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34 African American Women and the Search for Peace and Freedom Cano, I Sing There’s murder and hate in the Balkans; There’s vengeance in far Cathay; Injustice and tyranny threaten Where men and greed have their sway; They’re lynching my sisters in Texas, They’re flogging my sons on the farm; But I know the Omnipotence watches, That God has a far-flung arm. —Alice Dunbar-Nelson, 1929 In 1933 the NACW published, in their organizational magazine National Notes, an elegant quarter-page photograph of fifty-seven-year-old esteemed clubwoman and writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson with a large caption that read “Advocate of Peace.”1 This photograph and Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s 1929 poem “Cano, I Sing” capture the rich and complicated history that surrounded many middle-class African American women’s relationships to World War I, the women’s peace movement, and African American internationalism. By linking the lynching of black women, the atrocities of the war-torn Balkans, and Asian unrest in her poem, Dunbar-Nelson consciously sought to place the black female body into the center of the narratives of war and peace and freedom that were unfolding during the first three decades of the century. Many African American women developed from their various experiences of the war—their work as propagandists , home front defense workers, and witnesses to racism—a particular Search for Peace and Freedom | 35 perspective on how to achieve peace. As Addie Hunton solidly believed, “there can be no world peace without right local and national relations.”2 This pragmatic perspective linked the local and the global through the terrain of black women’s experiences. As they endeavored to bring together the middle-class movements for peace, Pan-Africanism, and racial uplift and justice, black women turned to their own history as reformers and experiences of oppression to devise strategies for change. By making the achievement of their own freedom the litmus test for peace, women like Addie Hunton, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Jessie Fauset connected the local conditions of their own lives to the global strife faced by so many. The life and writings of Addie Hunton (1866–1943), Alice DunbarNelson (1875–1935), and Jessie Fauset (1882–1961) capture the complexity of middle-class African American women’s postwar ideology and activism . Their postwar politics as evidenced in speeches, committee reports, newspaper columns, novels, and essays revealed a double-edged story of brilliance and isolation. The contemporary liminality surrounding black women’s contributions to the postwar restructuring and reimagining of the meanings of race, gender, nation, and citizenship replicates in many ways the very conditions of marginalization African American women navigated during the postwar era. The near erasure today of women like Hunton, Dunbar-Nelson, and Fauset from historical inquiry into postwar political and intellectual developments recreates the marginality African American women maneuvered during the interwar years.3 African American women’s interwar era peace activity and ideology must be placed within the context of the complex developments and allegiances they negotiated. At the war’s end, the fact that women had won the right to vote, that black women had participated in large numbers in the war effort, and that the racism of the war had reignited black resistance and internationalism caused black women to expand the reach of their political influence. Simultaneously, middle-class black women were still expected—through the arenas of social reform and racial uplift— to attend to the basic daily needs of the race.4 In 1920, W. E. B. Du Bois acknowledged the magnitude of the responsibilities shouldered by black women in the immediate postwar moment. In his book Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, Du Bois pondered the advice black women had to 36 | A Band of Noble Women offer: “What is today the message of these black women to America and to the world? The uplift of women is, next to the problem of the color line and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause. When, now, two of these movements—woman and color—combine in one, the combination has deep meaning.”5 Here he praised black women for their accomplishments and their ability to link the struggles for gender and racial equality . Yet he also went on to compare their achievements and message with what he deemed the “noisier and more spectacular advances of my brothers .” Du Bois admired the robust political engagement of black men, yet he concluded that it was “the five million women of my...


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