As I observed activity on social media and coverage on television regarding the commemoration and remembrance of D-Day I noticed that something was missing and it was the faces of African-American GI’s who fought in World War II.
A quick Google search of African-American GI’s and D-Day revealed one recent article from a French news station that was reporting on the work of a French scholar in African American literature by the name of Alice Mills in obtaining pictures of Black GI’s to be included in a billboard memorial of portraits in celebration of the 50th anniversary for D-Day in the city of Caen, France. The billboard, until Alice’s observation of the exclusion of African American GI’s and her work to rectify it, was one noticeably absent of Black faces. Even more troubling was the the reaccuring statements from White historians that stated that black troops had stood out in Normandy for their criminal behavior toward the locals – claims contradicted by Alice’s conversations with people who had lived through the war.
All of this brought me back to Ta-Nehisi Coates latest piece on the case for African American Reparations. More pointedly, it took me back (again) to the statement he made in an interview with Bill Moyers about reparations and how we ALL need to come to terms with White Supremacy. On my previous blog I spoke a bit towards what that meant for Black people, however I would like to speak to what that means now, as it presents itself for White Society and what it meant to Black people THEN.
History is more than a collection of stories in a book of a time long gone, it’s the narrative, the map by which we guide ourselves. In confronting white supremacy one has to confront history so any discussion regarding D-Day would need to be had in light of history and not as it’s currently presented- in the mythological.
If mythology is what a dominant culture chooses to believe about itself and if we can agree that mythological narratives dictates cultural activity then the map we’re following has us off course, we are a proverbial nation of kings and queens of wishful thinking.
In D-Day and World War II in general we have a narrative that is all too familiar. The US and its allies were the “good guys” and the Axis powers, The Germans and their allies are the “bad guys”. It’s a binary that works and keeps things simple yet the complex nature of human behaviour is that this narrative is in reality “villain vs villain”. For Black folk, picking a side in WWII was really a choice of the lesser of two evils. It’s better to go with the devil you know than the devil you don’t but when it’s rewritten the real “heroes” are silenced in the margins of our books and our mythological narratives.
Coming to terms with D-Day and World War II is to come to terms with white supremacy in that the esteemed, upheld and oft presented as only-ever-being-white group dubbed “The Greatest Generation” were also full fledged participants in white supremacy back home, participants that had been engaged in a war of aggression against Black people that preceded the fascism of the Nazi party with 200 plus years of slavery and was now being played out in the “Jim Crow” era in the form of extra-judicial murder and systemic structural oppression that held Black people back from full participation in the fruits of American society to include the right to vote.
It would mean understanding that “The Greatest Generation” weren’t that different from the Nazi’s they fought against in World War II and it would mean understanding that they were also participants in that ongoing aggression, passively or aggressively.
We’re no where close to the type of maturity required to come to terms with white supremacy in order to move forward as a culture. That type of maturity would mean coming to terms with dissonance,paradox and an honesty that people are wholly unprepared for and seemingly incapable of. It is for this reason that we have the mythology that exists, it serves a purpose because the truth doesn’t read as well, especially for White Society. Thus the absence of Black faces in the national remembrance of it.
This framing of the war in its actuality makes the actions of African American so baffling. It’s counterintuitive because Black people fought to get into a war where not only were they fighting for a nation that didn’t even recognise their own basic human rights but they also had to deal with that same nation’s continual persecution of them in the combat theatre as well as being persecuted by the very citizens that they had come to liberate, ironically while not even being free themselves.
As captured in a book entitled “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI In World War II” by Mary Louise Roberts:
” France’s shattered medical facilities, was one tragic legacy of this cultural collision. An even more tragic and disturbing legacy, though, was that of rape by American soldiers. The crime was almost always due to the institutionalized racism of the American Army and racial prejudices of French civilians, associated with blacks: of the 152 soldiers tried for rape in France, 139 were black. Segregated and relegated to service duties like food and laundry services, black soldiers had more contact with French civilians. This presence of black soldiers in the rear lines fused with racial stereotypes, widespread among both Americans and French, that blacks were “hypersexualized.” When one adds stark linguistic and cultural divides to these stereotypes, as well as the traumatic experience of war and liberation, blacks were frequently accused of crimes they never committed.
Inevitably, a segregated army that numbered thousands of officers from the American South rarely questioned these accusations. Roberts’s meticulous review of the rape trials reveals a fatal pattern of racial prejudice with accusers and the military courts. Along with chocolate and cigarettes, Jim Crow turned out to be another welcome American import. In one especially gruesome detail, Roberts notes the Army’s difficulties in carrying out death sentences in France — not because the French opposed the executions, but because they used the guillotine, not the gallows. In what may well have been another Jim Crow reflex, the Army insisted on death by hanging and had to bring in specialists from the United States, including a taciturn hangman from Texas who brought his own rope.
African Americans then had to return back to the United States and endure another 15 plus years of Jim Crow before leading the fight against white supremacy at home.
In as much as we hear words like sacrifice surrounding D-Day, I ask what is more sacrificial, maybe even fool hardy, than risking your life for a people who don’t even see you as their equal, as human? It’s easy to make a “sacrifice” when you have an investment, something to protect, but what of those who have nothing at stake, no lot in it? Did the Judeo-Christian God not utter “Forgive them father for they know not what they do” before making the “ultimate sacrifice”?
I conclude that contrary to popular belief, if anyone embodied “The Greatest Generation” it was African-Americans despite their noticeable absence during D-Day reflections. In a war involving one white supremacist state vs a pseudo democratic white supremacist state, Black people had every reason to sit that one out and yet they didn’t. One cannot fathom the paradox of PETITIONING to go and fight for a nation that hates you- that is your oppressor. Is that not the very definition of “Stockholm Syndrome” as personified by going to war to defend the interests of the very people who are oppressing you?
Like the comedian Paul Mooney said, “Black folk be like some ole loyal hound dog”. A joke for effect and yet the truth that belies it is self-evident.
As I witness D-Day proceedings there is an undertone of hope that there’s a chance to do it all again. There’s just too much glory in it as validated by films like the Clint Eastwood directed “Flag of Our Fathers” and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” because doesn’t every young boy want to grow up and be a soldier because of movies cut of that narrative? The intersections of war films and military recruitment have been well documented. There’s both and allure and attraction to war and our bravado in remembrance is poisonous.
In so many macabre ways World War II and the cultural mythological narrative behind it makes it White Society’s real “John Wayne” moment. They get to play the hero in “real life” and thus in that retelling- no people of colour, just like in the movies. However, it should beg the question as the credits rolled in the film “Saving Private Ryan”, was Tom Hanks character (Captain John C Miller) going to be engaged in trying to save black boys like a Trayvon Martin from the aggressions of white supremacy when he came home?
Twenty years later as the colonial powers were engaged in Vietnam and again soliciting assistance from a people they refused to see as equals, as citizens, the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali stated what needed to be said then and what needs to be understood now in order to begin to confront history and consequently white supremacy in a way that will lead us toward some genuine path of repartitions and reconciliation. “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever call me nigger”