African American Poetry of World War I
Nearly 400,000 Black soldiers served in the Army during World War I, at a time when the U.S. military remained completely segregated by race. Initially, many of the Black regiments sent to Europe were limited to serve as 'stevedores' -- essentially limited to manual labor, though over time many would find their way to combat. The "Harlem Hellfighters" (the 369th Infantry Regiment) from New York were particularly distinguished. This account notes that in fact since U.S. military commanders were worried about the impact of morale on white troops, Black regiments sent to France were both trained for combat by the French and iniitally went into battle under French command.
A number of Black woman were also sent to Europe as part of a support framework for Black soldiers. Their story is memorably told by Carrie Williams Clifford's poem "Our Women of the Canteen".
From among the poets whose works are collected on this site, the only one that I know of who was himself a World War I veteran is Lucian B. Watkins. There are two poems by Watkins included below. However, I have not come across poems by Watkins that directly describe his personal experience of the war.
Perhaps the most intriguing and memorable African American war poems deal with the ambivalence felt by many Black writers about serving a country that treated them as second-class citizens and subjected them to racialized violence. A powerful example might be Roscoe C. Jamison's "Negro Soldiers"
These truly are the Brave,
These men who cast aside
Old memories, to walk the blood-stained pave
Of Sacrifice, joining the solemn tide
That moves away, to suffer and to die
For Freedom—when their own is yet denied!
Another powerful exploration of that sentiment can be found in Andrea Razafkeriefo's / Andy Razaf's "In Flanders Fields," written from the point of view of fallen Black soldiers killed on the battlefield and buried in European cemetaries:
Razafkeriefo's poem is also notable for its dialogue with war poetry by white poets, specifically John McCrae's poem of the same title (which can be found here). In McCrae's poem, the dead soldiers are pushing their peers on to fight and win; in Razafkeriefo's version, the charge is to live and "face the foe / At home" -- in other words, to fight the 'second' war that Black veterans would have to fight for full citizenship in the United States itself.
Ye blacks who live, to you we throw
The torch: be yours to face the foe
At home: and ever hold it high,
Fight for the things for which we die,
That we may sleep, where poppies grow,
In Flanders fields.
Many African American poets, especially those who published war poems in The Crisis, expressed pride at the African American contribution to the War effort. Some expressed optimism that participation would lead to changed social and political circumstances in the near future. Joseph S. Cotter's "A Sonnet to the Negro Soldiers" expresses such optimism. Georgia Douglas Johnson's "Homing Braves" shares in this optimism.
This optimism was not shared by everyone. Archibald H. Grimke, for example, published a blistering lament at the hanging of thirteen Black soldiers in Houston after the Camp Logan Riot in December 1917. (Notably, this event occurred before the troops had been sent into combat.)
A number of poets also dealt with the difficult circumstances faced by Black soldiers returning from active combat in 1919 and 1920 -- often returning as decorated war veterans to a country that remained deeply segregated and dominated by white supremacist institutions. Carrie Williams Clifford's "The Black Draftee from Dixie" describes the story of twelve Black soldiers who were lynched after returning from combat.
Finally, readers interested in learning more about this topic would do well to read W.E.B. Du Bois' writings on this subject in The Crisis. Before the U.S. entered the war, Du Bois was a strong advocate for African American men to volunteer to fight, and it is thought that the NAACP's campaign along these lines led to an increase in Black enlistment. Later, Du Bois was highly critical of how the Army treated Black soldiers. While traveling in France in early 1919, he was given documents from French military officials that exposed the shocking racism of U.S. military commanders; he printed these documents in The Crisis. A good starting point might be Du Bois blistering editorial from the May 1919 issue of The Crisis, which can be accessed here. This is the editorial where Du Bois created a short and powerful poem expressing his outrage:
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
--Amardeep Singh, July 2022