Last week, I examined British West Indians who fought in World War II and their portrayal in children’s books. In the ones I examined, the West Indians were welcomed—until the Americans came along and brought their racial prejudices with them. It seems a curious paradox that Americans were told that Hitler was a “racialist” (in the terms of the day), that Jesse Owens and his win in Berlin were touted to the eighth grade version of me as a victory for American ideals, and yet the African American soldier remained segregated from his white counterpart.
In fact, despite the fact that African Americans participated in every war prior to World War II (including Crispus Attucks in the Revolutionary War), Jim Crow laws in the South ensured that the African Americans who enlisted were kept separate from white soldiers (a fact that Frank Capra’s 1943 recruitment film, “The Negro Soldier,” failed to mention; you can watch the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWFoKPUyJXA). Despite African American leaders’ efforts to give black soldiers the right to fight along white soldiers, President Roosevelt refused to support them; he allowed African Americans to be admitted into the armed forces only in numbers equivalent to their percentage in the civilian population. He did not direct the army to desegregate. According to Red-Tail Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II (1995) by Patricia and Frederick McKissak, General George C. Marshall defended the military’s decision to remain segregated by saying, “Segregation is an established American custom” (42). The all-African American fighter squadron established at Tuskegee was, the McKissaks remind us, only an “experiment” because so many people believed that African Americans did not have the intelligence to fly a plane, let alone fly it into enemy territory and kill Nazis. There are now several books that detail the history of the Tuskegee Airmen for children, including Steven L. Jones’s The Red Tails: World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen (2000) and Philip Brooks’ Tuskegee Airmen: We the People Modern America (2004). But the McKissaks’ book is particularly thorough, discussing early African American military careers and also pioneering African American pilots, including my daughter’s favorite, Bessie Coleman. It also discusses the racism that the Tuskegee airmen faced before, during—and after the war.
But not all who enlisted in World War II received even the attention (if not accolades) of the Tuskegee Airmen. Most ordinary soldiers trained in the southern United States and, if they survived basic training in the miserable conditions afforded them on the base, and the racism they faced in the surrounding towns during their rare leaves of absence, they found they were assigned only to menial jobs. Most were in transport, of supplies and—especially after D-Day—the dead. Walter Dean Myers makes a point of this in his recent (2013) Invasion, writing “Mostly it was Negroes who collected the bodies of the dead. They were in a unit called Graves Registration, which sounds better than merely collecting the dead” (94). Invasion is a prequel to two other novels about soldiers by Myers: Fallen Angels (1988), about the Vietnam War, and Sunrise over Fallujah (2008) about Operation Iraqi Freedom. The three books have in common two families who come originally from the same area in Virginia, the African American Perry family and the white Wedgewood family. In each of the books, one young man from each family goes off to war. In general, Myers (who lost a brother to Vietnam) asks the question once asked by Motown singer Edwin Starr (Good God, y’all) in differing variations. But the interesting thing about Invasion is that the African American character, Marcus Perry, is almost invisible. The novel is really the story of Josiah Wedgewood (named, as he points out after “the British Josiah Wedgewood . . . that made dishes”—nary a mention of Wedgewood’s abolitionist activities). Marcus appears only a few times throughout the novel, delivering supplies and driving a van for the army. He is missing from the last dozen pages of the book, and in his last scene he kisses Josiah and tells him to take care. Josiah muses, “I was sorry about him being black, or maybe about the way we had treated blacks. Maybe after the war it would be different” (201). We are never told whether Marcus retains such an optimistic hope. Myers makes Marcus Perry almost as invisible as African American soldiers must have been to many white Americans; perhaps this was purposeful but it also seems a shame.
To my surprise, however, African American soldiers were not totally invisible in children’s literature prior to the “rediscovery” of the Tuskegee Airmen. A novel by John Clarke, Black Soldier, was first published in 1968—smack in the middle of the most virulent protests against the Vietnam War. Like Myers’ Invasion, Black Soldier is about the D-Day Invasion, but it gives African American George Bunty more to do than driving. First, however, he suffers racism in his own country (the book points out that the USO in southern towns were often Whites Only, and at one point, the African American soldiers are denied books because “You have plenty of comics!”) and on the troop ship (“Bunty noticed that when duties were assigned, it was the Negroes who got KP, who had the last chow call for food that was often cold or in short supply,” 56).; at first they are treated well in England but then—as the books I discussed last week suggest—white American officers ruined their welcome by telling the people of the English and Scottish countryside that “black soldiers are not like men” (65). Black Soldier ends on a positive note, with Bunty returning home feeling that he had been a “good soldier” who “had written a record for the whole world to read” (144). “Maybe someday it will count,” (144) Bunty muses to himself. In order for the sacrifices of African Americans to count, though, we have to make sure that all Americans are reading that record—of war, and of the Janus-faced America for which African Americans were still willing to fight.