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The ‘war for democracy’ failed to fulfil its promise back home in America

“Thank God we have a chance to take part in this great conflict against the enemies of humanity”, wrote Captain Matthew Virgil Boutté in his diary as the 92nd Division left for the Western Front in June 1918. Born in Louisiana to Creole parentage, Boutté hoped that his white comrades would now turn their attention to “fighting the Hun and not with segregating colored officers”. Within weeks, however, a disillusioned Boutté lay convalescing in Toul, his injuries untended by white military doctors. “No nation on earth has ever hated a group as the Americans hate Negroes”, Boutté wrote. “Who will write the history of this segregated Division?”

As Chad L. Williams shows in The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War, his subject, the pre-eminent man of African American letters, certainly tried. He had been publishing his thoughts on the Great War since the conflict began. In a series of tough editorials for The Crisis, a political-cultural journal he co-founded in 1910, Du Bois was quick to identify the connections between, as he put it, “World War and the Color Line”, and in November 1914 declared that the root cause of the war lay “in the wild quest for Imperial expansion among colored races”. The Allies’ claim to be defenders of global democracy, Du Bois intuited, was a cover for “a theory of the inferiority of the darker peoples and a contempt for their rights and aspirations”. “The African Roots of War”, an article for the May 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, put it more directly: “[I]n a real sense Africa is a prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization which we have lived to see”.

Readers of The Crisis made a habit of turning first to Du Bois’s authoritative editorials. Approaching fifty, the civil-rights activist with a doctorate from Harvard was “the spokesman for Black America”, but he was not immune to flattery. Enticed by the prospect of becoming an army intelligence officer – a role that never materialized – Du Bois changed tack. In “Close Ranks”, his July 1918 editorial for The Crisis, readers who had grown accustomed to his blistering attacks on the government were confronted with an appeal to support the war effort. “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances”, Du Bois implored them, “and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.” Within weeks of his article, and “in rapid and spectacular fashion”, Williams explains, “it all began to fall apart”. His detractors fired broadsides. The Voice carried the headline “The Descent of Dr Du Bois”, while the Boston Guardian declared: “he is a deserter, he is a rank quitter of the fight for rights”.

Du Bois could be “notoriously cold and aloof”, and “possessed an ego that far exceeded his mere five-foot-five stature”, but he also wanted, very much, to remain “Black America’s foremost thinker and leader”. He emerged from the “Close Ranks” scandal determined to salvage his reputation and write his way out of perdition. To this end he envisaged a three-volume book, “The American Negro in the Great War”, which he hoped to complete after fieldwork in France. An account of France’s colonial troops and the heroics of the 93rd Division, a Black regiment commanded by mostly white officers, was intended to ground his argument that “the black soldier saved civilization in 1914–18”. The book would also chronicle the experience of the 92nd Division, to which Boutté was attached, where Black soldiers “went through hell”.

A visit to France in December 1918 furnished Du Bois with an abundance of material. Although military intelligence watched him as if he were “a German spy”, he managed to record the systematic racism endured by Black soldiers. A confidential memo titled “On the Subject of Black American Troops”, which found its way into Du Bois’s hands, described the Black man as “an inferior being” whose sexual pathologies rendered him a “constant menace”. Here was something, Williams explains, “never meant for public eyes that bluntly revealed the United States Army’s attempts to indoctrinate their French counterparts with the rules of American racism”. In a letter to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in January 1919, Du Bois was unequivocal about the importance of his book: “I can solemnly swear and without hesitation: the greatest and most pressing & most important work for the NAACP is the collection and writing & publication of the history of the Negro troops in France”.

Du Bois was determined to counter claims by those such as Major General Robert Bullard that “the Negro … cannot stand bombardment”. His track record, which included The Souls of Black Folk (1903), promised another important contribution. “The Black Man and the Wounded World”, as it was now titled, would “be unlike any book on the war, and perhaps, [his] most powerful work of history”. Du Bois, described by Williams as “restless”, with “remarkable stamina” and “age-defying energy”, struggled nonetheless. In this account he seems to have been always in motion, whether organizing the first Pan-African Congress in Paris (1919), editing The Crisis or embarking on speaking tours. (In April and May 1919 Du Bois “delivered thirty-five lectures across fourteen states, with a combined audience of more than 20,000 people”.) Excerpts from “The Wounded World” appeared in The Crisis during the 1920s, and Du Bois finished other books, including Darkwater: Voices from within the veil (1920) and The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the making of America (1924), but his 1,000-page magnum opus resisted completion.

Du Bois described the decade after the First World War as one of “infinite effort and discouraging turmoil”. When America entered the war in 1917, he believed “the great battle for world democracy would usher in a new day for Black people”, a hope that was dashed as Black veterans were targeted and assaulted. An editorial from May 1919, “Returning Soldiers”, captured his mood of furious disappointment:

We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.

Yet it was deemed “seditious, insolently abusive of the country” by the Post Office investigator. “For African Americans”, Williams explains, “the war … had not come to an end”, and nor had Du Bois’s book. While the editor of The Crisis was busy publishing excerpts from his proposed monograph, a clutch of books on the history of the Black experience during the war appeared in 1919. These included Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, a 600-page volume by Emmett Scott, the high-ranking African American and special assistant to the secretary of war, tasked with reporting on the conditions of Black soldiers. In an ugly exchange conducted through the Black press, Du Bois accused Scott of “concealing fatal knowledge” of the appalling conditions faced by Black soldiers.

Drawing on extensive archives, Williams skilfully pieces together the book that Du Bois could not finish. Details personalize the narrative, which is one of remarkable dedication. Friendships with soldiers, including Boutté, a fellow alumnus of Fisk University, broaden the portrait. In Darkwater, written in the wake of the “Red Summer” of 1919, during which white-on-Black violence tore through American cities, Du Bois asked: “How great a failure and a failure in what does the World War betoken?”. Nearly twenty years after that, on the eve of a second global conflict, weariness crept into his writing. “History repeats itself”, Du Bois wrote in his column for Amsterdam News, and “again we are fighting for the privilege of fighting someone else’s battles.” In The Wounded World Chad L. Williams has written a long book about an even longer one that was never published, an account of failure that nonetheless succeeds in bringing Du Bois’s brilliance, “formidable ego” and many contradictions to light.

Douglas Field teaches at the University of Manchester. His book Walking with James Baldwin will be published next year

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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