Academic journal article African American Review

Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives

Academic journal article African American Review

Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives

Article excerpt

When Wilbur Little, an African American soldier, returned to Blakely, Georgia from service in World War I, a group of white men met him at the train station and forced him to strip off his uniform. A few days later he defied their warning not to wear the uniform again in public, and a mob lynched him (Dray 248). His lynching sent the message to all African American soldiers returning from the war that their sacrifices for the cause of liberty in Europe would not lead to racial equality in America. A number of literary texts by African American writers published between 1919 and the 1930s, however, inverted that message by invoking the trope of the lynched soldier to make the case for civil rights. Carrie Williams Clifford's poem "The Black Draftee from Georgia" (1922), for example, alludes to the lynching of Wilbur Little:

    What though the hero-warrior was black?
   His heart was white and loyal to the core;
   And when to his loved Dixie he came back,
   Maimed, in the duty done on foreign shore,
   Where from the hell of war he never flinched,
   Because he cried, "Democracy," was lynched. (219) 

After World War I racial tensions in the United States became severely strained. The massive migration of southern African Americans to northern cities, the widespread emergence of segregation in the North, the regeneration of the Ku Klux Klan, race riots in several cities, and a new wave of lynchings in the South all contributed to a sense of racial unrest. At the same time, new works of literature by African American writers--the movement known as the New Negro Renaissance or the Harlem Renaissance--projected an image of defiant racial identity. In this social and artistic context, African American writers invoked the trope of the African American soldier, the person who incontrovertibly deserves equal citizenship, in juxtaposition with images of lynching, the radical denial of human rights, to make a case for civil rights. This juxtaposition leads to an aesthetic of lynching images that pushes a progressive agenda, fusing the artistic and social ends of the New Negro movement and demonstrating literature's value as a weapon in the struggle for racial equality.

Lynching is deeply embedded in America's racial psyche. Grace Hale explains that by the beginning of the twentieth century "white southerners transformed a deadly and often quiet form of vigilante 'justice' into a modern spectacle of enduring power" (201). The lynching spectacle expiated the specter of blackness from the white community while affirming the purity of the white race. Often targeted at the mythical "black beast rapist" who personified white fears of black hypersexual animalism, the orgy of violence established the social primacy of the white race and, as Joel Williamson contends, unified the white community (124). By the time of World War I, lynchings had developed into a programmatic ritual of torture and murder. (1) This ritual, Trudier Harris argues in Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (1984), is essential to preserving white supremacy. Any subversive action, real or imagined, on the part of black subjects constitutes an act of evil, defined as a transgression against the white hegemony. "In order to exorcise the evil and restore the topsy-turvy world to its rightful position," Harris argues, "the violator must be punished.... Symbolic punishment becomes communal because the entire society has been threatened; thus the entire society must act to put down the violator of the taboo" (12). On the eve of World War I, the film The Birth of a Nation (1915) made the lynching spectacle a national event, unifying the country along the color line and translating the lynching ritual into a narrative of regional reconciliation through racial solidarity. (2)

Not coincidentally, World War I greatly increased racial antagonism in the United States. Labor shortages in essential industries spurred a massive movement of African American southerners into northern cities, effectively exporting the color line to the North. …

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