Buffalo Soldiers Essay, Research Paper
Miracle at Sant’Anna by James McBride 277pp, SceptreThe United States fought the second world war in Europe with two armies. One, as James McBride hints, has been lionised in countless novels and films; the other all but obliterated from American lore. In tracking the “buffalo soldiers” of the segregated US army, McBride, author of a bestselling memoir, The Color of Water , has uncovered rich terrain for an absorbing novel. Miracle at Sant’Anna, “fiction inspired by real events”, is set during the final months of the war in Tuscany, as four soldiers, separated from the US 92nd “Buffalo” division, blunder into the path of German troops massing in the Alps for the Christmas Day 1944 attack on Serchio valley. Train, or “Diesel” to the other GIs, is a tender, slow-witted mountain of a man reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Lennie in Of Mice and Men. He has rescued an injured six-year-old Italian boy, sole survivor of a German reprisal massacre, to whom he appears as a “chocolate giant”. Also in his powerful grasp is the priceless head of a marble statue from the destroyed Santa Trinita bridge in Florence, which he believes can make him “go invisible”. With Train are the Howard University-trained Lieutenant Stamps; the shiftless, cynical Bishop; and a Puerto Rican, Hector Negron. Through these vividly drawn characters and their white commanding officers, the novel reveals the army as a microcosm of an America at war with itself. Owing to an “unwritten law that no colored should ever be able to tell a white man what to do”, black lieutenants are kept in check by incompetent superiors. Reformist generals who promote men on merit battle with die-hard segregationists. The division alarms Americans “frightened at the thought of 15,000 armed Negroes in their midst”, while a captain avers that, since in Europe, “Negroes were screwing white women… they’d have to be re-educated once they got home.” A north-south chasm also opens up. For Stamps, the Louisiana-born Bishop is a “shiftless, shuffling Negro preacher [who] held niggers back a hundred years”, while Bishop despises Stamps as a “yellow Washington, DC high-breed, an educated nigger know-it-all”. German propaganda asks, “What are you Negroes fighting for?”, while blasting out jazz to the “buffalo” ranks. Stamps believes the war is about “progress for the Negro”, proving he can fight. For Bishop, “The Negro don’t have doodley squat to do with this… war-to-free-the-world shit… They’re running out of white boys to die. So now the great white father sends you out here to shoot Germans so he can hang you back in America for looking at his woman wrong.” McBride shows the historical irony of the victorious army having to wait 20 more years for even the beginnings of freedom. As Stamps reflects bitterly, “Who was the enemy? … When the war was over… and all the people made up, a German could go to America and live well, start a factory, work in a business, run a bank, while Stamps would still be… a nigger.” The soldiers’ encounter with Europe is a liberation. For Stamps, the Italian peasants are “like coloreds without the jook joints”. But they too are split, between fascists, partisans, spies and mercenaries; between men and the women they seek – with diminishing effect – to control. As they wonder whom to trust, Stamps and Bishop become rivals for the young widow Renata. While the action has a compelling, cinematic quality, the “miracles” threaten to become cloying, as the novel strains for universal significance by freighting the child rescued by Train with symbolism. He is a “miracle boy who represented everything that every Italian held dear, the power to love, unconditionally, for ever, to forgive, to live after the worst of atrocities, and, most of all, the power to believe in God’s miracles”. Fortunately, the novel is propelled by a tougher language than this, which skilfully captures the soldiers’ voices and their thwarted dreams.