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Marginalized Masculinities and the American Nation: African American and Native American Military Heroism, 1941-1978

Simon Wendt, Goethe University Frankfurt

The research project examines black and Indian military heroism to shed light on the dynamic interrelationship of racially marginalized masculinities and American nationalism between 1941 and 1978. The masculinity of war and the masculinity of national belonging have been inextricably intertwined in Western cultures. This interrelationship is epitomized in the heroic citizen soldier. However, this ideal frequently served exclusionary functions. Particularly in the United States, the white warrior hero became a central exemplar of national manhood that marginalized African Americans and Native Americans. Consequently, the acknowledgment of black and Indian military heroism took on tremendous social, cultural, and political importance.

To better understand this dynamic interrelationship, the project focuses on the question of how African American and Native American veterans, activists, and journalists utilized military heroism to challenge their marginalization as men and citizens during the civil rights era. It poses the hypothesis that heroic military service during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as well as the memory of heroism in previous military conflicts afforded these men a crucial opportunity to affirm their manhood and to challenge their marginalization. The focus is on these two minorities and the period 1941-1978 because World War II marked the beginning of a period of sustained activism for African American and Native American civil rights as well as increasing visibility and acknowledgment of black and Indian valor on the battlefield. Comparing these two groups also helps explain similarities and differences between white, black, and indigenous interpretations of masculinity, nation, and heroism. The project follows a new cultural history approach and is comprised of two subprojects that utilize the concept of hegemonic masculinity and rely on multidisciplinary methodologies from oral history and memory studies.

The subproject “Military Heroism, Masculine Nationalism, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1941-1975” analyzes how black veterans, activists, and journalists used military heroism to challenge their social and political marginalization between 1941 and 1975. The second subproject, “Native American Warrior Heroes during the Red Power Era: Between Indigenous Tradition and American Nationalism,” asks how Native American veterans and activists used the memory of indigenous warrior heroes during the Red Power era (1969-1978) as a means of cultural empowerment that revolved around masculinity and Indian national sovereignty. Since the beginning of DFG funding, the research on African Americans has focused on identifying oral history collections in American archives and sifting through black magazines and newspapers. With regard to subproject 2, archival research has already begun, with a focus on oral histories with Native American veterans and Indian newspapers. In addition, a number of Native American activists and military veterans have been interviewed.

By concentrating on the largely unexamined agency of racially marginalized masculinities in processes of cultural nation building, the project makes important contributions to the historical study of the gender dimensions of U.S. nationalism. In addition, its analysis of how interpretations of black and Indian heroic soldiers changed over time provides new insights into the history and the memory of military heroism in the United States. Finally, the project helps us better understand how heroism structured social, cultural, and political hierarchies in American society.

John F. Kennedy Institute