This post relates to an interesting subject relevant to our investigation of African American culture in the 20th century, which is the participation of African Americans in particular in WWI--a topic that has largely existed under an extraordinary cloud of obfuscation manufactured largely by the dismal scent that Jim Crow lent to every activity and contribution of African Americans in the 20th century.
The story of their role in WWI is one of the most fascinating chapters, which I wanted to delve into more deeply during my sabbatical but never got to. It moves me deeply partly because of the magnificent portrayals of black soldiers of WWI, in particular in Ralph Ellison's classic INVISIBLE MAN, immediately comes to mind.
Their experience of segregation in the military, the whiff of freedom and triumph they enjoyed in Paris and then their tragic return to the Red Summer of 1919 and the lynching ropes and fires of the South is a story that will forever intrique, especially since I was raised in a time in which women rarely got to engage in military service of any kind.
The case of WWI, in which many men of African descent participated from all over the world, is really a topic of great international dimension and interest, which might provide some necessary background to matters that come much more clearly into focus in the historiography and journalism on African American participation in WWII. There wasn't too much time between the two wars, but WWII was so much more extensively and graphically documented in every detail, benefiting as it did by the extraordinary international developments in photography and war journalism. Indeed, such developments may have contributed to the ultimate desegregation of the U.S. military by President Harry Truman after World War II, a step which now seems inevitable in historical hindsight.
I don't know if you have had a chance to notice but a lot of wonderful documentaries and feature films have begun to emerge on this war, propelled along in part by the release of a great deal of color film monopolized by the military in a variety of countries (the U.S. and Japan both come to mind--I will be showing some of both collections in class) but then not widely released to the public for various reasons, some of them having to do with propaganda and all sorts of war related fears. Part of it is that only now via dvd, internet and computer technology have we got the means to really widely distribute and appreciate this material I think although I don't hear people saying much about it.
Many people seem too consumed by the wars of the present to notice this glorious scholarship and documentation of the equally crazy wars of the past but I think it would be most helpful to all of us if we could take another longer look. Certainly, much of it is deeply relevant to the subject matter of this course. African American military participation has always been central to all discussions of African American Civil Rights and Cultural Progress. There's actually a wonderful book about this, which we won't be reading in this course but which you might find interesting. It is by John A. Williams and it is called CAPTAIN BLACKMAN (1972 republished in 2000). Not my favorite title but certainly one of my favorite books. And a book that anyone who has ever been in the military, or knows anyone in the military, should certainly read.
Some more pictures of black soldiers in WWI from my family archive.
I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.