"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind" ~ Rudyard Kipling
The heavyweight fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in the 1930s were two of the most anxiously anticipated and highly viewed events in the sports history. In time, the Brown Bomber would become the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion since Jack Johnson in the early 1900s. And in Nazi Germany, Max Schmelling, the former world champion, was touted as an example of the Aryan racial superiority. In the run-up to the World War Two, their matches came to be seen as representative of struggles between American democracy and Nazi fascism.
In the first fight on June 19, 1936, the German fighter defeated Louis by way of a 12th-round knockout at Yankee Stadium. The loss devastated Louis but also motivated him to further refine his skills so that he could seek vengeance at a later date. International events leading up to the rematch added an air of mystique, with tensions between the United States and Nazi Germany growing more strained each day. Further, the U.S. was still recovering from the Great Depression and the bout between the boxing giants served as a necessary distraction.
When the two met for their return match in 1938, Louis had already beaten James Braddock for the heavyweight championship, but the Schmeling defeat still rankled him and he stated to the press: “I will not consider myself champion until I defeat him.” When they stepped into the ring for a second time, Louis was not just a symbol of black pride but also America’s champion against a formidable foreign power. He was patronizingly referred to by many white Americans as: “A credit to his race.” Schmeling was also revered in Germany but struggled with the responsibility placed on him by the Nazis.
Despite the public’s perception, Schmeling never once claimed allegiance to Hitler or Nazism and even dared to have a Jewish manager in his corner. Although proud of his German nationality, he denied the Nazi claims of racial superiority: “I am a fighter, not a politician. I am no superman in any way.” In a dangerous political gamble, he refused the “Dagger of Honor” award offered by Adolf Hitler. In fact, Schmeling had been urged by his friend and legendary ex-champion Jack Dempsey to defect and declare American citizenship. To the German fighter’s dismay, the Nazi propaganda machine predicted that Schmeling would soundly defeat Louis thereby again reaffirming Aryan superiority.
But the second fight was a completely different story. The hard-punching and determined Louis attacked Schmeling from the opening bell with punishing accuracy, delivering devastating blows that caused the German to wince audibly and hang on to the ropes to keep his footing. Schmeling had been floored three times when the referee stopped the fight in two minutes and four seconds of the first round calling it a technical knockout.
Reaction in the mainstream American press, while positive toward Louis, reflected the implicit racism in the United States at the time. Lewis F. Atchison of The Washington Post began his story: “Joe Louis, the lethargic, chicken-eating young colored boy, reverted to his dreaded role of the ‘brown bomber’ tonight”; Henry McLemore of the United Press called Louis “a jungle man, completely primitive as any savage, out to destroy the thing he hates.”
Louis went on to continue a long and storied boxing career eventually becoming national hero. When questioned by prominent blacks about whether African Americans should serve against the Axis nations in the segregated U.S. Armed Forces, Louis said, “There are a lot of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t gonna fix them.” He would go on and serve the United States Army during World War II, mostly visiting soldiers in Europe to provide them with motivational speeches and with boxing exhibitions. He kept defending the world heavyweight title until 1949, making twenty five consecutive title defenses – still a world record among all weight divisions.
Sadly, Joe Louis fell on hard times after his boxing career and was doggedly pursued by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for what they claimed were unpaid income taxes. The IRS never counted, against those alleged back taxes, the many charity fights he fought while in the army to entertain U.S. troops. Schmeling despite falling out of favor with the Nazis went on to have a long and successful business career.
The two boxers developed a friendship outside the ring, which endured until Louis’ death on April 12, 1981. Toward the end of his live, Louis got a job as a greeter at a Las Vegas casino, and Schmeling flew in to visit him every year. Schmeling reportedly also sent Louis money in Louis’ later years and covered a part of the costs of Louis’ funeral, at which he was a pallbearer. Schmeling died 24 years later on February 2, 2005 at the age of 99.
My previous blog post, “Denying Racism is the new Racism” (July 28, 2017) generated a lot of commentary. Most of it supported the central theme of the post, that racism, while not as prevalent in American culture as it once was, is still with us. Today racism often appears in more subtle forms, such as in the denial of its existence. I find such views almost unbelievable considering America’s painful history in matters of racial injustice, history that is readily accessible to anyone who wants to know about it. I responded individually to several of the questions posed in response to my blog, but since several of the questions followed a similar pattern, I thought it would be helpful to answer them all with a deeper dive into the topic and to share my response in an additional blog post.
