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Not One, But Two Years of WWrite in Review! January 2017 - January 2019. 
Part 2: African Americans in WWI

Over the month of January, to prepare for the remaining seven months of the blog (the tentative end date is July 2019), WWrite is publishing  a “WWrite Blog: Two Years in Review of WWI and Writing,” a series that will document and synthesize the 100+ blog contributions from January 2017. The first installment of the series highlighted contributions from U.S. veteran writers. This week features posts about African American involvement in WWI.

 

 The Invisible and the Inaudible in Peter Jackson's Documentary They Shall Not Grow Old

 

CotterJrAfrican American WWI soldier posing in Front of mockup of American flag. Courtesy Stars and Stripes.

 

Last month director Peter Jackson stunned the world with the release of his documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson parsed 600 hours of WWI black and white film footage to come up with about two hours that he had colored and animated with voices, music, and other sounds. The critical and audience responses have been tremendous. Rich Lowry of the National Review begins his article on They Shall Not Grow Old by announcing “The filmmaker Peter Jackson deserves more than an Oscar; he deserves a medal.” A trip to the Rotten Tomatoes website shows that almost all of the 80+ audience reviews boast a five-star rating. Jim S writes “Wow, just saw this tonight in Los Angeles...how often does a documentary get a round of applause from the audience after a viewing. Pretty amazing to see the realities of WWI close-up and personal. Very powerful film.” Most laud Jackson for humanizing the soldiers and the trench experience as the documentary brings the past into contemporary consciousness with the most modern technological tools. We hear what we thought once inaudible, see what was invisible.

 

JacksonbabyScene from They Shall Not Grow Old

 

Jackson’s film is obviously a virtuosic wonder in both its emotional and technical results. Yet it is also perhaps what we can’t see or hear in this film that has made it an interesting subject for studying cultural history that begs the question: what is lurking behind those some 580 hours of remaining footage and beyond? Jackson has excelled at providing the raw, poignant scenes of brutal trench warfare and soldier camaraderie from the mostly Great Britain point of view. He does pepper a few shots with the black faces of soldiers from what we presume to come from the British colonies, but the majority of scenes portray white soldiers. WWrite contributor, Andria Williams, whose forthcoming novel features a black WWI soldier from the Caribbean, cites The British Library WWI homepage in a post on her site, The Military Spouse Book Review: There were “well over four million non-white men mobilised into the European and American armies,” which also calls this number “a conservative estimate.” (Andria’s post will be revisited under another category in WWrite over the next few weeks on colonial soldiers). Indeed, considerable contributions from African Americans helped win WWI for the Allies. Unfortunately, their efforts went unrecognized for almost a century as most of the US refused to acknowledge their service. It is estimated that almost 40,000 African American veterans were denied medals of honor during the war, but only two have been posthumously awarded the military’s highest recognition.

 

MedalofHonorIn 2015, Obama awards WWI African American soldier, Pvt. Henry Johnson, the Medal of Honor posthumously. Image source: Getty

 

The WWI centennial has provided the opportunity to unearth these American lost voices, but we still have a long way to go. WWrite is honored to have hosted stories listed below about the WWI African American experience over the past two years, but we need many, many more. This post serves as a review, but it is also a call to writers and scholars worldwide to contribute their thoughts, observations, and discoveries over the remaining six-seven months of the WWrite blog . How can their WWI experience open a window for thinking about African Americans who have served in other wars?

Please contact WWrite at jennifer.orth-veillon@worldwar1centennial.org if you’d like to contribute to this important piece of lost history.

 

 

 Darryl Dillard “The Great War’s Influence on Black Male Actors Today”

 

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In the wake of a 2017 historic Oscar win for Moonlight, the independent film detailing the life of an African American boy in Miami, the WWrite Blog was honored to feature it’s Black History Month post with award-winning African American actor and writer, Darryl Dillard. In this moving post, Dillard traces the influence of WWI media portrayal of African Americans on black, male actors today.

“The only way for the black man to continue in film, according to the media, was to be entertaining and funny for white people. The shuck and jive type acts were popular. But again, instead of actual black actors, white actors in blackface performed the roles. Whites kept what they liked about blacks and their style in performances, but it was only to satisfy and confirm the stereotypes they already held…During WWI, to recruit more soldiers for the war, posters and campaigns portrayed gorillas as enemies. At the same time, the media frequently used gorilla imagery to symbolize blacks. The Hun, who raped Belgium women and stuck bayonets through babies, was a bad, black man.”

