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The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro

Mark Whalan

Publication Year: 2008

More than 200,000 African American soldiers fought in World War I, and returning troops frequently spoke of "color-blind" France. Such cosmopolitan experiences, along with the brutal, often desegregated no-man's-land between the trenches, forced African American artists and writers to reexamine their relationship to mainstream (white) American culture.

The war represented a seminal moment for African Americans, and in the 1920s and 1930s it became a touchstone for such diverse cultural concerns as the pan-African impulse, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and the redefinition of black masculinity.

In examining the legacy of the Great War on African American culture, Mark Whalan considers the work of such canonical writers as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Alain Locke. In addition, he considers the legacy of the war for African Americans as represented in film, photography, and anthropology, with a particular focus on the photographer James VanDerZee.

Published by: University Press of Florida


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-v


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p. vii


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xix

In February and April 1920, a two-part story appeared in the black socialist and nationalist New York magazine the Crusader. It was a story about a war that was vast in scope, fought on land, sea and air, waged across all continents, involved all the imperial nations of the world, and included tens of millions of troops and civilians. It was fought to redress the balance of...

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pp. xxi-xxii

This book could not have been written without a good deal of help, advice, and support from a number of institutions and individuals whose encouragement and enthusiasm for the project have been invaluable. I am grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who funded a period of research leave, and also to the British Academy for funding two...


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p. xxiii

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-15

In April 1917, the German navy’s recently resumed unrestricted submarine warfare on American shipping propelled Woodrow Wilson into declaring war on the Central powers. At the outset, it seemed far from inevitable that the United States would field an army in Europe at all, despite the activities of the preparedness movement; the regular U.S. army was ranked by experts...

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2. “Civilization has met its Waterloo”: The Great War, Race, and the Canon

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pp. 16-46

From the outset, there was a powerful—if not dominant—trend for the significance of the war to be discussed in terms not of conflicting nationalities, ideologies, spheres of influence, or imperial rivalry, but in racial terms.1 In America, popular hard-line eugenicists such as Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard, and Clinton Stoddard Burr decried the “dysgenic” effects of the...

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3. “Over There”

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pp. 47-109

Richard Wright’s famous list of taboos for interracial conversation in 1920s Tennessee exhibits much of his talent for grim humor on the subject of white Southern racial prejudice. It is also a revealing litany of the totems and shibboleths around which African American struggles for social, material, and cultural inclusion were enacted in the first half of the twentieth century. ...

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4. The Great War and the New Negro Politics of Gender

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pp. 110-190

It is a critical and sociological axiom that warfare is one of the privileged arenas within which male identities are forged and negotiated. As Joanna Bourke has recently shown in her study of male identity and warfare in the twentieth century, the “warrior myth” is a persistent and widespread model of masculinity, both during war and in the cultural understanding of war...

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5. “How did they pick John Doe?”: Memory, Memorial, and the African American Great War

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pp. 191-240

John Dos Passos’ famous closing section of 1919 (1932), the middle volume of U.S.A., dealing with the remains that were to fill the coffin of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery is an obvious place to start in considering the racial politics of mourning in the United States in response to the Great War. Perhaps more than any other piece of writing, Dos Passos'...

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pp. 241-247

The imaginative reconstruction of the Great War in African American culture in the 1920s and 1930s was both extensive and highly influential. It took place in the work of the best-known intellectuals and writers of the New Negro Renaissance, just as it took place in films, pageants, Broadway plays, and the street-corner commercial photography studios not only of Harlem but...


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pp. 249-266

Works Cited

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pp. 267-288


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pp. 289-303

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About the Author

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p. 304

Mark Whalan is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of Exeter in England. He is the editor of The Letters of Jean Toomer, 1919–1924 (2006) and the author of Race, Manhood, and Modernism in America: The Short Story Cycles of Sherwood Anderson and Jean Toomer (2007).

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045993
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813032061
Print-ISBN-10: 0813032067

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 8 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 801844684
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro

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Subject Headings

  • World War, 1914-1918 -- African Americans.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Literature and the war.
  • African Americans -- Social conditions -- To 1964.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism
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