The title and lyrics (see here) refer to the black U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, known as “Buffalo Soldiers”, formed in 1866, that fought in the Indian Wars.
Many of the privates in this segregated regiment were slaves taken from Africa who went to rid the west of Native Americans , so that white people could occupy their lands.
That nickname was given by the Indian tribes who were fighting against them, as a result of their skin colour and hair texture, which seemed to resemble the mane of the buffalo. They accepted the name and wore it proudly knowing the Native Americans worshipped the buffalo and that name that appellation could be considered as a sign of their respect.
Their specific task was to protect the white colonizers who had settled in their lands from “Indian” attacks. In practice, the black people who had been taken from Africa as slaves, once freed (just after the Civil War) were sent to kill the natives, in the name of the Country that was no longer slaver but even ‘allowed’ them to form military regiments.
That war was a fight for freedom on both sides. The African American soldiers were fighting to obtain a freedom they had never known (although the war against slavery was over), while the Native Americans were fighting to defend their freedom.
Bob Marley, who likened their fight to a fight for survival , gives a small history lesson about the black man’s role in building the country that continues to oppress him.
The first verse of the song, contains some words that are repeated several times throughout it.
Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta
is a reference to Rastafarians who grow dreadlocks, symbolic of the Lion of Judah, sometimes represented on the Ethiopian flag. They believe it a biblical hair style, worn as a symbol of devotion by the Nazirites
In the Hebrew Bible, a Nazirite or Nazarite (which means consecrated) was a person who took a vow, one part of which prescribes to refrain from cutting the hair on one’s head, but to allow the locks to grow. When describing the obligations of their religion, Rastafari make reference to that vow taken by Samson who, according to the Bible (Book of Judges) had “seven locks” of hair.
Rastas associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey, taken in the process of locking their hair, and believe they represent a spiritualist’s understanding that vanity and physical appearances are unimportant.
The term dread that makes up the word dreadlock may refer to the fear they presumably aroused in beholders, but Rastafarian dread has a sense of “fear, or deep respect for God”.
The lyrics of the song then specify that that the Buffalo soldier was
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
a reference to the fact that these people were brought from Africa to America against their will. After that what they were forced to do was
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.
The moment they arrived in America, they started to fight in order to stay alive during slavery, then for their freedom, next for rights even after their emancipation. Finally they had to fight to survive on the battle field against the Native Americans
This prompts him to examine the situation, to
analyze the stench .
Stench is a strong, unpleasant smell, and also represents a foul quality. If the Dreadlock Rasta observes the unpleasant truth based on reality, then he realizes he has to help remove the Indians from their lands despite knowing it was wrong.
This metaphor can be linked to the next lines:
If you know your history
Then you would know where you coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the ‘eck do I think I am
The history of America is also the history of the black people and their sufferings , and exploitation. This should teach that it is unreasonable to ask them why they are demanding some rights; it only shows that American people don’t know their history.
The answer to who he thinks he is , is always the same:
I’m just a Buffalo Soldier in the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
A soldier who walks with a heavy step, works hard, however he is ready to run and help, if necessary:
Buffalo Soldier trodding through the land,
Said he wanna run, then you wanna hand.
Buffalo Soldiers fought to help build the United States, were instrumental in “win(ning) the war for America“.
Yet, despite their help, they were not treated as equals.
Finally, the phrase “in the arms of America” underlines once again they were battling for America, fighting for the rights of Americans and not for the right of their own ancestors.
If we want to play on the word “arm”, which may also mean ‘weapon, armament’, this phrase stresses once more that the “Buffalo Soldier” was sent to make war for America.
The metaphorical expressions contained in the lyrics are used to beautify it and convey deeper meaning than the literal one, amplifying the strong social criticism of the song.
image: (Wikimedia Commons) Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry