Medicalizing Black Military Service in an Age of Global Imperialism

African American Civil War Memorial (bdinphoenix/Flickr).

At the turn of twentieth century, universities in the United States began founding schools of tropical medicine. Schools like Harvard University and Tulane University created programs to train physicians to treat the diverse bodies and diseases doctors would encounter in colonial or corporate expeditions to the global tropics. Corresponding with the rise of eugenics, US military doctors needed new medical training to treat the racialized bodies of people they encountered in Cuba, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Previous histories of medicine and American empire have mostly centered their analysis from a top-down perspective, but in Contagions of Empire: Scientific Racism, Sexuality, and Black Military Workers Abroad, 1898-1948, Khary Oronde Polk—a professor of Black studies and gender studies at Amherst College—breathes fresh life into a well-known narrative. Rather than focus on white physicians or bureaucrats, Polk tells the story of the Black men and women racialized by tropical medicine while serving in the military from the Spanish-Cuban-American War through World War II. Moreover, Polk explains how they pursued military service in the hopes of gaining political rights, even as they knew their bodies would be racialized.

Polk centers his analysis on the concept of immunity, and its diverse definitions allow him to stretch the concept into service in several ways. As it was expressed in the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, immunities were rights and privileges accorded to citizens. Yet, immunity could also refer to protections from disease. Since the eighteenth century, white physicians and military bureaucrats had claimed that Black people were immune to tropical ailments like yellow fever. “In one sense, it established the scientifically racist origins of black employment in imperial warfare,” Polk explains, “And yet another facet of the term’s valence was pursued by black leadership in the United States,” who hoped to gain greater citizenship rights through military service (6). Thus, Polk uses immunity to capture these competing conceptions of Black military service. For white bureaucrats, immunity justified employing Black people as nurses and manual laborers in tropical colonies. Many Black people, though, hoped military service would provide a route to greater political immunities in the United States, despite reticence to risk physical danger in service of racist, colonial projects.

Contagions of Empire is organized thematically and chronologically. It begins with two chapters on the Spanish-Cuban-American War, which center Black people, setting Polk’s analysis apart from previous histories focused on white doctors and, on occasion, colonial subjects in the Philippines and Cuba. Chapter One narrates how racism so profoundly ordered Black military service, from questions of whether to bury Black soldiers in segregated Cuban cemeteries to duty shifts. As with service in the Civil War, the Army mostly confined Black soldiers to manual labor, based on racist arguments about immunity to yellow fever and Black health in tropical climates. While previous scholars have made clear that yellow fever immunity does not exist biologically, Polk draws out its continued social power. For these reasons, Black women were valued as military workers, too. In Chapter Two, Polk analyzes Black nurses, revealing an afterlife of the slave system in military service: the association between enslaved women and nursing. Enlistees were hardly clueless about the racism used to justify their inclusion. Instead, Black military workers shouldered these slights and material dangers in the hopes of obtaining further political rights at home. Service in the imperial army, Polk explains, was seen as directly related to the quest for political immunities.

These political immunities, however, were slow to come, and Polk captures this dynamic in his analysis of the career of the U.S.’s first Black Colonel Charles Young, the subject of chapter three. Over the course of his career, Young embodied diverse roles in Black public life: African American militarism’s true believer as well an intellectual. Ultimately though, he became one of Black militarism’s most prominent defectors, at least rhetorically. Young’s cynicism towards military service came when he was passed over for promotion to general. Young researched and wrote a biographical play of his hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture, when he served in Haiti after the Spanish-Cuban-American War. Young found companionship in the story of L’Ouverture, and he ultimately saw himself in a similar role as a martyr for Black freedom. Young’s story in many ways captured the false promise of military service that, on its own, rarely produced the political outcomes desired by Black military workers. Contagions of Empire, then, provides a striking challenge to narratives of Black military service abroad being rewarded politically at home.

The last two chapters focus on how the military worked to control Black male sexuality during the world wars. Chapter four studies the physicians, Army officials, and Black newspapers that grappled with depictions of Black soldiers as more prone than white soldiers to venereal diseases. This story corresponded to the peak popularity of eugenics in the U.S. While Black newspapers were skeptical, white military medics took an aggressive and unethical approach, adopting harmful and experimental curatives such as topically applying mercury chloride to genitalia. (Doctors during this period also used mercury to treat syphilis, even administering it during the early years of the U.S. Public Health Service’s experiments on Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama). Efforts to control Black male sexuality escalated further in World War II, as Polk describes in Chapter Five. While the Army still pursued pharmacological approaches to controlling Black sexuality, they also began to develop propaganda videos to limit sexual congress, even employing Paul Robeson to give a lecture in one film. On a separate note, in both World Wars, white troops reacted to the presence of Black troops with sexual competition and racist jealousy. As Polk explains “black U.S. soldiers’ sexual activity with German women became the source of serious enmity between white and black American troops in post-World War II Germany” (204). In short, Polk makes clear that the racial politics of military participation were also sexual politics.

To create this pathbreaking history of Black military service for US empire, Polk employs diverse sources from military records to fiction and Black newspapers. This wide source base allows Polk to unpack military service as a lived experience, but he also excels at analyzing militarism as a cultural phenomenon in Black communities.

Contagions of Empire succeeds because of Polk’s skill in crossing methodological boundaries. Polk draws together literary, theoretical, and historical approaches to the study of Black military service. Moreover, he reveals that Black military service’s meaning was multivalent, complex, and litigated by diverse constituents in the United States. This portrait of race, sexuality, and American empire, then, encourages further consideration of the meaning of military service and immunity in the present. Racialized discourses that continue to surround COVID-19 serve as a stark reminder that racialized medical immunity has hardly left public or medical discourse. Likewise, our military continues to recruit heavily from working class and impoverished communities that are disproportionately Black and Latinx. Therefore, Polk’s work demands further consideration of how military service in the United States continues to act as a choice between hopes of economic and social opportunity in exchange for braving the psychiatric and material dangers of military service.

In short, Contagions of Empire provides a stark reminder of the need to interrogate the military and medicine as powerful social forces that continue to shape racial dynamics and inequality in the United States and abroad. Likewise, Polk uncovers how military recruits often seek political, social, or economic gains in exchange for their service, amounting to a questionable promise of trading service in an empire for the hopes of a better life at home.

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Christopher D. E. Willoughby

Christopher D. E. Willoughby is a historian of slavery, medicine, and racism, and currently, a Visiting Junior Fellow at The Pennsylvania State University's Center for Humanities & Information. His work focuses on the role Atlantic slavery and scientific racism played in shaping the curriculum of medical schools in the past and present. Follow him on Twitter @AntiquatedMeds.