Tag Archives: World War II

All in this Together? Wartime Britain and its Colonies in Children’s Literature

In Britain, Monday is the celebratory day known as Spring (or sometimes Late May) Bank Holiday.  This particular bank holiday used to be connected with the religious celebration of Whitsun, as Philip Larkin can attest (somehow, “Spring Bank Holiday Weddings” just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but I suppose given the changes in society, naming a day off after capitalism is really much more appropriate.  It is a time of year in the northern hemisphere when a long weekend is welcome; the French still celebrate Whitsun and the Canadians take a day off for a dead British queen (any excuse…).  In the US, however, Americans celebrate the first of two days (Veteran’s Day being the other) to honor the military.  Memorial Day’s origins go back to the US Civil War, when people needed an outlet for nationwide grief over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in that conflict.  Back then, it was called Decoration Day, and it wasn’t an official holiday.  In fact, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1971, when the Vietnam War divided the country (at least ideologically) once again.


From the IRR’s Patterns of Racism, one of the many incidentsWalt where the British turned weapons on colonial subjects.

What struck me about all this is that both the US Civil War and Vietnam were divisive in large part because of race.  The Civil War’s connection to race is obvious; the Vietnam War perhaps less so, but “during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action” (http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/african-americans-in-combat/).  And the other thing that struck me—since I was thinking about Canadians and Victoria Day—is that if the British had started a similar holiday in the 1860s, there would probably be a huge debate over whether or not to celebrate it, since many of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” were about putting down the rebellious colonial subjects (the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and the Morant Bay Uprising of 1865 are two examples that spring to mind where the British military turned guns on colonial subjects).


Together . . . as long as you know your place.

And yet, particularly during the twentieth century, Britain relied heavily on her colonies to provide human power to fight the war against Germany.  A poster from WWII to encourage recruitment was, I’ve always thought, remarkably upfront about how Britain saw their help—we need you, but if you’re not white, please stay at the back of the parade.  Most mainstream children’s books about the world wars (as I’ve written elsewhere; see “A Medal for Walter: Representations of Black Britons and World War I” in Lion and the Unicorn 41.2) show only white British soldiers.  But books by smaller and independent presses have done better in showing the contribution of the colonies to Britain’s war efforts—as well as how those efforts were not always repaid with gratitude.

The oldest of the books I’m going to look at today comes from the Institute of Race Relations’ racism series.  Book two, Patterns of Racism (1982) shows the many armed struggles between Britain and her colonies, including the Sepoy Rebellion and the Zulu Wars.  Book three, How Racism Came to Britain (1985) points out that, following World War II, “Having helped to win Britain’s war . . . [West Indians] were asked to win the peace for Britain too” (24).  The book goes on to detail how Black Caribbean people who answered Britain’s call for workers then faced discrimination, racism, and poverty.

Neither of the IRR books focuses directly on the West Indian soldiers from the world wars, but Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington’s We Served: The Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II (Windrush Foundation 2005) tells the story of four individuals who contributed to Britain’s success, all from the West Indies.  The book tries to highlight their successes, but downplays their struggles, and racism is almost entirely absent.  One possible hint is found in Norma Best’s story; after the war, she qualifies as a teacher and secures a job in Cambridge, but “was told that she had to return to British Honduras” (11), a rejection that would be echoed decades later in the recent Windrush deportations.


Despite centuries of colonial oppression, Britain’s former subjects still answered the call to the ‘Mother Country’.

The best biography of a Black World War I British soldier also comes from an independent press.  Historian Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull (Northamptonshire Black History Association 2007) highlights Tull’s skills and talents—but also how those skills and talents were constantly being challenged and threatened by racism, from “ordinary” Britons as well as the British Army in which he served.  “He knew the rules in the Army as well as anyone.  It was written down in black and white.  ‘No negro or person of colour to occupy officer rank’” (22).  Claire’s book rightly celebrates his achievements, but also notes that it took years to recognize him. Describing a memorial dedication service in Northampton, Claire writes, “It is Sunday, July 11th 1999.  Walter died more than 80 years ago, but he has not been forgotten . . . Walter Tull, the first black professional footballer in Britain, the first black officer in the British Army is, at last, being publicly honoured” (28).


Racism on the playing field and the killing fields in Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull.

The hesitation over people of colour in the British armed forces continued through World War II, despite Britain’s even greater need for help.  Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, wanted to help Britain fight fascism.  But as Liberté: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust 2007), written by school children in Manchester, points out, she had to become acceptable to the British in order to do so.  “Noor changed her name to Nora Baker, so the WAAF would accept her” (13).  She later became a spy, and, like Walter Tull, was killed in the line of duty.


Noor becomes Nora to please the British in Liberte: The Story of Noor Inayat Khan.

Perhaps these children’s books from independent publishers have started to have a slight influence on the way that mainstream publishers depict the war for their readers.  In 2014, Collins Big Cat put out a book by white author Clive Gifford.  This book was not about the war, but it mentioned it; The Empire Windrush indicates that one of the reasons that Caribbean people came to Britain in the Windrush years was to “rejoin the Army or Air Force units that they’d served in during World War II” (12).  The book gives the example of Sam King (who also appears in We Served), and celebrates his contribution to the war but also to London after the war as mayor of Southwark and as a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival.  But the book doesn’t shy away from the racist attitudes people like King had to face.  Britain may have promoted an image of the entire empire fighting together, but Britain’s Black population had to fight two wars—against the enemy of the Mother Country, and against racism.


