Though we often discuss World War I through the lens of history, we occasionally do it through literature. When we do, we’ll invariably go to the famous trilogy of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald – the authors most representative of America’s iconic Lost Generation. Their work is said to reflect a mood that emerged from the ashes of a war that, with its trail of carnage, left survivors around the world with a despairing vision of life, self and nation.
The anxiety and hopelessness of the Lost Generation has become embedded in literary and cultural history. But for black artists, writers and thinkers, the war meant something entirely different: It spawned a transformation of the way African-Americans imagined themselves, their past and their future.
With Africa as a source of inspiration, a “New Negro” emerged out of the ruins of the Great War – not broken and disenchanted, but possessed with a new sense of self, one shaped from bold, unapologetically black models.
Denying an African legacy
Before World War I, African-American literature depicted stoic, but constrained, black protagonists. They emulated European codes of class and respectability while rejecting any sort of African legacy or inheritance. In other words, they talked like white people, dressed like white people and accepted the narrative that white men were the source of America’s greatness.
From the most well-known 19th-century African-American writer, Frederick Douglass, to his less remembered contemporary, Alexander Crummell, literary black advocacy or racial uplift too often rested on this approach.
Still, in the years leading up to World War I, there were rumblings of the “New Negro” archetype. For example, in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1902 novel “The Sport of the Gods” and Pauline Hopkins’ serialized novel “Hagar’s Daughter,” we see restless, dissatisfied young people who have no desire to become shuffling, servile second-class citizens.
This defiance, however, would not become widespread in African-American literature until the end of the war.
Black soldiers abroad during World War I experienced a type of freedom and mobility unattainable back home. In cities from London to Paris, many, for the first time, could travel without the worry of being denied equal lodging accommodations or admission to entertainment venues.
Once they returned stateside, they became increasingly impatient with Jim Crow laws and codes of racial discrimination. Life, they realized, didn’t have to be this way. In a nation that was now half a century beyond slavery, the fever spread among a new generation of blacks.
In the war’s aftermath, racial tensions heightened – a reflection of this mood. The summer of 1919 was known as the “Red Summer” for the number of race riots that erupted around the country, with one of the worst in Chicago, where 38 people died.
And in black literature, African-American characters no longer looked to the white man – or his nations – as models of civilization. In his 1925 anthology entitled “The New Negro,” writer, philosopher and Howard University professor Alain Locke has been credited with marshaling in the era we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. Locke, in his text, called on a generation of emerging black writers, artists and activists to look to Africa and to black folk culture in the United States and the Americas as a way to mine and explore a new strand of humanity.
We see this in Langston Hughes’ poetry; in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” he heralds Africa as source of creativity and cultural grounding:
I built my hut by the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
Two Jakes – one black, one white
Unlike the emerging literati of the Lost Generation, blacks, for the most part, weren’t angst-ridden over a post-war world devoid of meaning: they had never internalized the myth of America as a shining “city upon a hill.” For them, the war brought no end or loss, no disillusionment or void.
We see this difference if we compare Hemingway’s protagonist Jake in “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) to Claude McKay’s protagonist in “Home to Harlem” (1928), also named Jake. Unlike Hemingway’s lost, sullen and impotent hero who can’t find his way home, McKay’s Jake happily traverses Europe for a period after the war until he realizes he yearns for home.
While life is still a struggle and racism persists, McKay’s hero looks to the future with hope; he returns to Harlem where he relishes the many shades of black and brown beauties that he missed in Europe. McKay’s Jake immerses himself in a black world of love and laughter – a place that loudly celebrates life. He becomes inspired not by the readings and ideals of white thinkers and writers, but through black prototypes in and beyond America. His West Indian co-worker introduces him to Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jaques Dessalines, the black heroes of the Haitian Revolution, and to the history of great African empires dating back to antiquity.
In the literary works of black women, a new ethos also emerged. In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the main character, Janie, is daring in her quest for freedom: She leaves the confines of her restrictive community to take up with a younger man.
Black musicians, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance are celebrated as leaders of this transformative era in black history. But Harlem wasn’t alone. Cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago also became hubs of black cosmopolitanism.
Above all, the African-American literary works born out of the ashes of World War I went on to spur the bold spirit of resistance of the African-American protest movement into the 21st century.
