Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chad L. Williams' "Torchbearers of Democracy"

Chad L. Williams is associate professor of history at Hamilton College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, and reported the following:
If a curious reader wanted to know what my book was about, would I have them turn to page 99? Sure, why not. Torchbearers of Democracy traces the multifaceted experiences of African American soldiers and veterans during World War I and its aftermath, demonstrating how they used the war and military service to personally stake claim to democracy as both an imaginative ideal and lived reality. At the same time, I reveal how African American intellectuals, political activists and ordinary citizens variously employed the symbolic meaning and legacy of black soldiers to demand the expansion of democratic rights for the race as a whole. I cast a wide net, telling a story that spans both the war and postwar years, and places African American soldiers firmly at the center of issues such as the obligations of citizenship, combat and labor, diaspora and internationalism, homecoming and racial violence, “New Negro” militancy, and the contested place of the war in African American history and memory.

Page 99 comes towards the end of Chapter Two and a discussion of the training camp experiences of African American soldiers. While not capturing the full breadth of Torchbearers of Democracy, this small slice of the book does touch upon two central themes. The first is how African American soldiers themselves, as a diverse group of men, internalized the meanings of their wartime service. I assert that, contrary to previous historical discussions of black soldiers in World War I, their experiences cannot be cast as uniformly negative or disillusioning. White supremacy was without question ubiquitous and had painful repercussions. But many African American soldiers were nevertheless proud of their army experience and reaped gains, both tangible and intangible, that proved personally meaningful. One of these gains related directly to manhood, a second theme page 99 addresses. The war and military service transformed notions of gender—and manhood and womanhood specifically—for African American men and women. In the case of African American soldiers, I write:
Military service allowed black troops to reconstitute their sense of manhood in such a way that both challenged negative constructions of black masculinity and affirmed their identity as true men. Eules Bracey, a self-described “common laborer” and farmer from La Crosse, Virginia, with no education before his induction, believed that “the mental and physical effects of my camp experience in the United States Army tended to make me a better and more useful man.” Time at Camp Lee led Walter Allen of Guinea Mills, Virginia, to state, “I think I am a better man than before the training.” The moral reformers of the CTCA [Commission on Training Camp Activities] would have been quite pleased with the impact of their services on Roy Fleming, who came away from of his camp experience “a better man” and “stopped gambling.”
I then connect African American women to this process, arguing:
The politics of the war drew notions of black manhood and womanhood even closer together as mutual aspirations for both individual and collective racial advancement. Black women assertively entered the public sphere to profess their commitment to the race, through their aid to African American soldiers and to the nation, by lending their patriotic support for the war effort, and to their gender, by demonstrating that women were essential to victory. In doing so, they revealed how the war created new opportunities for black female social and political engagement.
While not perfect, the Page 99 Test does offer a nice glimpse into the story I aim to tell in Torchbearers of Democracy and some of its key conceptual threads. But by all means, read more!
Learn more about the book and author at the Torchbearers of Democracy website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue