Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Fri 1 Aug 08 19:46
Thanks so much, Linda. I got a little knocked off my game when the laid-off Starbucks barista emerged from beneath Colbert's desk. (No, they didn't warn me about that gag.) Good to hear that I managed to recover somewhat.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Sat 2 Aug 08 09:43
Just a side note--disillusionment with the army in WWII because of racism would be a very interesting topic--has anyone done any sort of general treatment of the subject? My Mexican grandfather had a rough time and it affected him and his family (my grandmother and father) profoundly. He never went into much detail with me, but my sense is that it was pretty brutal.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 2 Aug 08 09:56
One interesting thing to think about is how WW II in song and story (and especially in movies) was used to celebrate the unity of America to the point where the ethnically mixed platoon became a cliche (the wise-cracking kid from Brooklyn, the hayseed from Nebraska, etc.). But the unity they were celebrating was between old white stock and the white immigrants of 1850-1920. Latinos, Native Americans, Blacks, and Asians were conspicuously absent. Only in the 1960s in films like "The Dirty Dozen" does the myth of ethnic unity in WW II get (ahistorically) extended to non-whites.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sat 2 Aug 08 13:13
That's a good point, Mark. Yet enough Black American soldiers who served in the European theater were sufficiently affected by their equal treatment by Europeans, the French especially, to come home not incapacitated by brutal treatment and bitterness but angry enough to begin asking questions. The civil rights movement, including Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color line, could not have got off the ground, I think, without those soldiers coming home with stories of a western culture that seemed color-blind *and* the fact that enough of them came home in good enough shape to begin doing something about it.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Sat 2 Aug 08 19:27
Thanks for the posts today, folks, and apologies for the radio silence. I was out and about with the family today, and just arrived back from Brooklyn--subway woes made for a long hike back home. I'll post something more in-depth in the a.m. tomorrow. But a quick book recommendation to My free and simple etc.: Evelio Grillo's "Black Cuban, Black American": http://www.arte.uh.edu/view_book.aspx?isbn=155885293X More tomorrow, especially on the issue of Jackie Robinson.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Sun 3 Aug 08 11:28
Geoff Dyer wrote a book "But Beautiful," in which he profiles Lester Young's court-martial. The book is a series of vignettes of several musicians in which he tries to evoke their tragic lives. He draws on photos, anecdotes, the music, and, in Lester Young's case, the records of his court-martial. It is a little pretentious and a bit too imaginative for my taste, but he does capture some of the tortured artist aspect of their lives. He lists as sources: Transcripts from court-martial John McDonough, "The Court-Martial of Lester Young," Downbeat, 1/81 Robert Reisner article in Downbeat, 30 April, 1959 Dennis Stock's photograph of Lester in the Alvin Hotel
David Wilson (dlwilson) Sun 3 Aug 08 11:33
If the proceedings were anything like what was portrayed in the book,then it is a very instructive demonstration of the parallel universes that black soldiers and white officers lived in.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 3 Aug 08 15:15
Huh, I'll have to check that out.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Sun 3 Aug 08 15:16
David, thanks a million for the info on Dyer's book. If a transcript of the Young court-martial exists, I'm guessing it was a general court-martial--that is, one reserved for rather serious crimes. The Army did not retain the records for so-called special court-martials, which were usually used to adjudicate matters involving minor insubordination. I tried to get the records for Herman Perry's first court-martial, when he was sentenced to three months hard labor for talking back to a lieutenant. But the Army's Clerk of Court told me that those documents were either never archived or destroyed long ago--a real blow to historians. Jackie Robinson was court-martialed for insubordination--among the charges was that he gave his commanders several sloppy salutes. He was one of the few defendants to be found not guilty, however--most likely because he was already something of a celebrity, owing to his athletic exploits at UCLA. Mark, you bring up a fascinating point that I wish I could've discussed more in the book. Last night, I recommended Evelio Grillio's "Black Cuban, Black American," the autobiography of a Florida-born man of Cuban descent who served as an engineer (i.e. manual laborer) along the Ledo Road. The book points out that most of Grillo's fellow Cuban-Americans were assigned to "regular" Army units during World War II. But because his skin was darker than his ethnic peers, Grillo was assigned to a black unit. That story always stuck with me, because it so neatly encapsulates the tragic folly of the Army's racial policies during World War II. The main justification for segregation was science--the (obviously nonsensical) notion that blacks didn't possess the biological knack for combat. But at the same time, the Army was using the "eyeball test" to segregate. There's a real logical inconsistency to that, and I'm stunned and saddened that no one at the time--at least outside the black press--could figure it out. Steve, you're right about how European attitudes toward race affected African-American soldiers. Time and again during my research, I read first-person accounts from black GIs who were pleasantly taken aback at how they were treated overseas. (And keep in mind that the Harlem Hellfighters were national heroes to the French during World War I.) But I have to admit, there's something a little cognitively jarring about reading those accounts, then flipping open the paper to read about racial tensions in contemporary France--though those tensions might be described as religious more than racial. Thoughts? Were African-Americans given a warm welcome merely because they were serving a useful purpose (i.e. liberating a nation)? Or has there been some shift in the French attitude toward race over the past six decades? (Again, I realize that the issue here might simply be French hostility toward Islam, but I thought it was nevertheless an interesting question to ask.)
