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Interview with Historical Novelist William Schroder: Before Iraq, There Was
Cousins of Color, what's it about?
Cousins of Color tells the story of Private David Fagen, a black American soldier in search of inclusion and respect who volunteers to serve his country in time of war. At the time, a great many blacks welcomed the opportunity to show their countrymen Negro blood was just as good as a white man's when spilled in defense of Old Glory. The war was what we refer to today as the Philippine Campaign, an extension of the Spanish American War. Begun in 1899, it was America's first overseas war of conquest and occupation - and we killed four hundred thousand Filipinos.
In his review, historian Willard Gatewood writes that readers of Cousins of Color are "certain to detect analogies between America's struggle for empire at the end of the nineteenth century and later struggles waged under various banners in the twentieth century and beyond." What did he mean by that?
I'd never risk putting words into an historian's mouth, so I'll tell you what I think he meant by it. The Spanish/American War was America's first overseas experiment in imperialism - our first off-shore war of conquest and occupation - our first attempt to build another nation in our image. There have been others since, but they were mostly failures, like Vietnam and a few in Central America. When the eminent Dr. Gatewood uses the phrase "twentieth century and beyond," he is referring to our current adventures in imperialism - Afghanistan and Iraq.
Are there similarities between the Spanish/American War and the current war in Iraq?
Yes, and a great many differences, too. First, I think you have to understand that one nation generally wages war on another when the second nation has something the first wants, and the first has the means to take it. With that in mind, take a look at the U.S. in the 1890's. We were up to our ears in textiles, steel and manufactured goods and we needed to expand our markets. China, everyone said was the future of American commerce, and manufacturers dreamed of a billion Chinese peasants dressed head to toe in American textiles and buying American products. The trouble was, we needed stopover bases in the Pacific - protected, dependably open harbors to re-provision, re-supply and warehouse. Who possessed those assets? Spain. Spain had what we wanted in the form of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines - their colonies in the Pacific - and because by then their empire was nearly bankrupt from corruption and mismanagement, we had the means to take it. Are there similarities to today's situation? I think so. William McKinley, a pro-business conservative was president, and American expansionism was in the heart and on the lips of industry. McKinley publicly spoke of peace but at the same time ordered the formation of State volunteer militias. He told the American public Spain had hostile intent and was an immanent threat - Spanish war ships the "smoking guns." Conservative politicians gave speeches in Congress about America's moral obligation to free the Cuban people from Spanish tyranny. They didn't have jets then to patrol a no-fly zone, so the president ordered the battleship Maine to Havana harbor and parked it directly in front of the Spanish fleet.
Are you saying the president manipulated public opinion about going to war?
You be the judge. Ultimately, McKinley sent a list of demands to the Spanish government: institute land reform - provide medical care and schools for Cuban children - establish a representative government like ours or Canada's - and one more thing - surrender all your weapons. This is just my personal opinion, but I think McKinley didn't want the Spanish to agree to his terms. If Spain complied with U.S. demands, Cuba would be free, but what American business really wanted - and needed - were Spain's assets in the Pacific.
What finally happened?
The event that brought on the war was the destruction of the Maine in Havana harbor. We know now a late-night fire in an ammunition locker was the cause of the explosion that sank the ship, but at the time, stirred up by William Randolph Hearst's headlines, the American public was convinced the evil Spanish empire had launched an unprovoked attack, and the cry, "Remember the Maine" was heard throughout the land.
The war in Cuba only lasted six weeks, but fighting in the Philippines went on for years. Why?
The American military had no problem in Guam and Puerto Rico. They just walked in and took over, but the Philippines was another matter entirely. Under the leadership of Jose Rizal, the "father" of the Philippines and their national hero, a decade-long resistance movement against Spanish rule had blossomed into a full-blown insurgency. The Spanish executed Rizal, but Emilio Aguinaldo, a soft-spoken but brilliant young dandy totally dedicated to Filipino independence succeeded him.
