Black Men in No Man's Land: Race, Masculinity, and Citizenship in World War I Literature

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Nearly 400,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Army during the First World War. At the same time, white servicemen survived wartime injuries at an unprecedented rate. This paper explores how these trends reflect a cultural moment that disrupted Jim Crow narratives about race and masculinity. Through an investigation of scenes where black and white men confront each other on the battlefield, this paper reveals that wartime disruptions engendered new formations of race and masculinity as legible identities. I argue that new depictions of black men as assertive or heroic challenged the reductive stereotypes that were used to justify the oppressive practices of lynching and disenfranchisement. And I contend that the depictions of white men as wounded and in need of assistance offered new possibilities for how Americans might relate across the color line. Scenes of black and white soldiers meeting in no man’s land allow African American authors to reframe the battlefield as a space where Jim Crow racism is defeated through interracial cooperation. Although the eventual re-normalization of white masculinity has obscured those World War I disruptions that allowed white and black Americans to imagine new ways of being in the world, my project recovers a period when social turmoil allowed black men to be viewed in new, more positive ways.


Humanities: 1st Place (The Ohio State University Edward F. Hayes Graduate Research Forum)


African American Literature, World War I, Critical Race Studies