From Gifford’s Empire Windrush, Sam King gets no help from the British to return across the sea, even though he didn’t hesitate to help Britain in the war.

Your Country Needs You, But Do They Want You? Part Two

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.

France proved more friendly to early African American fliers like Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman, according to the McKissaks' book.

France proved more friendly to early African American fliers like Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman, according to the McKissaks’ book.

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.

Even the cover art marginalizes the African American soldier.

Even the cover art marginalizes the African American soldier.

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.

A book to read before being sent to Vietnam?

A book to read before being sent to Vietnam?

Your Country Needs You, But Do They Want You? WWII and ‘Race,’ Part One

As yesterday was Memorial Day in the US, and the anniversary of D-Day comes up next week, I thought I would do a blog on issues of ‘race’ in war. And if there ever was a war that the British and Americans could feel good about, it was World War II. Other wars and conflicts had moral dilemmas (or even quagmires) attached to them, or heavy losses that made people question the worth of the cause. But World War II was a ‘good’ war, maybe the last of its kind. It produced what has been called in America the Greatest Generation, and a plethora of children’s literature—on which I, for one, grew up—about defeating or escaping from the worst bad guys in history, the Nazis. The moral imperatives of the Allies in World War II reached out beyond the war through children’s literature, and taught succeeding generations that discrimination against people because of their ‘race’ (according to the Nazis, you could stop going to synagogue but you remained Jewish) was not only wrong, it was evil. Books like Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) and Doris Orgel’s The Devil in Vienna (1978) showed what Hitler’s world looked like from the perspective of the young, how fear invaded every part of life. A novel like Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973) suggested that tolerance for other people must extend even to Germans, because they might also be good people caught up in a struggle sanctioned by (maintained by, created by) their leader.

Summer of My German Soldier, however, is an interesting case. When I took it off my shelf—not having read it since high school—I only remembered the drippingly romantic story of a Jewish American girl who reached out to a German POW. I had entirely forgot one of the book’s major characters: the Bergens’ African-American maid, Ruth, who acts as confidant and comforter of the protagonist. The injustice of imprisoning a young German soldier who didn’t believe in the Nazi policies made an impression on me; the injustice of an economic system that kept African-Americans serving white Americans long after the end of slavery did not. Perhaps this is because to me, Ruth’s position was “normal,” perhaps unfortunate but expected.

A typical cover for Greene’s novel–most, like my memory, leave the character of Ruth out.

When thinking of the Greatest Generation, it is also (if children’s books are any guide) common to consider the white, male soldier as the “normal” specimen (with the white Rosie the Riveter as his female counterpart). The heroes of World War II in the popular imagination were coded white. But the war was fought on multiple continents (and islands) and people from all those places contributed in significant ways. Across the world, the allies of the Allies—no matter what their ‘race’—agreed that the war was good and the cause just. People from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean all signed up to help their “Mother Country,” Britain; and African-Americans from all over the US enlisted as well. These stories were not part of my childhood. But they are beginning to be a part of a new generation’s reading material.

Osborne and Torrington's book shows that men and women from the West Indies were eager to serve the "Mother Country."

Osborne and Torrington’s book shows that men and women from the West Indies were eager to serve the “Mother Country.”

Before the war, many West Indian countries were considering the logistics of breaking away from British rule, but when war erupted in 1939, local governments immediately switched to planning how they could help Britain win the war. Although most West Indian service was initially in terms of material support, by the end of the war over 16,000 West Indians had enlisted in one of the branches of the British forces, and another 40,000 joined civilian war service (many in the United States). Most saw it as not only a duty, but something they were glad to do. Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington’s We Served: The Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II (2005) offers two reasons for this, both expressed by one of the book’s subjects, Sam King, a Jamaican member of the RAF. King recalls his mother telling him that, “‘the mother country is at war. Go—and if you survive, you will not regret it’” (13); but he also believed “that if Hitler won the war, he would enslave all black people” (13). Thus, both duty and self-interest were motivators for West Indians to join the war.

The four individual stories of service in We Served are overwhelmingly positive, and all four returned to live in Britain after the war. But that is not to say they did not experience racism. Even though Harold Sinson (RAF from Guyana) noted that “the locals treated him and other West Indians very well” (23) and “the vast majority of Canadians and Americans were very friendly” (23), the introduction by historian Ben Bousquet provides a brief hint of what they faced when he writes that, “Americans refused to accept [Black West Indians] and thus the colour bar was enforced by the War Office” (6). There is no further critique of either the British or the Americans in charge. The West Indian segment of the Greatest Generation embraced Britain both during and after the war—Bousquet concludes his introduction by reminding the readers that all of the West Indians who participated in the war were volunteers.

It is clear in We Served, however, that any blame for racism in the forces is laid at the feet of the Americans—Americans who could at once hate the hating of the Nazis and at the same time be so indifferent to the institutional racism in their own country.  This is perhaps unsurprising, as in the end it was the American vision of the world that won, so it is their racism that should be blamed. In next week’s blog, I’ll look at portrayals of African-Americans in US military service during World War II to see if any of the portrayals recognize the irony of America’s wartime position or if, as I did with Summer of My German Soldier, they accept without question the narrative of American tolerance and German racism.