Written by Natasha Lowery
Reading time: 6 minutes
At it’s simplest, the term Buffalo Solider refers to the first regiments of Black American soldiers who served in the U.S. Army, though in reality, the people, and concept of the Buffalo Solider, is much more complicated. For many Black men at the time, to serve in the U.S. army, was a step on the road to gain equality as citizens. For others, like famous David Fagen (discussed more below), the power and poise of the Buffalo Soldiers in the face of blatant racism, was enticement enough to join their ranks. Unfortunately, these regiments, and all they represented, were often made (forced or otherwise) to act at direct odds with Indigenous communities nation-wide. These all-Black regiments (often led by White soldiers) fought against, and contributed to the removal of Indigenous folk such as the Ute community from Colorado. These regiments were also dispatched to Mexico, Cuba and the Philippines to act on the U.S government’s imperialist agenda. It is no understatement to say that the modern U.S., as a national and international presence (for better or for worse) is due directly to the efforts of the Buffalo Soliders.
I first heard of the story of Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines on a podcast called Filipina on the Rise. In their episode FILIPINO SOLIDARITY WITH THE BLACK COMMUNITY & WHAT OUR HISTORY CAN TEACH US, guest Bianca Mabute-Louie spoke (among other things) about the history that Asian/Filipino and Black communities share. During the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), the Buffalo Soliders, were dispatched to the Philippines to quell Emilio Aguinaldo’s fight for Filipino independence. When they arrived however, the Black soldiers realized that they held much more in common with the Filipinos than with their White government and regiment leaders. Several (some say 15-20 though the number could be much higher as the U.S. was keen to downplay any solidarity between Filipinos and Black Americans) soldiers defected and joined the Filipino army. Among them was David Fagen. His knowledge of U.S. military strategies played a useful role in many of the Filipino guerrilla armies successes against the U.S. forces.
The Buffalo Soldiers themselves were not immune to the politicization of their lived experiences. Back in the U.S., the Black community held differing opinions on the question of Filipino independence and the U.S. war machine. Some like Ida B. Wells-Barnett felt that the U.S. had no business expanding (colonially or otherwise) when the state of Black Americans’ lives was in such turmoil back home. Others felt that the Philippine-American War was an excellent opportunity for the Black community to advance it’s position at home by proving its loyalty to the United States through military service. Once defection became a reality, U.S. media attempted to censor and squash any stories that might make it back to U.S. soil. Similarly, in the Philippines, the Filipino fighters were not ignorant of the state of Black life in the U.S. They actively published propaganda for Black soldiers that called upon stories of lynchings and racism back home in an effort to encourage them to abandon their posts.
In 1902, the Philippines lost the war for independence. Regardless of that particular outcome, the murky WATERs (one of our August 2020 themes of the month) that accompany the stories and myths of the Buffalo Soldiers is an important one to understand as we choose what the NURTURE (our other August 2020 theme of the month) moving forward. Especially in the U.S., as we approach the November elections, this story serves as a reminder that everything can and will be politicized to meet the agenda of individuals, organizations, power structures and more. What we do within the these cloudy WATERs, the choices we make, are what will unite us in the search for equity and justice. White supremacy as a system inherently seeks to divide all racialized beings (White from people of color, Asians from Blacks, Latinx from Filipinx etc..). The story of the Buffalo Soldiers reminds me that solidarity is a choice and in the face of a highly politicized nation, I choose to acknowledge and NURTURE the essential commonality, the kapwa, that links us all.
Thank you all for taking the time to read this post. Do you have thoughts, perspectives, expertise, opinions about the Buffalo Soliders, Philippine-American War, Politicization, Solidarity, or frankly anything? Please get in touch, I’d love to continue this conversation and/or feature your voice on this platform.
Featured Photo from The National Park Service Presidio of San Francisco