- A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II, and: The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro
Wars complicate national identity. States of war typically galvanize the population of one nation in solidarity against another, but they also limit dissent and focus suspicion on marginalized populations. For African Americans, wars amplify the double consciousness of black identity. Since the Revolutionary War, the black body in the US uniform has epitomized the contradictions of race and nationalism in America.
In A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II, Jennifer C. James theorizes that African American texts about war are not actually about war. “Rather,” she explains, “many black war writers appear more invested in assessing black participation in U.S. warfare as another political instrument, one wielded in the struggle for civic inclusion and equity” (26). In James’s readings, war functions as a metaphorical representation of domestic political conflicts involving social fragmentation, constructions of national space, sexual struggle, racial violence, and rhetorical patriotism. The texts she analyzes portray the experience of African Americans in segregated military engagements, and she discovers a subtextual historical narrative of black military involvement progressing from idealistic patriotism to disillusionment and adversarial militancy.
During the Civil War, African American involvement in the military raised issues of race and citizenship, the moral propriety of slavery, and America’s profound racism. William Wells Brown addresses these issues in Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine (1867), specifically when he describes the brutal death of Jerome, an African American soldier decapitated by a cannon ball. James’s analysis of Clotelle foregrounds the problem of the black body in the white uniform, specifically the body of the black soldier wounded and killed in battle, to establish a historical precedent for African American heroic sacrifice and, thus, fitness for the full responsibilities of [End Page 234] citizenship. James’s provocative analysis of Brown leads into discussions of Civil War narratives by Frances Harper and Paul Laurence Dunbar that, in her opinion, self-consciously sentimentalize the war in order to assert “a black cultural realism that engages dominant white narratives of the Civil War and its legacy” (56). In all of the texts she discusses, war figures as a rhetorical battlefield in a racial conflict pitting African American writers against the racist mainstream.
James incorporates into her discussion many rare texts that describe unexpected and important aspects of the African American military experience. Among these are Susie King Taylor’s Reminiscences of My Life in Camp (1902), the autobiography of an African American nurse attached to a black infantry unit during the Civil War; T. G. Steward’s The Colored Regulars in the United States Army (1904), a book about African American soldiers in the Spanish American War that debunks pseudo-scientific theories about black devolution; F. Grant Gilmore’s “The Problem”: A Military Novel (1915), a book set during the Spanish American War that explains the civilizing effects of military service; and Victor Daly’s Not Only War: The Story of Two Great Conflicts (1932), the only World War I novel by an African American veteran. James also discusses texts that express increasingly hostile attitudes toward African American military involvement. In a stimulating analysis of Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), for instance, she argues that he uses the text “to disseminate a more radical reading of blacks’ relationship to ‘the Great War,’ one meant to complicate the myopic nationalist perspective that, in McKay’s mind, prevented African Americans from viewing the war in a more expansive political context” (216). And finally, after a consideration of the wounded black body portrayed in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953) that connects to the earlier discussion of black sacrifice...