“The Colored Soldiers”

Read “The Colored Soldiers” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar


You can read my analysis:


Dunbar includes the colored soldiers as members of “the nation” in his poem, “The Colored Soldiers”. The speaker of the poem details the account of the “you”–referring to the non-colored soldier–initially engaged in the battle and leading up to the “[calling of] the colored soldiers”. Chronologically speaking: first the non-colored soldier engages in battle: “Up the hills you fought and faltered, / In the values you strove and bled” (13-4). Then the non-colored soldier hears the footsteps of the advancing foe. After this, “distress fell on the nation” (17), which then implies that the nation consists not only of non-colored soldiers, because the distress came after the battle in which the non-colored soldiers fought. If the nation was only to include the non-colored, then the distress would be simultaneous. That the “flag was drooping low” (18) occurs after the nation becomes distressed. If the colored men are included in the nation, then they also share the responsibility of the national moral being lost. Which then implies that they have a hand in the upkeep of the nation. When the personified “War” becomes too aggressive for the “you” to handle, the non-colored soldiers ask the colored soldiers to fight.

But the syntax and diction that follows when the colored soldiers “answered to your call” (24) indicates that they weren’t fighting because they were asked by the non-colored soldiers, they were fighting because they were allowed: “And lie hounds unleashed and eager, / For the life blood of the prey, / Sprung they forth and bore them bravely / In the thickest of the fray.” (25-9). First, the colored soldiers are implicitly organized. They were “like hounds” (25) together and their willingness to enter “In the thickest of the fray” (28) indicates that they were mentally and emotionally prepared to be so aggressive; that they were not caught off guard as one might expect a band of soldiers just merely asked to fight would be.

If the colored soldiers were not, according to the structure of the poem, fighting for the “you”–the non-colored soldiers–who then did they fight for? The colored soldiers answered the call of the distressed nation, and they fought for the nation of which they were a part. The speaker of the poem explicitly states twice that they, “fought for Uncle Sam!”  More than simply fighting for an institution that kept them oppressed, the colored soldiers fought for freedom: “they fought their way to light” (56) and “Yes, the Blacks enjoy their freedom, / And they won it dearly, too; ” (49-50).

It is significant that the verb “enjoy” as found in line 49 appears in present verb form and not in the past-tense verb style that is patterned through the previous and following lines. The “Blacks” did not merely enjoy this freedom one time in the past, but are continually enjoying the freedom and that it is well-deserved because “they won it dearly, too” (50). The poem juxtaposes the winning of battle with the winning of freedom, and with the references towards slavery–“In the darkness of their bondage, / In the depths of slavery’s night” (53-5)–the speaker offers the claims that the colored soldiers were so effective because their experience with slavery has made them empathetic and understanding of the necessity of fighting for freedom.

Furthermore, the speaker uses language such as “comrades…brothers” (57), “citizens and soldiers” (61), “shared” (65 and 66), “commingling” (67), and “same…as you” (70) to gesture towards a direct companionship of slavery with war. Through showcasing the empathy of the colored soldiers as what makes them so efficient and so necessary to the war effort, the speaker of the poem invites the “you” to share in the empathy. The speaker crafts a situation in which the speaker forces “you” to relate to the colored soldier; perhaps to the effect of inviting “you” to fight as hard for the freedom of the Blacks as they have for the freedom of the nation.