- The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro
400,000 African American soldiers participated in World War I within a segregated military that in large part consigned them to service roles: building roads, digging trenches, and unloading cargo. Nevertheless, prominent African American intellectuals in the early-twentieth century pushed for African American inclusion in the military as an opportunity for social progress and a means for African American men to acquire the trappings of masculine honor and respect so long denied them. When the 369th regiment, "The Harlem Hellfighters," paraded up 5th Avenue into Harlem, 250,000 people came to greet them. Yet the prevalence in 1919 of race riots and lynching—including of African American veterans still in uniform—cut into the optimism. Meanwhile, white America went busily about memorializing the war as one fought exclusively by whites.
Almost a century later, the memory of World War I remains a contested site in American culture, particularly in the arts, where the relationship of the Great War to African American literature and culture has gone virtually undiscussed. While many of the prominent histories of the Harlem Renaissance, including When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (1989), The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White by George Hutchinson (1995), and Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance by Cary D. Wintz (1998), touch on World War I, Mark Whalan's The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro is the first full-length work to examine in detail how African American participation in World War I played out in the cultural sphere. Recognizing that a critical focus on battlefield narratives as the defining texts of war literature has failed to document the way the War interwove with the New Negro movement, Whalan expands his investigation to cover writings of the "talented tenth" not normally considered to be war literature. By examining texts ranging from fictive representations of African American soldiers, such as Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928) and Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), to popular war poetry exhorting African American soldiers to victory, such as Roscoe Jamison's "Negro Soldiers," to the influential [End Page 1140] photography and soldier portraits of James VanDerZee, Whalan unveils the tensions generated within African American culture at the prospect of participating in an imperial war on behalf of a racist state in which racialization of the enemy was a dominant ideological strategy. Whalan persuasively theorizes that African American participation in the War, however oppressive, energized the New Negro movement and helped shape its models of manhood and resistance.
Whalan opens with a thoroughly grounded history of the experiences of African Americans in the War and at home. He outlines the social debates framing race and the military, showing that a central question for African Americans was whether the possibility of social advancement through military service could offset the costs and contradictions of serving in a segregated military during a time of widespread racial violence and oppression. At the same time, white America "deplored the thought of militarily trained black men in their communities" and was conflicted as to whether the need for men was urgent enough to risk training and arming a group so long held in subjugation through violence (1). Whalan traces how these issues funneled into the practical but contentious disputes taking place on a national level about military segregation, black military roles, and officer training.
The book's major project, however, is to offer a cultural thematics of African American engagement with the cultural implications and memory of the Great War, particularly adumbrating the internal debates within the New Negro movement about the role of African Americans in the military, its implications, and how that participation should be represented. In the second chapter, "'Civilization has met its Waterloo': The Great War, Race, and the Canon," Whalan brings into focus the way African American intellectuals negotiated a precarious position between demanding that African Americans be acknowledged as rightful participants in American culture on the one hand and celebrating African American culture as an attractive refuge...