I am the son of an immigrant, a black man from the Caribbean Island of Trinidad who came to this country 100 years ago to seek a better life. He found it and earned his citizenship as a soldier on the battlefields of World War One. Despite the racism and physical violence he experienced in the U.S. as both an immigrant and a person of color, my father found the opportunity he sought and was always happy he came to the U.S. I tell his amazing story in my novel, A Place near the Front. I share his views and am also happy to be an American. Although I grew up in the late 1930s and 1940s when racism and discrimination was still rampant, and there were many places where people of color could not live, work and in some cases vote, we have made much civil rights progress since those days. In my view, this is the country in which opportunities are best for me and my family to live full, free and complete lives.
In recognizing the many great attributes of American life, I don’t close my eyes to the nation’s two original sins, how it was built on land stolen from native Americans and built on the backs of slave labor. Despite the long-lasting impact of those indelible blemishes, America has come a long way toward making itself a land of opportunity for all. But as I pointed out in the previous blog, for every step forward we make in advancing the freedoms of one segment of America, there is another segment that may see such gains as their loss. When one group of citizens gains the right to vote, another may have the feeling that their vote has been diluted and now doesn’t count for as much. Or when one group gains access to improved schools, another may lament their reduced access if the overall school size does not increase.
When one segment of American society perceives it is losing ground in the public arena, it usually pushes back. This explains why advances against racism and intolerance are often followed by unexpected reversals. I discussed those kinds of reversals in my previous blog. But one of the most recent and subtle forms of pushback is the denial of racism itself. While some of this denial seems to be the self-serving rhetoric of those unwilling to acknowledge how they, as a privileged class may have, for generations, benefited from the repression of other classes, I will now respond to a few of the questions posed in rebuttal to my blog.
Reader rebuttal comment #1 – “Everybody is sick and tired of the same old crap! Get past it!”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get past this crap. But we can’t, because in case you hadn’t heard, hate crimes are on the increase in the U.S. and we’re not talking about ancient history. This is happening today! The FBI reported a 15% increase in hate crimes in 2015 over the previous year, and in 2016 and 2017 increases are even higher. The nooses I talk about in my post were displayed within the last few months. With the alarming recent increases in hate crimes, these shameful symbols have to be taken seriously. I’ll bet you wouldn’t get over it so quickly if your child was the college student that was being threatened with lynching.
Reader rebuttal comment #2 – “The people screaming racism are just as racist as the people they are accusing”
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Hard data on hate crimes presented by the FBI cannot be placed on the same level as crackpot opinions shared in internet videos. The facts about racism cannot be denied, and to ignore them would be irresponsible. Your denial of them is a great example of my post: “Denying Racism is the New Racism.”
Reader rebuttal comment #3 – “Many groups have faced discrimination. why do blacks think they are so special?”
It is true that many groups, especially immigrants, have been subjected to cruel and unlawful treatment that America should have never allowed. But it is absurd to deny the uniqueness of discrimination against African-Americans, how we were owned as property and used as beasts of burden and breeding machines. No other ethnic or racial group has been subjected to this kind of brutality other than native Americans.
Reader rebuttal comment #4 – “Black on black crime runs rampant in many U.S. cities. How can you complain about racism when you do so much violence to each other?”
Black on black violence is a shameful situation in America and cannot be excused or tolerated no matter the reason. Blacks don’t live in substandard ghettos by choice, but are there because there are no opportunities to live anywhere else. And experts in human behavior have long known that when a disadvantaged group is penned up in substandard living conditions and denied the educational and job opportunities necessary to improve their lot, they often take out their frustrations in violence against each other. This doesn’t excuse the behavior, but any group so restricted is likely to behave in the same manner. Elimination of racist barriers to education and employment will go a long way to reduce imprisonment in violent inner city situations.
Reader rebuttal comment #5 – “Nothing prevents people from changing and improving their living conditions. Why don’t black people do this and stop complaining about racism?”
