Tracing Morocco: Postcolonialism and Spanish Civil War Literature

By Sharpe, Emily Robins | ARIEL, April-July 2018 | Go to article overview

Tracing Morocco: Postcolonialism and Spanish Civil War Literature


Sharpe, Emily Robins, ARIEL


During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), rhe Spanish Republic's refusal to relinquish its colonial control allowed General Franco to exploit Moroccan antipathy and poverty, convincing many Moroccans to join his forces. North American supporters of the Popular Front often depicted the connections between the civil war, European fascism, and American racism. But for some supporters--and particularly for the hundred or so African Americans who fought in Spain on the side of the Republic--the war's stakes were further tied to colonial relationships between Europe, Africa, and the New World. This essay examines literary depictions of these complicated colonial entanglements in the works of Langston Hughes and John A. Williams, contextualizing their writing alongside fictional and biographical representations of Moroccan and African American participation. This essay argues that Williams' and Hughes' writings reveal the war's colonial origins and postcolonial implications, insisting on the intersections of race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality in the transnational fight against fascism. In so doing, these writings present the war as yet another global conflict in which members of the African diaspora often faced greater dangers than their comrades in arms.

Keywords: Spanish Civil War, postcolonialism, African diaspora, Langston Hughes, John A. Williams

"An oppressed colonial people of color being used by fascism to make a
colony of Spain."

Langston Hughes ("Negroes in Spain" 97)

I. Introduction: Spain, the United States, and the World

Upon arriving in Barcelona to volunteer with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the eponymous protagonist of John A. Williams' novel Captain Blackman senses in the gaze of the Spaniards around him their acknowledgement of a sort of miracle. He imagines them gratefully wondering, "[f]rom what place had this huge black man, this moro, this negro, come to aid us?" (154). In this attempt to see himself through Barcelonan eyes, Captain Abraham Blackman adopts the slippery Spanish terminology around nationality, race, ethnicity, and religion. He identifies himself as both "negro"--Spanish for "black man" along with its American English signification--as well as "moro," the Spanish term, so often pejorative, referring to Muslim and Jewish Moroccans, North Africans, Arabs, and many other outsiders, usually non-European and especially of a darker complexion. In adopting such a loaded term, associated in the war's context with General Franco's Moroccan mercenaries, Captain Blackman highlights the difficult racial, religious, and colonial politics underpinning the Spanish conflict of 1936-1939. Williams' 1972 novel imagines an African American soldier who, wounded in Vietnam, hallucinates that he is a participant in each American war plus two more: the Spanish Civil War and a future anticolonial revolution. Captain Blackman constructs a history of American war-making that highlights black soldiers' consistently crucial roles. Williams' inclusion of the Spanish Civil War stresses the conflict's significance to American and global history. While the war has frequently been characterized as the first act of the Second World War, its inclusion in Captain Blackman also links the African Americans who volunteered in Spain to the war's myriad colonial subtexts.

Captain Blackman's retrospective view underscores questions of colonization, race, and identity common to Spanish Civil War writing by several earlier North American authors. Perhaps best known among these is Langston Hughes, whose journalism and poetry from Spain highlight the ironies of the participation of so-called "Moros" on the fascist side and of African Americans on the Loyalist side. For these authors, Spain's historical and ongoing racism and colonial subjugation both in the New World and in North Africa provided an uncomfortable backdrop for otherwise triumphal narratives of international solidarity. …

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