Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII.

Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII. – book reviews

Beth Bailey

Harlem at War centers on the Harlem riot of 1943: a hot summer night; a confrontation between a black soldier in uniform and a white policeman; wild rumors; black violence fed by the anger and frustration of centuries; looting and fires and the death of six Harlem men, five at the hands of police. This was America’s first “commodity” riot. Unlike earlier race riots, which were battles between white and black Americans, typically begun by whites attacking blacks over some rumored incident, this riot was begun by Harlem residents themselves, and targeted property – perhaps primarily white-owned property – but property in their own neighborhood. In the wake of the Los Angeles “riots” or “rebellions,” Nat Brandt’s story has particular resonance, which he fully understands. His epilogue offers an impressionistic tour of today’s Harlem and ends with foreboding: “One cannot help wondering what keeps its residents from rising up once more in anger and frustration.” (p. 230)

Brandt, however, is not so much concerned with the riot itself as with a larger portrait of a nation divided. During World War II, he shows, “at a time when national unity was a prime concern of the federal government, the legacy of decades of prejudice grew in intensity, both in civilian life and in the armed services.” (p. 132) Working through accretion as much as argument, Brandt captures the feel of that era of crisis in a richness of detail and context. Readers see not only segregated toilets in the south, but a segregated armed forces in which even the blood donated to save the lives of wounded soldiers is kept separate by race. Readers learn not only of the violence against blacks in southern training camps, but also of the discrimination and indignities visited upon blacks in the more progressive cities of the northern states. And, finally, they hear the voices of black Americans who are disillusioned with their nation, which was fighting the racial hate of Nazi Germany with a segregated army. As popular history, Brandt’s work is useful both for those who do not understand the weight of prejudice in American history and for those who believe that nothing at all has changed.

For professional historians, this book further dissects the illusion of unity in America’s last “Good War.” Harlem at War is not significant for historiographical originality; rather, it is valuable because it establishes the universe of knowledge available to a relatively-educated Harlem resident in the 1940s. Brandt does not restrict himself to Harlem in this work, despite its title. He states from the beginning that his “context is the entire country.” But as he ranges from the Oval Office to Great Britain to the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots, from defense plants in the midwest to southern training camps, he anchors these disparate but connected places and events to their portrayal in the black press, most particularly Harlem’s Amsterdam News. “[I]f the pages of the newspapers he read are any indication,” Brandt writes, “a black, half a century ago, must have felt that living in the United States was like riding a rollercoaster…. To be a black then was to experience a constant flux of emotions.” (p. 85) By chronicling that flux, the juxtaposition of good news and bad in the pages of the black press, Brandt provides both intellectual and emotional context for the frustration and anger he sees among black Americans during the war. It is not simply that members of their race were treated shamefully in too many instances as they sought to serve their country. It is also that blacks throughout the nation knew about these incidents, learning about them primarily through the black press. Brandt discusses the biases and structural imperatives of the black press, but more on the production and reception of these news stories would strengthen this book for the professional portion of his audience.

In general, because of the author’s avowed focus on Harlem while writing extensively about federal politics and military policy, the book seems somewhat disorganized or disjointed. A history of black settlement in New York since colonial times is somewhat awkwardly juxtaposed with the material on World War II. Harlem’s actual role in the war might be better chronicled: what of the active civil defense work he mentions briefly? What of Harlem’s 369th Regiment and their complicated role in military negotiations over the role of blacks in the war? In smaller quibbles, I found his justification for using the term “black” disingenuous, and question the unity implied by Brandt’s subtitle, The Black Experience in WWII. Brandt says that dark-skinned blacks “looked down” on light-skinned blacks; it may have been true, but social status and power certainly ran in the other direction at that time.

In sum, this is a thoughtful and often powerful account of the disunity of America at war. For scholars, Brandt’s chronicle of the Harlem Riot will not supersede Dominic Capeci’s The Harlem Riot of 1943. But as a portrayal of the legacy of prejudice, it bears an important message indeed.

Beth Bailey Feminist Research Institute, University of New Mexico

COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group