A few days ago, I joined a full house of enthralled and enthusiastic people in a beautiful performance space, located in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

It was a sunny yet windy Sunday afternoon, typical of an early Fall in The City. We were there to witness the amazing presentation of “A Crisis of Conscience,” the title given by its author, John Calloway, to what he calls “a multi-disciplinary work.”

It was a beautiful, moving experience. A well-tuned mix of cultures, colors, music, and lives, all engaged in a similar task: to remind us that humanity can be at its best when creative multicultural collaborations occur — on and off the stage.

In these tense and horrible days (and years) that we are living, where violence takes center stage and peace and love seem to be distant stars from a remote galaxy, we need to ease our painful confusion with music, with shared possibilities, with common goals…and with love.

That afternoon, John Calloway and friends — evoking the life of John’s grandfather, John W. Calloway — illuminated the possibility of a better world.

The positive vibes created on that afternoon were achieved by a plethora of contributing amazing artists, a wildly talented multicultural group, with a majority of African-American and Filipino-American musicians and dancers. “Each person who is here on stage today was carefully and purposely invited to be part of this work,” said Calloway during the performance. “Because of their backgrounds, their common history and, of course, because of their great talent!”

The work was centered on the personal writings of John Calloway’s ‘Lolo.’ “That’s how we call grandpas in Tagalog,” ‘John the grandchild’ told us. They are writings that tell the story of a sensitive and creative man. A man who had to come to terms with a challenging fact: he was a U.S. soldier asked to fight in a war which — as he soon discovered — he did not wish to be a part of. 

As a young Black Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army and member of “The Buffalo Soldiers” during the Philippine-American War, (1899-1902), John W. Calloway realized that he simply could not kill the people from a land who had never caused him any harm. On top of that, Sergeant Major Calloway fell in love with a Filipina woman. “My Lola’s name was Mamerta de la Rosa,” added Calloway, the grandchild. 

For establishing a relationship with a Filipina woman (‘the enemy’) Sergeant Major John W. Calloway was court-martialed. He successfully fought the charges against him and — as soon as the trial was over — he returned to the Philippines, to his sweet Mamerta. “My Lolo and my Lola were married over 30 years. From 1901 to 1932. They had 14 grandchildren.”

A similar crisis of conscience afflicted other African-American soldiers, who soon discovered that they had plenty in common with those Brown and Black Filipino adversaries. In fact, the whole title of the piece is “Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippine-American War: A Crisis of Conscience.” 

In “Crisis of Conscience,” some historical records describe the participation of Black American soldiers who were deployed to fight the Filipino pro-independence fighters. When they were in the Philippines, their experiences reminded them of the hurtful realities of racism in the U.S.

The U.S., as it usually has done when writing their “official versions” of history, claimed that the takeover of the Philippines was a necessity, “for the country’s own good.” 

In an article titled “Black Soldiers and the Philippine-American War,” Ramil Mercado writes that “President William McKinley stated that the annexation of the Philippines would be “benevolent assimilation” for the Filipinos, and that the “racial inferiority of the Filipinos [would be] a primary justification” for countering the pro-independence movement and seizing control of the strategically important archipelago.”

Mercado continues: “For many Black Americans serving during those tumultuous four years, the treatment and rhetoric towards Filipinos echoed the treatment of Black Americans at home in the United States.”

In fact, at least 30 Buffalo Soldiers defected, with 15 joining the Filipino Nationalist Movement. Most poignantly, before that colonialist take-over of the Philippines, Black regiments had the lowest desertion rate in the Army. 

The actions and words of those “Buffalo Soldiers” (a name given to U.S. Black Army Regiments created during the 19th century) bring to my mind what Muhammad Ali, the African-American former heavyweight Champion of the World famously said, when he refused to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war:  “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong … no Vietcong ever called me a nigger.”

That warm San Francisco afternoon gave us the sweet sounds of “Danzones” and other wonderful musical compositions. It also allowed us to enjoy sensual and beautiful dances and  to hear some awesome spoken-word performances, all in the name of a peaceful coexistence. 

Unfortunately, during the performance, a couple of times the roar of the “Blue Demons” (Oops, I meant the “Blue Angels”), those U.S. Air Force planes whose noise we inherited from a recently deceased former SF Mayor, disrupted our peaceful thoughts. The roar told us that life … and death, go on with their contradictory dances. 

The respite beautifully weaved in “A Crisis of Conscience” came to an end. But it remains in our heart of hearts.

John Calloway holds a portrait of his grandparents that was taken in Old Manila in the Philippines during the 1930s, inside Acción Latina’s gallery in the Mission District on Oct. 11, 2023 in San Francisco, Calif. Calloway’s grandfather, John W. Calloway, was a ‘Buffalo Soldier,’ a regiment of mostly African-American U.S. Army soldiers that formed during the 19th century. Calloway married his Filipina wife, Mamerta de la Rosa. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local