“An American and Nothing Else: The Great War and the Battle for National Belonging” is a new exhibit in Sterling Memorial Library’s Memorabilia Room that commemorates the long struggle of blacks for belonging in the United States, particularly around World War I. The multimedia exhibit includes posters, pins, propaganda, ads for war bonds, postcards from soldiers, songbooks, maps and photos from the front lines. It pulls from the Yale University Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library collections. This year marks the centennial of the end of World War I. It contrasts the national pride shown in propaganda, and now, history books, with the lived experience of black Americans who felt they were not included in this narrative of patriotism. The first part of the title refers to a Theodore Roosevelt quote from 1918, as he tried to rouse national spirit to fight in the Great War. But the second part of the title notes how not everyone was included in this prideful American identity. The key word seems to be “ambivalence” — towards joining the war effort and being American.
While the narrative of the time was of cohesion, the curator of the exhibit seeks to show the many ways in which it was also a time of fractured American identity and experience. The curator is History and African American Studies graduate student Anna Duensing. The exhibit notes the experience of many marginalized groups, including socialists, immigrants from European and Asian countries, but particularly focuses on the struggles and triumphs of black Americans, and takes special care to notice the contributions of black women. One example is the display that claims that the draft disproportionately affected minority groups and less-wealthy people.
The exhibit also points to many events far before and after World War I to show the obstacles and contributions of black Americans. It celebrates Crispus Attucks, a black man believed to be the first casualty in the Revolutionary War. It decries lynching throughout the centuries. It celebrates the contributions of A. Philip Randolph and Marvin Garvey, alive at the time, but focuses more on their general efforts towards improving the lives of black Americans. The displays reference several historic laws and events that show the challenges and injustices to which minority groups were subjected. One such law is the Sedition Act of 1917, which gave the postmaster unprecedented access to reading people’s mail in an effort to quell rising socialist sentiment.
I had a few issues with the exhibit. First, the beginning displays, and the title pulled from the World War I Roosevelt quote, give the indication that it is an exhibit about the role of black Americans in World War I. Yet the exhibit discusses many minority groups during World War I, and then also the history of black Americans from the Revolutionary War to after World War I. This seems to be in an effort to avoid criticism of not giving enough coverage to other groups who also suffered in the war, but to the viewer, the exhibit seems unfocused, and it’s not quite clear what its purpose or theme is. What the exhibit has in breadth, it loses in depth. My other issue with the exhibition is that it criticizes the injustices black Americans and other racial minority groups faced during World War I: Certainly there were many issues, and there was deep-seated racism and inequality. But it’s an exhibit of contradictions: it simultaneously says many black Americans didn’t want to fight, but lays out their accomplishments; it suggests minorities were disproportionately forced to join via the draft, yet bemoans how many fought in particular battles; and perhaps most crucially, it derides the exclusion of blacks from American identity, yet pulls numerous quotes from black people of the time who did not want to fight in a war they had “nothing to do with”. If the point of the exhibit is to critique the narrative of the war as one of unity, while conveying that the lived experience of many groups was one of exclusion, it then seems unfair to say that those same groups shouldn’t have had to fight during the war because they aren’t really American. Certainly not everyone in a group has to be of the same opinion, and black people faced systemic injustice before, during, and after the War. Yet the exhibit presents these contributions without analyzing them, leaving the viewer unsure if she should be proud of the accomplishments of marginalized groups during the war, or angry that they had to fight in it.
Yet the exhibit is worth checking out for its representation of a side of the war we rarely hear about. Battles were fought not just on the front lines, but in conversations at home about what it means to be American. While propaganda of the time shown in the exhibit paints a picture of patriotic Americans buying war bonds and signing up to fight to defend their country, millions of other Americans fought domestically to make the country a more equal and just society.
Claire Kalikman | firstname.lastname@example.org