Sunday, October 28, 2012

Black Soldiers in World War II


The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, depicted above, is located on the bank of the Mississippi river on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It's an impressive piece of architecture by Frank Gehry.

On a brief visit there last week, I was impressed by their collection of works from New Deal art programs, and especially by a painting, "Wheels of Victory" painted in 1944 by American painter Philip Evergood (1901-1973).

The documentation accompanying the painting says "Created in the waning days of World War II, Evergood's painting at first may seem a celebration of American industry." However, the documentation continues, the painting seems "more melancholy than victorious," because it may be making a reference to the labor disputes about African Americans: could they join the railroad union and hold non-menial jobs? "Is the soldier here to remind viewers that African-Americans contributed to America's victory in war overseas but were not allowed to hold good jobs on the railroads at home?"

The white men in the painting do look pretty complacent to me, with their "pocket watches and church papers."

The documentation refers to the black soldier as looking on "despondently." To quote the National Geographic summary of the Black experience in World War II:
"African-American soldiers and civilians fought a two-front battle during World War II. There was the enemy overseas, and also the battle against prejudice at home."
Perhaps this is the subject of this impressive and maybe subversive painting.

Despite the formation of the famous unit of Tuskegee Airmen, most Black soldiers were given only duties like janitorial and kitchen services. "Black soldiers were generally restricted from combat," the article points out. However, "the realities of war would soon blur the lines of race. One major breakthrough came during the Battle of the Bulge, in late 1944.... General Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced with Hitler's advancing army on the Western Front, temporarily desegregated the army, calling for urgent assistance on the front lines. More than 2,000 black soldiers volunteered to fight."

When the black soliders returned home, mostly to homes in the South, they faced a return to the segregated lives and horrendous maltreatment that they had known before the war. Truman desegregated the military, and thus ended open discrimination in job assignments, in 1948, but the Civil Rights struggle  had only begun.

My book club selection for November is The Grace of Silence by Michele Norris of NPR -- a book with a focus on exactly the same topic: the unjust treatment of returning Black soldiers. In this memoir, she concentrates on the experiences of her father. He returned from service to his native Birmingham, Alabama, where Black citizens were still experiencing the worst of the humiliating and dehumanizing features of segregation and racial hatred.

In trying to understand her father after his death, Norris unearthed a part of her family history that no one had ever mentioned and that no one wanted to talk about after more than 60 years. Shortly after his return to Birmingham, he had been shot by a policeman, spent a night in jail (as she said, this was an incredibly dangerous place for a young Black veteran), and had paid a high fine which used up family funds that could have been better used to invest in business. She felt that the experience had been powerful -- too powerful to discuss.

Norris described the struggle of Black veterans to register to vote in Birmingham soon after the war, and the decision of her father and some of his brothers to move north, and his purchase of a  home in a white neighborhood. She was born in Minneapolis (not that far from the museum where I saw the painting), and her own experiences, which are briefly discussed in her memoir, are quite different from those of her father.

I've recently seen a lot of connections to the topic of Blacks in World War II and their experience when coming home. Earlier this month, my book club read Mudbound, which includes a fictionalized (and I would say, sensationalized) account of a returning Black Southern veteran. Also, not long ago at the Civil Rights exhibit in the Henry Ford museum, I saw the restored bus where Rosa Parks performed her famous historic refusal to sit in back. The connection of this to the struggle of veterans to the struggle for Civil Rights is interesting -- as the National Geographic article says "Not only had the war opened a new window of opportunity for blacks, a number of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and '60s, including Medger Evers, had been trained in the Army, where they acquired leadership and organizational experience."

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt

The real center of The Children’s Book is life at the end of the Victorian era – which sounds like too big a topic for a novel, but somehow Byatt pulls it off. She talks about how family life at the end of the 19th century was special with an independent life for children in an upper class family, who were often numerous and left to themselves to wander in the woods or explore the country-house environment where they were being raised. She makes up five families, with many children, in which to explore her idea.

The world of children and families in the late Victorian era is a powerful topic. The contrast between wealth and poverty and the contrast between the rights and possibilities for men and women in Victorian society affects each of the families in the story.  Every character struggles with his or her social and gender-caused position and its limits. Several characters rise in status, especially Olive and Violet, a coal miner's daughters, but privileged members of the upper middle class as adults. Olive is the matriarch of the novel’s most central family and a successful author, and her sister Violet is the quiet unmarried aunt (but things are not quite as they seem).

As they mature, the children of the five families develop a variety of literary, social, artistic, and political consciousness. They are influenced directly and indirectly by famous people who lived then – the Fabians, suffragists, anarchists, socialists, even Emma Goldman, cultural leaders like Rudyard Kipling, G.B.Shaw, and William Morris. The characters attend lectures in London, Cambridge, Oxford; join real socialists and other activists, and travel to witness conditions in other countries. They put on plays – especially Shakespeare plays – which seem to them iconic, and whose organization gives them experience of various sorts. (Also, it’s a typical thing for that era’s family to do.)

The novel is full of real places and things, all made very vivid. The father of one of the major families is a department head at the emerging Victoria and Albert Museum in London – the museum is both physically and conceptually central. A number of the characters gather for a visit to the Paris World’s Fair, where they see Loie Fuller dance among other things. The women in the novel dress up for dances and theatrical performances – the descriptions of gowns and hats are lush and indulgent.

A counter topic to family and social life is the life of artists. There are at least three characters who have enormous creative gifts: Benedict Fludd a very troubled and eccentric ceramicist; his apprentice Phillip Warren, born very poor and lower class but driven to create from his childhood; and already-mentioned Olive Wellwood, a writer of  fantastic tales encompassing the title’s “Children’s Book.”

The beauty of ceramic vessels – shape, color of glaze, decorative elements, workmanship – and the details of the potter's craft are described with love and attention to visual and tactile detail. Byatt makes a great effort in explaining the many challenges in creating a pot on the wheel, mixing a glaze, loading a kiln, and firing the contents. The characters appreciate the beauty of pots and are aware of the history of earlier ceramicists.

The process of writing – creating imaginary worlds, myth and fiction, setting up characters, choosing words – and the effect of writing on an audience are another fundamental theme. Olive’s tales begin as specific gifts to each of her children, in some cases with a problematic effect. They continue to become a way that she earns a living for the family – which also causes a variety of problems for herself and her complicated relationship with her husband.

Several of the characters struggle with understanding their identity, which is often vexed by the complex relationships of their parents and those who seem to be their parents. Some of the most mistreated characters develop stong identities anyway; some of the most loved fail. Byatt manages to subsume the identity question in other themes, mentioning often the emerging medical specialty of psychoanalysis and creating at least two very troubled suicides who don’t get any help in this respect.

The narrator often steps back and describes historic events and their social consequences. Nothing is explicit, but no reader could be unaware of the coming fate of the families whose youth are contemporaries, as often mentioned, of Rupert Brooke. He is often present at meetings or informal events that the fictitious characters also attend – we know what that portends. Byatt is aware that her readers must be thinking of the First World War and what it will do to her characters, and she’s ruthless in her final chapters, when it happens.

I loved this book. I was amazed that with so many characters and so much going on, Byatt always kept me on top of the family place of each character as he or she was mentioned. The graphic horrors of the Great War were kept at bay by the long history of the characters and their aspirations; the inevitablilty was handled wonderfully.