Friday, January 5, 2007

New work on Race and Nation during WWI at the AHA

At the American Historical Association annual meeting this morning was a terrific panel: The Use and Abuse of Woodrow Wilson: Race and Nation in the Wilsonian Moment. The three excellent papers concerned the subtitle rather than the title, providing a preview to a rich body of forthcoming work on race in the World War I era. I will simply highlight a couple of points. This is work you will want to keep an eye out for. All three scholars have forthcoming books.
Eric Yellin, Princeton, gave a paper with a domestic focus: "‘President of All the People’: Woodrow Wilson and White Man’s Democracy." Focusing in the experience of employees for the federal government, he emphasizes the change from one racial regime under the Taft Administration, to another under Wilson. African Americans had seen the federal government as a place they could find employment, but things changed with the Wilson Administration. Increased segregation and discrimination shocked federal workers, leading to protests. Yellin argues that even though Wilson was a racist, and those were racist times, these changes were not imposed because Wilson was racist, but rather because race posed specific problems for Southern Democrats. In this sense, Yellin helps civil rights scholars get beyond the question of whether certain policies are motivated by racism. If racism is part of the environment, that doesn’t answer all the questions about what directions policy may take.

Adriane Lentz-Smith, UNC Chapel Hill, presented, "A League of Nations in the Dockyard: African American Soldiers and Black Internationalism in the Era of World War I,"a superb contribution to the literature internationalizing American race and civil rights history. While others writing about the international context of World War I civil rights have looked to the experience of American race leaders and intellectuals (see Jonathan Rosenberg, How Far the Promised Land), Lentz-Smith instead focuses on African American soldiers. By following the story of Sergeant Eli Green, she shows that circumstances – in this instance the war – "swept individuals into the world of international affairs." In France, Green found himself in a zone to which the U.S. has imported American-style Jim Crow, but also an environment with new opportunities to reimagine racial and national identities. This is all worked out in a fascinating way through Green’s encounters, especially with colonized French Senegalese troops. Lentz-Smith does more then bring in the non-elite, and introduce us to this rich transnational space. She also helps us to see the way these encounters inform conceptions of America, and, for individuals, their own sense of national identity.

Christopher Cappozola, MIT, discussed his paper "‘A Narrative of Filipino Ambition’: Nationalism and Politics of Military Service in the Colonial Philippines." This is another wonderful, nuanced paper, and like the others I cannot capture it with a little blurb. The development of a national guard in the Philippines might seem a narrow topic, but Cappozola makes a compelling case that we can learn something about the nature of contemporary American military deployments by examining the history of the Philippines. Interestingly, he argues that the development of the National Guard and the Insular Cases are linked. The Insular Cases at the turn of the 20th century held that the territories the U.S. had acquired as a result of the Spanish-American war were not part of the U.S., but not wholly foreign. A result was that residents were therefore not U.S. citizens, but nationals. This was the form U.S. imperialism took during this period, and Cappozola notes: "Every empire requires an imperial army." Cappozola’s paper then spins out the interesting story of the way race and citizenship complicated efforts to create an indigenous force in the Philippines.

Gary Gerstle’s terrific comment saw the papers as models of the blending of social and political history. From the papers, we can see that racism was not old and waning in this period. It was new and expanding with the U.S. role in the world.

Gerstle’s comment, and the discussion that followed, brought Woodrow Wilson back into the conversation. Erez Manela published a terrific article in the December 2006 American Historical Review, Imagining Woodrow Wilson in Asia: Dreams of East-West Harmony and the Revolt against Empire in 1919. Manela sets Paris 1919 in a global context, and explores the impact of Wilson’s idealist rhetoric on anti-colonial movements around the world. In contrast to Manella, Paul Gordon Lauren has written of Wilson’s key role in scuttling Japanese efforts to pass a resolution against colonialism at the peace conference. Discussion of the papers and these works together led to a lively interchange on the question of whether there was a paradox of the coexistence of American hopes of quality and democracy, and also the brutal reality of segregation and racism, as Gerstle initially put it when framing his comments, or whether there was no paradox at all – either because ideology and experience in this era somehow produced each other, or because, as one audience member suggested, there was no paradox because when Woodrow Wilson was talking about equality, he was just thinking about Europe.

All in all, a wonderful panel.