‘Half American’ portrays black experience in World War II

By Ted Ayers | May 30, 2023

“Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad,” by Matthew F. Delmont (Viking, 2022, 374 pages, $30.00)

In January 1942, Wichitan James Gratz Thompson wrote to the Pittsburgh Courier, then the country’s biggest African American newspaper, asking, “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?”

He continued: “I suggest that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home. Those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.” The Courier seized on Thompson’s idea and in the next issue launched the famous Double V campaign — standing for Victory Abroad and Victory at Home.

Thompson’s letter provides the title and opening reference of this important book by Matthew Delmont, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College. In attempting to tell the definitive story of the black American experience during that conflict, Delmont has produced a thought-provoking and at times disturbing work. Delmont, the author of four previous books, pulls no punches.

As he notes, “Nearly everything about the war—the start and end dates, geography, vital military roles, home front and international implications—looks different when viewed from the African American perspective.”

Delmont writes about Langston Hughes (who spent his formative years in Lawrence, where he used the desegregated Carnegie Library). Hughes served as a foreign correspondent for the influential Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, covering the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936 and was a precursor of  WWII. Hughes, already internationally renowned at age 35, built upon a chorus of Black voices who recognized that the German Third Reich saw the American system of race law as a model and that Nazi ideology was not solely a foreign problem.The Spanish Civil War led Hughes to reevaluate his commitments as a writer and to more forcefully challenge America to live up to its ideals. He noted, “Negroes in America do not have to be told what Fascism is in action.”

Delmont sets forth many stories of sacrifice, courage and heroism by men and women — from well-known figures such as the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first black military aviators, to the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, who got mail and packages into the hands of GIs serving in Europe and who only last year were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He writes of Raymond Cook, Nebraska Dunston and Joseph Johnson, African American sailors aboard the USS Reuben James who were among the first Americans killed in action in the war.

Delmont’s book is a reminder that the things they died for are still being fought over.

As he writes in closing: “The stories we tell about the past also matter because they can equip us to better understand and navigate the present and future.”

Contact Ted Ayres at tedayres47@gmail.com