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 3 Aug 08 15:27
>...blacks didn't possess the biological knack for combat. Irony abounds in this whole area of thought. Rudyard Kipling, not exactly the most politically correct observer, certainly reached exactly the opposite conclusion about the black ability for combat. <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/%22Fuzzy-Wuzzy%22>
Ed Ward (captward) Mon 4 Aug 08 01:58
Racial tensions in France aren't racial because of skin color primarily, although that factor does eventually enter in. It's more about culture (Muslim vs. Catholic) and economics. A lot of those discriminated against don't want to integrate into French society -- the headscarf brouhaha, for instance, or the animal sacrifices around holidays -- and thus are at odds with the majority culture. It's just incidental to the central conflict that they're pretty easily spotted by their skin color.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Mon 4 Aug 08 07:07
In France bigotry takes the form of chauvanism rather than race-based hatred. <captward> is right about it being about culture. The more you speak, eat, pray, and have families like the French, the more you are accepted. The one exception, I would say, is the Arabs. Man do the French hate the Algerians. They call them "rats" among other colorful terms. When I lived there, when an Algerian woman was walking on the street in traditional dress, you could see the disgust on people's faces. When a Vietnamese or Cambodian woman in traditional dress, was walking down the street, she would get looks of appreciation. Like most things French and American, they don't like to admit that they are like us and vice-versa. In the US we had our "peculiar institution" and thus our trouble dealing with blacks. France's adventure in Algeria, while way different than our slavery, did imprint them in a similar "peculiar" way.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Mon 4 Aug 08 11:21
Mark, Kipling certainly wasn't the only unlikely candidate to hold a sharply different opinion than the leaders of the Jim Crow Army. I was really surprised by the plaudits that Gen. Pershing offered black members of the American Expeditionary Force after World War I. True, Pershing was still a segregationist, but he didn't buy into the racial science hooey that led to the "SOSing" of so many African-Americans during World War II. (SOSing refers to the practice of relegating black troops to Services of Supply units--that is, battalions and regiments charged with behind-the-frontlines chores like road maintenance.) I've often wondered how the carnage of WWI affected intellectual attitudes in the 20s and 30s. People were obviously stunned at how technology had enabled such mass slaughter, on a previously unimagined scale. But wasn't there also an optimism that, having been through that horrendous experience, mankind's penchant for reason (and, by extension, science) would save us from another such cataclysm? I think that may be why racial science enjoyed such a vogue during that error--it enabled bigots to couch their fears in "scientific" terms (e.g. all the nonsense about cranial capacities and heel lengths). Because science would supposedly save us from giving into our basest, most violent instincts. As a result, the Army became very systematic in its efforts to racially cleanse its ranks. One of the most depressing stats in my book is about the racial makeup of the Army in the late 1930s--it was just 1.5 percent black, and there were only four black officers (and three of them were chaplains). It's crazy to think how many willing Army lifers were turned away simply because they were black.
Dana Reeves (dana) Thu 7 Aug 08 13:27
We're turning our Inkwell spotlight to a new conversation, and I'd like to thank Brendan and Cynthia for leading a fascinating discussion these last two weeks. Just because we're focused on a different conversation doesn't mean this one has to end, though. You're welcome to stick around and chat as long as you like.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 7 Aug 08 13:36
Thanks a million for having me, Dana. Really enjoyed this, as evidenced by the fact that I checked the conversation for updates about 50 times per day! Thanks, too, to everyone who participated, and to Cynthia for moderating. I'll keep checking back if any of y'all want to keep the dialogue going. In the meantime, I hope newcomers and casual perusers will pay a visit to the "Now the Hell Will Start" website: http://www.nowthehellwillstart.com/ And if anyone ever wants to drop me a line, I'm eminently reachable at brendan AT youthrobber DOT com. Cheers to all.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 7 Aug 08 13:55
Brendan, thank you for giving us your time and knowledge. I appreciated your thoughtful, thorough responses to all of our questions very much.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 7 Aug 08 15:10
Brendan you are one of the most gracious guests to appear here. Please check back and don't go away.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 7 Aug 08 16:06
Yes, it was really a pleasure!
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Thu 7 Aug 08 19:33
Brendan, it's been a pleasure! Thanks so much for sharing so much interesting info, and for undertaking the NtHWS in the first place. I'll keep checking in too, and your book is at the top of my gift list for a couple of (OK racist) history buffs in my fam.
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