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Beyond twists and dreadlocks: The military and the African predicament

Mark Fancher

Mark Fancher

By Mark P. Fancher
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Women of the Congressional Black Caucus recently asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reconsider guidelines concerning hairstyles for military personnel. They were reacting to rules that, among other things prohibit dreadlocks and twists and styles that are “unkempt” or “matted.”

In a letter, the Congresswomen said: “The use of words like ‘unkempt’ and ‘matted’ when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color is offensive… The assumption that individuals wearing these hairstyles cannot maintain them in a way that meets the professionalism of Army standards indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity conducive to creating a tolerant environment for minorities.”

While this objection by the lawmakers is appropriate — even righteous, the controversy should prompt broader and deeper reflection about the relationship of the military establishment to communities of African descent in the U.S. Specifically, there should be concern about the role Black soldiers are asked to play in the disempowerment of Africa.

Many believe there is a direct correlation between the degree of discrimination against people of African descent in the U.S. and perceptions of the power (or lack thereof) possessed by Africans who live in Africa. This point is debated by many, but it is highly likely that if governments and businesses outside of Africa attempt to negotiate access to African oil fields and mines, they will immediately abandon any statements or actions that might offend Black communities in the U.S.  This is because of these communities’ presumed connections, or at least affinity with Africans who control the sought after resources.

But western corporations know they won’t have to worry about being diplomatic if the U.S. military simply captures and claims Africa’s oil, land and mineral resources. U.S. troops are poised to do just that. Thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed throughout Africa for years, but in recent weeks the Marines have engaged in training missions to refine their ability to launch an invasion of northern Africa all the way from Spain. It was reported that: “The Marines flew approximately 500 nautical miles in MV-22B tilt-rotor Ospreys from Moron Air Base, Spain, to their landing zone in (Morocco). Once they arrived, a platoon of Marines … quickly established security of the area.” A flight leader said the objective of the operation is “to safeguard U.S. citizens and government property.”

So, for soldiers of African descent, there is more at stake than hairstyles. They are asked to also participate in missions that will ensure Africa and African-descended communities worldwide remain both powerless and disrespected. In this way, Black soldiers are distinctly different from many of their white counterparts who gladly sacrifice their style and grooming preferences because they believe (often incorrectly) their families and communities will benefit materially from these military missions that, in truth, conquer and exploit underdeveloped regions.

The challenge for those who are concerned is to create employment opportunities that allow young people to opt out of military service and still contribute to the community without sacrificing their culture and participating in missions that hinder their communities’ progress.

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