 

Keith Gandal “War Isn’t the Only Hell: 100 Years Later, Time To Tell the Truth about the African American and Lost Generation Experiences

 

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It may seem surprising, but, unlike every other combatant nation in WWI, America's lasting literature on the conflict was written entirely by noncombatants –Hemingway, Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter. This week on WWrite, Keith Gandal discusses his work on the unknown yet vital role noncombatant writers, such as African Americans and women, played in shaping America's WWI memory.

“The ultimate military policy adopted concerning African Americans did not please black leaders, but it displeased white racist leaders too. Some high-profile white southern civilian leaders wanted no African Americans drafted or sent to France, and none wanted black commissioned officers, black troops trained in combat, or black recruits stationed in southern states. The military, though it acquiesced in some ways--most notably in instituting segregation and assigning most black recruits to labor units--insisted on a black draft, commissioned about 1200 black officers, put tens of thousands of black troops into combat, and did station black recruits in southern states. Perhaps most significant for the African American community, the army gave hundreds of thousands of black men a chance to experience a country (France) that was not governed by racial discrimination and came to embrace them.”

 

Major Jasmine Motupalli  "Historically-Influenced Path: Iraq and Afghanistan Inspired by Ida B. Wells' WWI Fight"

 

Jasminecombinereview

 

Black History Month gave the WWrite blog the opportunity to showcase African American writers and artists inspired by WWI.  Major Jasmine Motupalli, Assistant Professor of Engineering at West Point, and Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran, reflected upon the roles of African American women during WWI, especially the actions of journalist, activist, and suffragist, Ida B. Wells. Major Motupalli also shared part of her memoir in progress about her experience in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer.

"...in the face of inequality, I tend to be a bit rebellious and, even in 1914-1918, I’m pretty sure I would have tried to break the ceiling even further. During this time, I would have followed one of my heroes, Ida B. Wells, journalist, suffragist, editor, and activist. She fought for voting rights and equal treatment for women who looked like me. During WWI, she sold Liberty Bonds and distributed care packages to black soldiers. But her fight didn’t stop there. She worked to defend black men falsely accused of crimes throughout the country. Following the Houston Race Riot of 1917, she fiercely protested the hanging of 13 black soldiers hung by a military court without recourse to appeal or review by the president."

 

Jennifer Orth-Veillon “On a Boat Alone: African American Wives Post WWI”

 

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Jennifer Orth-Veillon, the WWrite blog curator’s post, "On A Boat Alone," talks about racism in the south and discusses the "Gold Star Pilgrimage," a U.S.-government sponsored program that brought wives to burial sites and battlegrounds in Europe post-WWI. She focuses on the African American women who took these trips and discovered equality, not in their own country, but on the other side of the ocean. 

“US segregation laws mandated that white women and African American women travel separately to France. Whites traveled on luxury liners while African Americans traveled on commercial steamers. In one instance, an overcrowded luxury liner of white women traveled next to a steamliner containing one African American woman. However, once they got to Europe—still segregated—they ate in the same restaurants and slept in the same hotels. Their loved ones gave the same sacrifice, but their memory was honored unequally.” 

 

“The Colored Man is No Slacker – WWI Poems by the Peters Sisters”

"The Colored Man is No Slacker." In 1919, this slogan on a WWI-era poster inspired two young African American sisters from West Virginia to write and publish a book of poems whose sole intention, they wrote, was "to show the Negro’s loyalty to the stars and stripes in the war with Germany and to show the need of unity of all men in the fight for democracy."

The Colored Man is No Slacker

God forbid ere man was born

To crush honor beneath his feet

That the light of day should dawn

Upon one, who from duty flees

While on Freedom’s Bleeding Alter,

His Noble Comrades have bled

But he stands idle a slacker

Disgraced before living and dead.

 

By Ada and Ethel Peters

 

Connie Ruzich “Their Only Crime: African American Poet, James Seaman Cotter, Jr.”

 

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“A monster... of war and not of war..." is how James Seamon Cotter Jr. describes the genocide and racism that make up an important part of WWI's history and memory in his poem "O, Little David, Play on Your Harp": the Armenian Genocide, Russian pogroms, the Belgian atrocities, the deadly prejudice against African Americans. WWI poetry specialist, Connie Ruzich discusses Cotter, a forerunner of the African American cultural renaissance of the 1920s, and his vision of the world during the Great War.

“James Seamon Cotter, Jr. has been described as a “forerunner of the African American cultural renaissance of the 1920s,” and the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance notes that his poetry and one-act play On the Fields of France  provide an important contribution to First World War literature.  Cotter’s poem “O Little David, Play on Your Harp” uses a well-known African-American spiritual to frame the oppression and misery of war, genocide, and racism.”

 

 

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