Finding and accumulating the resources and assets necessary to overcome longstanding inequities created by racism, and to lift oneself into a higher standard of living is always possible, but to do so can require exceptional skills and strengths. It would be great if every person of color living in substandard conditions had the exceptional resources required to pull off such an escape. But that is not realistic, and shouldn’t have to be. One shouldn’t have to possess exceptional skills in order to live a normal life. In mainstream America, citizens are not expected to be exceptional to live a fulfilled life and be a productive member of the American society. Expectations of Americans of color should be no higher.
This past May, the talk around American University should have of graduation, internships and students’ plans for the summer. Instead, it was about nooses and bananas. As CNN and other news outlets have reported, administrators at the Washington, D.C. school have been meeting with students and addressing a litany of demands after someone earlier this month sneaked around campus in the middle of the night hanging bananas from nooses.
If the banana hanger’s intent wasn’t clear — and to most students, it was, considering later that day a black woman took the student government’s helm for the first time ever — the dangling fruits carried ominous and frightening messages.
One said, “AKA Free” a shot at Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest African-American sorority of which the new student government president, Taylor Dumpson, is a member; another said “Harambe Bait,” a reference to the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla killed last year after dragging a child through its enclosure.
“We … urge American University to strengthen the security measures on campus to keep its SGA President, who also is an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member, other Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority members and African Americans on campus safe,” the sorority said in a statement.
The United States likes to think of itself as a nation of hope and idealism, a still-young, proud republic that is ever reaching for great goals. America’s first settlers believed this and on the eve of his election to the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke of his commitment to the vision of the nation as a “shining city on a hill.” America had survived its original sin of slavery and lived through the civil war. The eras of legal racial segregation and public lynchings described in my World War One historical novel, A Place near the Front, were over, or so we thought. We were confident we would never return to those dark days. Certainly, the election of the nation’s first black president proved that we were now in a post-racial era. When President Obama stated in his farewell to the nation that “we’re not where we need to be,” he also said, “The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”
But within the civil rights movement, for every disadvantaged group that enjoys new rights and privileges, there is another group that perceives itself to have lost privilege and status in society. With that loss comes push-back. Just as the civil war resulted in the freeing of slaves and voting rights for black citizens, the inevitable pushback quickly reversed the trend to elect black public officials and ushered in the era of Jim Crow and lynching. Voting rights gains of the 1960s resulted in a “get-tough-on-crime” era during which blacks were disproportionately incarcerated. Most recently, the election of the country’s first black president was followed by the election of a president that has expressed anti-group feelings about multiple groups of people: Mexicans, Muslims, Disabled, Women, and who has begun to implement new policies that disadvantage these groups.
As noted in the recent New York Times opinion piece: Racial Progress Is Real. But So Is Racist Progress, The new president and his supporters, acting to reverse some of the gains of the above groups “…succeeded in putting new racial barriers in place, new discriminatory policies in our institutions. And they succeeded in developing a new round of racist ideas to justify those policies, to redirect the blame for racial disparities away from their new policies and onto supposed black pathology. They embraced the post-racial idea and stamped it onto Mr. Obama’s forehead. They persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn federal preclearance of new voting laws, since the nation was post-racial. They instituted new voter restrictions aimed at African-Americans ‘with almost surgical precision,’ to quote the appeals court that struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law last summer. Voting restrictors justified their new laws by claiming corruption in the voting process, deftly redeploying the old racist idea of the corrupt black politician. And all of this forward motion of racism yielded the presidency of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, just as all of the forward motion of racial progress since the 1960s yielded President Obama and the diverse congress of protesters.”
In America’s increasingly diverse ethnic landscape, amid new kinds of conflicts between groups brought about by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, many Americans are nervous about their daily lives and feel increasingly insecure as other groups push for and secure new rights and privileges. An increasingly politicized public is divided not so much on political differences as on group ethnic and nationalistic differences.
When the U.S. entered World War One in 1917, two “all-colored” combat units were created: the 92nd and the 93rd Infantry Divisions. Within these divisions, for the first time in U.S. military history, black soldiers would be led by black officers. One of these young leaders, Lieutenant William Herbert, the main character of the novel: A Place near the Front, is shown fourth from the left in the above picture. He was a member of the 325th Field Signal Battalion that provided radio and telephone communications to the 20,000 man 92nd Division.
