This essay examines Black support for US militarism from the 1890s to the First World War amid devastating forms of institutional racism. As the first African American soldiers were deployed to France to liberate Europe’s White citizens, the US government hanged thirteen Black soldiers because they sought to defend themselves from mob violence at the hands of White soldiers and civilians. Despite this, the nation’s strident racism did not prevent Blacks from seeking entry into the armed forces. This article explains why African Americans willingly risked their lives to support the military imperatives of the very White government that subjected them to the assaults of racism through legal sanction. Central to this problem was the ritual power of civil religion, particularly the role of death in warfare. By risking their lives through military service, African American soldiers sacrificed themselves, thereby participating in a cultic form of nationalism that transformed them into heroes and that promised to forge their inclusion in the nation’s political body. Black military service in this way transcended the mundane level of conundrum and stoked powerful expressions of loyalty to a racial state that reinscribed the racist order of White supremacism.
African Americans, the Racial State, and the Cultus of War: Sacrifice and Citizenship
Sylvester A. Johnson is associate professor of African American studies and religious studies at Northwestern University. He recently authored African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (2015). He is currently coediting (with Steven Weitzman) The FBI and Religion (forthcoming).