Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Adriane Lentz-Smith's "Freedom Struggles"

Adriane Lentz-Smith is Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of History at Duke University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I, and reported the following:
My book, Freedom Struggles, tells a history of the black freedom movement during WWI by looking at African American soldiers and the civil rights activists who mobilized on their behalf. The book recounts a number of stories – about riots and shootings on the home front, about fights between black and white soldiers near the front, and about how the war offered an opportunity to either roll back the segregationist system known as Jim Crow or to give it international traction. It is about the War for Democracy, certainly; but, in this telling, African Americans are the foot soldiers, and the battles often take place at home.

Does page 99 capture the book? Well, it does highlight a significant theme. The page comes in the midst of a chapter, “Men in the Making,” about the relationship between manhood, citizenship, and military service. Sex constitutes a big part of this discussion because it constituted a huge part of white supremacists’ rhetoric. When American defenders of Jim Crow decried “social equality,” they were speaking of interracial sex, and they repeatedly warned that political equality would lead inevitably to social equality. Allowing black men at the polls, they argued, was tantamount to inviting them into the bedroom. And because military service was so closely tied to the privileges and obligations of citizenship, sending African Americans overseas as soldiers threatened the entire system.

Thus did Mississippi Senator and notorious white supremacist James K. Vardaman begin referring to black soldiers as “French-women-ruined Negroes” — a term that is remarkable for the breadth of its offensiveness. For those readers who do not think like a WWI-era white supremacist I tried to tease out the logic of such a phrase, writing:
Essential to African American’s emotional and rhetorical emphasis on French egalitarianism was the thrill of social equality. White supremacists on the front and home front had sounded the alarm bells so stridently for so long that black soldiers, too, came to see interracial liaisons as a way of exhibiting manly prerogative. As increasing numbers of African American soldiers arrived in France in 1918 and began to interact with the French, their white counterparts reinforced the color line. Writing home from France, for example, a white lieutenant in the 142nd Field Artillery called political equality between the races “dangerous” and vowed that social equality would “never be.” Such a vow denied the reality of conditions in France (and, as the biracial Ely Green could testify, in the United States), buffering Jim Crow by denying its subversions.

Viewing the American “Negro problem” from foreign soil amplified the contrasts between white supremacy and an idealized democracy, but it also strengthened segregationist resolve. Although the lieutenant from the 142nd Field Artillery conceded that it sounded “illogical to talk of a ‘world safe for democracy’ and discriminate against any race,” he nevertheless felt that “the belief and necessity for white supremacy” was “fundamental” to “Americanism as originally practised.” America could survive with a stunted democracy, but without the white man as “guardian” of the country’s “civilization,” the nation might cease to exist.
After this page, I discuss how black soldiers felt about crossing the color line and the conflicts, often violent, that resulted from their doing so.

Those violent conflicts make up a great deal of the story in Freedom Struggles, and page 99 does not quite capture the intensity of either African Americans’ defiance of Jim Crow or white supremacists’ defense of it. Still, what does strike me after taking the page 99 test is how often women figure into those conflicts, sometimes rhetorically but often quite actively. In that respect, the page “captures the quality of the whole,” touching on narratives even when it does not tell them.
Read an excerpt from Freedom Struggles, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue