World War I is an important topic in understanding the nexus of blues people aesthetics and the history of African Americans in the 20th Century. I knew this but couldn't explain how I knew it until I begun to really dig for some way to clearly represent this to an audience of students.
I started with a series of unconnected pieces, clues really: the fact that my great Uncle Cardoza had been a soldier in WWI and been stationed in France, that I had two photographs of him in uniform at the beginning and at the close of the war, as well as many pictures of friends in his regiment. I also knew that James Reese Europe had led the Regimental Orchestra along with Noble Sissle, and that both of them were highly productive and well documented innovators in jazz and ragtime. When I say documented, I mean not only written documents but also photographs. I knew that WEB Du Bois had recommended to African Americans that they fight in WWI, Close Ranks with other Americans despite the unwelcome environment of racism and Jim Crow at home, in the hopes that things would get better after the war.
But at the same time, I came to the realization that a great deal of negativity continues to radiate around African American participation in WWI, the notion that their contribution was less than dignified, that few of them fought, that others were employed in segregated units doing labor that failed to contribute to any advancement of the race.
I had bought second hand a series of books by Kelly Miller containing many photographs of black troops from the U.S. and from other places throughout the Diaspora, which I haven't yet had the time to read. Then I found Walter Dean Myers lovely little volume written with Bill Miles, the documentarian of the 369th Regiment: The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage. Although it is a text intended perhaps for a high school or junior high school audience, like much that Myers does, himself a collector of black photographs, it is beautifully done. I had not even realized that I had never known what a regiment or a platoon was and how important it was to gather these rudiments of military vocabulary to comprehend what had happened to the black soldiers in my great Uncle's unit.
Via Walter Dean Myers' book, I discovered other references, including The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri and Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I by Stephen L. Harris. And so now the thing to do is to put it altogether.
But I do think the undervaluation of African American cultural contributions in the 20th century begins with the profoundly damaging misreading of how wars have and continue to eviscerate men's bodies and souls.