Wireless radio had only recently been invented when Herbert and the 92nd headed off to war in 1918. The young radio men who were to set up and operate radio and telephone stations in the battle zones of France had been quickly trained in a special army radio course conducted at Howard University. Herbert and many others who took the crash course were already Howard students finishing up their academic programs.
Black soldiers had fought and died in all prior U.S. conflicts dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War, but had usually been consigned to the most menial and dangerous jobs: ammunition handling, clearing mine fields, recovering unexploded ordinance from the battlefield, and burying the dead. Most army officials didn’t believe that black soldiers were smart enough to lead troops or learn radio. President Woodrow Wilson, a staunch segregationist who instituted racial segregation in all U.S. federal jobs shortly after his 1913 election, had reluctantly established the two black divisions as a cynical give-away to black leaders who had long complained that if black soldiers were expected to fight and die in battle, they should be able to rise to the officer ranks and develop technical skills. Military leaders grudgingly accepted the president’s action, but tried hard to cause the black officers and technicians to fail.
One of the two colored units, the 93rd Infantry Division, never got to fight a single day with U.S. forces. General Pershing immediately dumped them onto the French army as soon as they arrived in France. But it turned out to be a stroke of luck for the 93rd, as the French loved these dusky fighting men who proved themselves to be great warriors. They emerged at the end of the war as the most highly decorated of all U.S. units.
William Herbert and his fellow soldiers of the 92nd had a tougher time, as they served under U.S. generals who harassed them and complained about them, always trying to sabotage their reputation and put a negative twist on stories from the front lines. These resentful senior officers were ready to sacrifice black troops and even suffer defeat on the battlefield to put “uppity” blacks in their place.
Despite these obstacles, the troops of the 92nd fought with distinction in all three of the division’s major campaigns during the final year of the bloody, four-year war. In one critical mission, when Lieutenant Herbert and his lightly armed team of radiomen found themselves pinned down by devastating enemy fire and had no infantry soldiers to protect them, they took the offensive themselves, charging and disabling the enemy forces and capturing many prisoners in deadly hand-to-hand combat. Time and again, the Buffalo Soldiers distinguished themselves even though they were often ill-supplied and poorly led by the senior command. As it turned out, the only troops who actually failed in their mission were two senior officers, neither of them black, who cracked under fire and were unable to lead their troops during the critical Argonne offensive. Sadly, their fellow senior officers tried to cover for them, whitewashing their failure by attempting to scapegoat several black officers who were charged with cowardice and dereliction of duty.
The sudden and unexpected end of the war did not improve things for the Buffalo Soldiers. General Pershing refused to allow black troops to march in the Paris victory parade, even though the French proudly showcased their own black Algerian, Moroccan and Senegalese troops in the celebration. And when they returned home in 1919, they faced a resurgence of racial animosity in the U.S. Lynching of blacks had increased from fifty-eight in the year 1918 to seventy-seven in 1919, the year black soldiers began to return to the States. Many of those lynched were black soldiers in uniform. James Weldon Johnson referred to the return of the American black soldiers as the Bloody Summer of 1919.
Like returning soldiers in all wars, William Herbert and other surviving Buffalo soldiers would pick up the pieces of their lives, as best they could. But most were disappointed that their battles in President Wilson’s “War to make the world safe for democracy” had not improved their lot at home. Herbert was unable to transition his passion for radio into peacetime work, as U.S. industry was not quite ready accept men of color in engineering and technology fields. Undaunted, he enrolled in Howard University and prepared himself for a career in dentistry.
But the sacrifices of the black warriors was not in vain, as their efforts had opened new opportunities for soldiers of color and forever changed the face and soul of the U.S. military. Thirty years after the end of the war, the army would be completely desegregated, although none of the black heroes of World War One would live to see the day when the U.S. armed forces and the entire nation would be led by men of color.
