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Thursday, November 14, 2019

November 14, 2019: Veteran’s Week: African Americans in World War I

[In honor of Veterans’ Day, a series on cultural and historical engagements with this important American community. Please share your suggestions for veterans’ texts and contexts for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On two opposing yet crucially interconnected ways to remember a community of veterans.
Thanks in large part to the film Glory (1989), we’ve started to develop a collective sense of the U.S. Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War; thanks to similar cultural texts such as the film Red Tails (2012), we’ve perhaps begun to do the same for the African Americans who served in World War II. But for whatever reason—perhaps it’s as simple as the absence, to date, of a historical film centered on them?—I don’t think we have much of a collective awareness at all of the equally significant community of African American soldiers who served in World War I. Coming half a century after abolition, in the same era as such defining histories as the Great Migration, the lynching epidemic, and the founding of the NAACP, this World War I service is certainly as significant as those other, more famous ones, and deserves far more remembrance in our 21st century culture.
If we start to engage with the histories of this community, however, another reason for our general amnesia about them becomes clearer: compared to the pretty inspiring Civil War and World War II stories, the history of these World War I soldiers—and of the vets when they returned home—is a strikingly dark and divisive one. Exemplifying those dark histories are the words of the U.S. chief military commander, General John Pershing, who while publicly recognizing African American soldiers privately composed a secret communiqué to white officers instructing them that “we must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans.” And when they returned to the United States, these veterans found themselves right back in a society where President Wilson had recently segregated the federal government, where The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a towering cultural achievement, where whatever protections their uniforms had afforded them ended as abruptly as did the war—as illustrated horrifically by the year-long racial terrorism that came to be known as the “Red Summer” of 1919.
So we can’t better remember these World War I soldiers and veterans without remembering another in the long national series of hypocrisies and horrors directed at African Americans—which of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remember them (quite the opposite). But on the other hand, we can also work to push beyond those negatives to remember the deeply inspiring sides to this community’s service, and to consider how they brought those experiences back with them to the post-war nation. In his May 1919 essay “Returning Soldiers,” published as an editorial for his monthly NAACP magazine The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois makes the case for thinking of the soldiers in precisely that way; throughout his stirring editorial Du Bois contrasts the cause for which these soldiers have risked their lives for the “fatherland” to which they will soon come home, concludes, “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.” It’s quite possible to see this era, and this community of veterans, as a vital step toward the Civil Rights Movement—and in any case it’s well worth remembering this inspiring side of their experiences.

Next post tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other histories you’d share for the weekend post?

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