Academic journal article African American Review

Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices and World War II-Era Civic Nationalism

Academic journal article African American Review

Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices and World War II-Era Civic Nationalism

Article excerpt

Speaking at the Fourth American Writer's Conference in June 1941, Richard Wright denounces the hypocrisy of America's defense of liberty in Europe. His speech, "What We Think of Their War," refers to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" as a "metaphysical obscenity" in light of the War Department's policy of racial segregation: "How is it possible for any sincere or sane person to contend that the current war, World War II, is a crusade for freedom, for the majesty of the human soul, for a full life, in the face of official utterances [about segregation in the armed forces] which categorically reject the very concept of freedom and democracy?" (Wright Papers).

As the war escalated, Wright tempered his harshest criticisms about the nation's fight for democracy and along with the American Communist Party dropped his anti-war position. Nevertheless, when 12 Million Black Voices was published in October 1941, Wright was still primarily concerned with what he saw as the war's domestic front. Like the Pittsburgh Courier and other black newspapers that used the "Double-V" in a play on the ubiquitous victory symbol (Roeder 47), Wright championed victory both at home and abroad. He called for the defeat of fascism as well as the end of discrimination, Jim Crow, and rapacious capitalism.

12 Million Black Voices, a sweeping historical narrative of American black experience complemented by Farm Security Administration photographs previously chosen by FSA editor Edwin Rosskam, is an act of protest against these social forces, one that expanded the work of reformers like Walter White and A. Philip Randolph. In September 1940, NAACP leader White and Randolph, editor of the Socialist Messenger, met with President Roosevelt to push for the immediate desegregation of the armed forces. Although their demand--backed by the threat of a 100,000 strong black march on Washington--was rejected, they did secure a compromise, an executive order in June 1941 against discrimination in the defense industries (White 186-94). Wright's text indirectly places White and Randolph's battle against military segregation into the wider context of the historical exclusion of blacks from full cultural citizenship in the United States. Wright's broader perspective on the war, however, did not extend as far as W. E. B. Du Bois's "wide angle vision," which saw "egalitarian potential" in Germany and Japan (Lewis 468). Nevertheless, Wright's position was less conciliatory than that of Ralph Bunche, who stated in 1940, "American Democracy is bad enough. But in the mad world of today I love it, and I will fight to preserve it" (qtd. in Young 62). In essence, Wright continued to see the war as a two-fronted fight, but for him the domestic battle was always more urgent.

12 Million Black Voices appeared at a time when the US was both was brimming with patriotism and trying to reconcile ethnic and class divisions. Populist works such as Louis Adamic's From Many Lands (1940), and Two-Way Passage (1941), the US Office of Education's radio program "Americans All.... Immigrants All" (1938-1939), the Atlantic magazine's We Americans (1939), and patriotic immigrant affirmations like those found in I Am An American (1941) championed the contributions of ethnic Americans and, moreover, the nation's unassailable democracy. These texts contributed to what would be a long process of re-rooting American historical identity from Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island, and they responded to the enormous presence and influence of immigrants and their children. In spite of the severe quotas placed on immigration by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, approximately two-thirds of residents of major US cities in the 1930s were either foreign born or the children of the foreign born. Furthermore, the rise of fascism in Europe provided a powerful impetus for the celebration of American diversity. As historian Richard Weiss observes, "Ruthless [Nazi] repression of ethnic minorities resulted in a counter identification of democracy with minority encouragement and tolerance" (566). …

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