Many books have been written about World War One and the events of the era, one hundred years ago, in which the war occurred. There are a number of good ones, and I have six favorites. As I see it, the best books on World War One not only tell what happened on the battlefields and in the war rooms, but also paint pictures of the characters involved and provide insights into the events that instigated the war and the motivation of the participants to engage in the battles. All six of these books meet this standard.
Going to war and being prepared to give one’s life in battle is difficult for anyone, but it was particularly difficult for American soldiers of color to fight in defense of freedoms for Europeans when they could not fully enjoy those same freedoms themselves back home. Three of these top books address this conundrum.
Finally, as a nation of immigrants, it was the case that many of the soldiers who went to battle in the “Great War” were themselves immigrants, in some cases illegals who only earned their citizenship through their battlefield service. My overall favorite WWI book, my own novel, A Place near the Front tells of the war through the eyes of one of those immigrants.
So here are my favorites, listed in the order of preference
1. A Place near the Front, by William G Herbert, 2016
“It is an exciting novel, and it both entertains and prompts introspection and reflection upon what it means to be an American.” ~ Forward Reviews (May, 2016)
The coming-of-age story of a young, undocumented immigrant who arrives at the shores of the U.S. as a merchant seaman in the early 1900s and journeys through the streets of Harlem to the Howard University halls of learning and the trenches of World War One in search of his place in the American promised land. This book tells the story of an exciting life and an extraordinary period in history in a manner that offers insights into the seemingly intractable problems of racial discrimination, intolerance towards immigrants and the pointless brutality and devastation of war, troubling and long-standing problems we faced in the early 1900s and still face one hundred years later. The book is available from the publisher and all major online booksellers.
2. Eugene Bullard, Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris, by Craig Lloyd, 2006
A must read for all aviation buffs who’ve ever wondered whether there was a black pilot in World War One. Although he was the first African American fighter pilot, Eugene J. Bullard is still a relative stranger in his homeland. An accomplished professional boxer, musician, club manager, and impresario of Parisian nightlife between the world wars, Bullard found in Europe a degree of respect and freedom unknown to blacks in America. There, for twenty-five years, he helped define the expatriate experience for countless other African American artists, writers, performers, and athletes. This book is available from all major online booksellers.
3. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the
World War, by Emmett J. Scott, 2015
An extraordinary book written lovingly by a man who had been private secretary to Booker T Washington and, during World War One had served as a special adjutant to the U.S. Secretary of War. First written ninety-eight years ago (and re-released in 2015), the book employs the language and idioms of the time to describe the contributions of the black soldier in the first world war. The book is comprehensive, accurate and has an unusually exceptional collection of graphics and images. This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.
The work is now in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work. The original 1919 version of the book may be downloaded (free of charge) here, while a 2015 published version is available from online booksellers.
4. The Harlem Hellfighters, by Max Brooks and Caanan White, 2014
In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, even from their own government. The Harlem Hellfighters, as the Germans called them, fought courageously on—and off—the battlefield to make Europe, and America, safe for democracy. From the enlistment lines in Harlem to the training camp at Spartanburg, South Carolina, to the trenches in France, the authors tell the heroic story of the 369th in an action-packed and powerful tale of honor and heart.
5. Paths of Glory, by Humphrey Cobb, 2010
Familiar to many as the Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory explores the perilous complications involved in what nations demand of their soldiers in wartime. Humphrey Cobb’s protagonists are Frenchmen during the First World War whose nightmare in the trenches takes a new and terrible turn when they are ordered to assault a German position deemed all but invulnerable. When the attack fails, an inquiry into allegations of cowardice indicts a small handful of lower-ranked scapegoats whose trial exposes the farce of ordering ordinary men to risk their lives in an impossible cause. A profoundly chilling portrait of injustice, this great novel offers insight into the tragedies of war in any age. This book was written in 1935 and was republished in 2010, It is available from major online booksellers.
6. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, 1987
This powerful story describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front. The author, himself a veteran of World War One, wrote the book in 1928. At its beginning he says “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book does not focus on heroic stories of bravery, but rather gives a view of the conditions in which the soldiers find themselves. The monotony between battles, the constant threat of artillery fire and bombardments, the struggle to find food, the lack of training of young recruits (meaning lower chances of survival), and the overarching role of random chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers are described in detail. The book is available from all online booksellers.