By the time Admiral Dewey's fleet arrived in the Philippines, the Spanish were almost glad to see it. Aguinaldo's guerilla army now numbered thirty thousand and counting, and Spain had lost control of much of the countryside. Dewey received Aguinaldo on board his flagship and asked for his help in defeating the Spanish. He assured the rebel general that America had no intention of occupying the Philippines. "You've read the American Constitution," he said. "We have no provisions in our law that permit us to take colonies."
When Aguinaldo asked Dewey for written assurance of Filipino independence, Dewey told him to "trust in the goodwill of the American people."
So the Americans and the Filipinos fought the Spanish together?
That was supposed to be the deal. Aguinaldo's army dug fourteen miles of trenches around Manila, effectively blocking a Spanish escape. While they waited for Dewey's signal to commence the attack, the Filipinos selected a provisional government and drafted a constitution. What they could not have known is that Dewey had made a secret pact with the Spanish commander: Dewey would fire a few token shots, and then accept Spanish surrender with his promise not to turn them over to the Filipinos. He'd heard the statement so often repeated in Washington power circles, "No nigger Filipino is going to run those islands."
On the pre-arranged night, things happened quickly. American and Spanish forces exchanged a few volleys, and within hours American flags appeared all over Manila. Dewey ordered Aguinaldo's army to disburse and leave the city. He declared the flag of the new Philippine Republic "unauthorized bunting" and ordered it removed from all Filipino boats and public areas. Naturally stunned and confused by the actions of the Americans, Aguinaldo appealed to Dewey, "What has happened," he asked, "to turn an ally into an enemy?" The standoff ended some nights later when Dewey's ships opened up on Aguinaldo's position, and the new president of the Philippine Republic fled into countryside leaving three thousand freedom fighters dead in the trenches.
When do the black soldiers come into the picture?
In mid-summer 1899, companies of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Black infantry Regiments arrived by ship from San Francisco. In his book, Smoked Yankees and the Struggle for Empire, Dr. Gatewood speaks of the black soldiers' dismay when they learned that Uncle Sam and Jim Crow had marched arm in arm into the Philippines. In many ways, the racial prejudice the men faced in the ranks was far worse than they'd experienced as civilians. Not surprisingly, racial prejudice directed toward blacks co-existed with prejudice against the Filipino. In time, the Asian pejoratives "dink," "gook," "slope" and "gugu" became interchangeable with "nigger," "coon" and "sambo." To further complicate matters, the black soldiers discovered they weren't fighting Spanish troops, but Filipino resistance fighters instead. These were men and women seeking freedom from oppression in their own land - something the black soldiers knew well. This was the moral dilemma that weighed heavily on their hearts - the black man's quest to achieve first-class citizenship through battlefield heroism meant bringing virtual slavery to another colored race. The soldiers spoke of being "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea," and they searched for a moral compromise. In time, the black Americans developed an affinity for the Filipinos. They liked each other. They called each other "Cousins of Color." In the midst of this chaotic backdrop, my protagonist, Private David Fagen, decided he could no longer participate in the destruction of another colored race, and one late light in November 1899, he defected and joined Aguinaldo's army.
Without giving away too much of your book, what happened to him?
Nothing more is known of Fagen, only the date he signed up for service and the date he defected. It was reported he led Filipino guerillas in numerous raids against American outposts and supply trains. American officers and men told stories of his "cunning" and "audacity," but as he was never captured or killed, no one knows for sure. In Cousins of Color, I created a fictitious life for David Fagen, placed him in the Philippines and let him navigate through that dark period in history when our pursuit of empire resulted in a violent, bloody clash of cultures and national wills.
Your book deals with the first convergence of the African/American and Filipino cultures, yet you are neither. Can a twenty-first century Caucasian give voice to oppressed peoples of a different race and time?
I struggled with that question for a long time before I began writing Cousins of Color. Finally, my wife - the smartest person I know - reminded me that under the skin, we are all human souls, and we all share the same goal - to live among people we love and watch our children grow up free from hatred and bigotry. In my eyes, David Fagen wasn't a black man. He was just a man.