have thirsted for justice. We have ached for it. And often, any glimmer of hope that we can move our country towards becoming a more just society creates a very strong attraction to satisfy that thirst. But without consideration given to the context in which our actions will be taken, we may be rushing towards a mirage in a scorching desert and will only end up with sand in our mouths.
We need to accept that we must fix this country before we can truly serve it in the name of justice. Given all the wars in which Black folk have bled and died, this country has barely inched down the road of fairness, equality and respect for all human life and dignity. For all the Black men and women who have donned police uniforms to serve their communities, and all too frequently lost their lives, too many Americans still believe Black Lives Do Not Matter.
Whether you grieve for Alex Kueng or despise him, we all must push hard to heal the society that has brought him to this point. We cannot blindly agree to participate in the agencies of America’s violence without weighing the consequences.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.