Critical Essays Black Soldiers in World War I


Much black history is still missing from high school and college history textbooks, and Morrison helps correct that failing in Sula when she introduces Shadrack, a black U.S. soldier fighting in France in World War I.

The war began 1914, but it wasn't until April 1917 that the United States entered the fray. When the country did finally declare war on Germany, the call went out for black volunteers to serve as laborers — building roads, repairing railroads, donating their mechanical skills, and digging trenches. Thousands volunteered immediately. Later, the government asked for black combat volunteers, who were divided into two divisions — the 92nd and the 93rd — made up of black soldiers only; there was no integration of combat troops as there is today. The 92nd division was brigaded by American officers; the 93rd, by French officers.

The "Fighting 369th" regiment, the most famous black regiment in the war, came from the 93rd division, serving under French commanders. The unit fought in France, remaining on the front lines for over 191 consecutive days — never losing a trench, surrendering not even one prisoner, or retreating. After the war, these black combatants were awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration for bravery in combat.

Not only the French-commanded 369th regiment was decorated, but so also were its fellow regiments within the 93rd division: The 370th was cited for bravery along the Oise and Aisne rivers in northern France, and the 371st and 372nd defended the Argonne Forest in northeastern France so courageously that they also were awarded the Croix de Guerre.

In Sula, Shadrack is a World War I combat soldier in one of the country's all-black units, but he does not return as a hero to the U.S. He does not participate in the famous parade up New York City's Fifth Avenue, celebrating the return of the "Fighting 369th." He volunteered to do combat in the war, but he returns home a madman. He doesn't sacrifice his body for his country, a country that wouldn't even recognize his inalienable rights as a human being; instead, he sacrifices his mind. Shadrack returns to the Bottom a mental cripple — so terrified of swift, unanticipated death that he creates a day dedicated to the monster he fears most: sudden, unexpected death, the death that comes without warning.