by Beverly Aarons
Long before the internet gave instant access to America’s hidden history (to anyone willing to search for it), Bob Marley’s hit single “Buffalo Soldier” raised collective awareness about the forgotten Black regiments who fought in some of America’s earliest wars. Set over a steady, smooth beat, Bob Marley’s song sums up the formerly enslaved soldiers’ predicament in these refrains:
Buffalo Soldier, dreadlock Rasta …
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.
But that’s only the beginning of their story. Vancouver, Washington-based filmmaker Dru Holley’s documentary Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting On Two Fronts (2020) delves deeper into the lives of individual Buffalo Soldiers — especially in Oregon and Washington — and confronts the moral quandary of fighting for personal survival within a brutal racial caste system while also dispossessing Indigenous people of their land.
“Without the military help of the Black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won,” said President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, at the end of the American Civil War. One year later, the United States military formed two all-Black cavalry units and four all-Black infantry regiments, which were authorized by the Army Reorganization Act. Those servicemen, who were (in great numbers) veterans of the Civil War, would come to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Their veteran status is important, as it positioned them as skilled and experienced fighters fully prepared not only to fight in war, but also to lead other soldiers in battle. But their competence was often dismissed by white commanders who were just as committed to ideas of white supremacy as they were to maintaining the union.
The documentary Buffalo Soldiers does a great job grounding the viewer in the realities of racial discrimination at that time as well as unveiling the destitution and lack of opportunity Black people faced at the end of the Civil War. Several commentators featured in the documentary state it plainly: Joining the army was a way to make money and the only part of the American dream Blacks could access at the time.
“You have to remember that although Blacks were now newly freed, their real condition in the American South had not changed that much,” says Darrell Millner in the documentary. Millner is an emeritus professor of Black studies at Portland State University. “They had no property. They had no money. They had no political power.”
The life of a soldier promised young Black men a road map to financial success and social status that was difficult to come by for formerly enslaved people. But, as the documentary intimately illustrates, even that promise was rarely kept. Buffalo Soldiers were often paid unfair wages and denied honors they had clearly earned. They were also deliberately omitted from the historical narrative Americans told themselves.
Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting On Two Fronts remedies this error of omission. The documentary is chock-full of interesting historical facts, and it carefully digs into the lives of individual soldiers, such as Cathay Williams, a woman impersonating a man in order to enlist, and Moses Williams, a Medal of Honor recipient buried right here in Washington State.
“I was a little sad that I had forgotten who these people were and who they were in our Black history,” said Holley as he recounted attending a Seattle-area Juneteenth celebration in 2018 with his daughter, who was 6 at the time. He said the Buffalo Soldier re-enactors were riding up the hill on horseback when his daughter asked, “Who are they, daddy?” Holley didn’t have an answer, “I kind of forgot who they were or who they were portraying. And then it finally came to me that these were the Buffalo Soldiers.”
Holley realized that while he and his generation (Xennials) had some cultural context, such as the 1997 film Buffalo Soldiers starring Danny Glover, the younger generation didn’t have a cultural touchpoint to reference, and the Buffalo Soldiers history isn’t taught in most schools. He wants his documentary to serve as part of that context, and he will be doing a nationwide educational tour of the film with PBS beginning in February 2023.
“My family thought I was crazy,” Holley said of his decision to pursue a film career in 2009. He was living in Portland at the time and had a reputation as a serial entrepreneur and an “eccentric cousin.” But despite his complete naivety about the film business and a sum total of zero contacts, he began taking classes and building community. He produced music videos, PSAs, and video content for nonprofits, as well as two short documentaries: Albina Vision and Jeremy. Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting On Two Fronts is Holley’s third documentary and his first feature-length film. He is currently working on a fourth documentary, New Slave, which explores the financial exploitation of cheap prison labor in the United States.
But for Holley, the path to filmmaking has been a rocky one. There was difficulty finding funding and compatible collaborators. He spent barrels of money on golden footage that he was forced to leave on the cutting room floor. And he fought to gain access to the right networks with the help of various New York-based fellowships, only to realize that the right place for him wasn’t out east, but right here in the Pacific Northwest.
“I love our community,” Holley said of the Pacific Northwest, while also acknowledging the powerfully talented and supportive people he met in New York. “I love the history here. I love that it’s like an unseen jewel. But nobody even knows about all the history and the Black folks and the things that we’ve got going on up here.”
Holley wants that Black history told, but he also wants the Black community to stop “begging white folks to tell our stories.”
“We need to tell our own stories. We don’t need to ask: Why didn’t they tell us about this history? We shouldn’t see that as their responsibility. This is our responsibility to tell these stories to our children. They’re not our masters. They don’t control the world. We can do whatever we want to do. So, we don’t need to look to them. They’re not teaching us this in school. We need to do this ourselves.”
Holley is doing an educational screening tour in 2023 that will include in-person talkbacks with the director and, in some cases, panels featuring additional experts and historians. Seattle area events are as follows:
- Feb. 3, 7:00 p.m., at Grand Cinema, Tacoma
- Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m., at Path with Art, Seattle
- Feb. 21, 5:00 p.m., at Seattle College (campus tbd), Seattle
Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.
📸 Featured Image: Dru Holley’s film “Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting On Two Fronts” delves into the lives of Buffalo Soldiers, all-Black infantry regiments, many of whom were veterans of the Civil War. (Still from “Buffalo Soldiers,” courtesy of Dru Holley)
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