We also see that American literature is not a monolith of interpretation and experiences: In the case of post-World War I literature, even though one generation was lost, another was found.
In the final days in one of the nation’s hottest governor’s races, Oprah Winfrey and President Donald Trump, as well as former Presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter and Vice President Mike Pence, are trying to put their imprint on the Georgia election.
Winfrey joins Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams for two town hall-style events Thursday, the same day that Pence travels to the state for several rallies with Republican Brian Kemp.
Trump and Obama will follow with their party’s candidate over the next three days. Carter, an Abrams supporter and former Georgia governor, garnered significant attention already this week with a personal plea that Kemp resign as secretary of state, Georgia’s chief elections official, to ensure public confidence in the results of what’s expected to be a close race.
The blitz underscores the high stakes in one of the defining contests of next week’s midterms, as Abrams vies to become the first black female governor in American history, while Kemp tries to maintain the GOP’s dominance in a state Democrats believe is on the cusp of becoming a presidential battleground.
The appearance by Winfrey, among the world’s wealthiest and most famous black women, is a significant coup for Abrams, who needs to maximize her support from nonwhite voters but also from liberal white women. All of those demographics overlap with Winfrey’s fan base, and she will hit them all with events in Republican-leaning Cobb County and heavily Democratic DeKalb County, both within miles of downtown Atlanta.
Though sometimes mentioned as a 2020 presidential candidate, Winfrey has demurred on her intentions. Her most visible foray into electoral politics was as an outspoken supporter of Obama, her fellow Chicagoan, when he first won the White House in 2008.
Trump’s appearance may claim as a casualty the last debate scheduled between Kemp and Abrams.
The two campaigns had agreed weeks ago to a debate at 5 p.m. Sunday in the studios of Atlanta’s WSB-TV. But Kemp’s campaign said the president’s schedule takes precedence, and he’s coming to Macon, about 100 miles south of Atlanta, to hold a campaign rally with Kemp at 4 p.m.
Abrams’ campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, says the debate is off because Kemp backed out. Kemp adviser Ryan Mahoney says his candidate is willing to find another time slot, but Groh-Wargo says Abrams is booked through Tuesday’s election.
Multiple polls show a statistical dead heat between Kemp and Abrams, with a low percentage of undecided voters remaining. There’s a possibility of a December runoff, given that Libertarian Ted Metz also is on the ballot and Georgia’s requirement that the winner garner a majority of the votes.
That could mean that events that energize the base, like a rally with Trump or Obama, could carry more weight than a debate less than 48 hours before Election Day.
Both candidates have run consistent appeals to their respective bases. Kemp has embraced Trump and echoed the president’s hard-line policies on immigration, and he’s focused much of his campaigning in the state’s more conservative pockets beyond metro Atlanta.
Visits from Trump and Pence — and the location of those events — illustrate that strategy.
While Abrams has touted her experience working with Republicans as minority leader in the Georgia legislature, her positions on health care, education spending, criminal justice and gun regulations make her an unapologetic liberal. She’s openly courting Democratic-leaning voters who have largely sat out midterm elections in the past, arguing it’s a better path to victory than trying to coax crossover votes from older white voters who abandoned Democrats.
Obama will appear with Abrams on Friday at a cluster of historically black colleges near downtown Atlanta.
Board members of the Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church Credit Union gather in the credit union’s office in Milwaukee on Oct. 21, 2018. Board members are Ed Murphy, from left, Jynette Hamilton, Gloria Neff, William Coffer, Ella Dunbar and Vinia Neal. The group runs the credit union on a volunteer basis. RNS photo by Katelyn Ferral
When Milwaukee’s Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church started a credit union in 1965, its predominantly African-American members were often denied loans, lines of credit and other basic financial services from banks.
More than 50 years later, in what is still one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, “not much has changed,” said Gloria Neff, a credit union board member and small-business owner.
Greater Galilee’s members, many of whom are elderly, still struggle to secure loans — even if they have the means to repay them.
“We’re still having the same challenges,” she said. “We’re still having the same problems.”
That reality drives board members, all volunteers, to keep the credit union going and to expand the financial services it offers.
Church members need what the credit union offers, Neff said.
“Although they pay their bills and they have the finances to pay, they still need to come to an establishment like this to get loans,” she said.
Greater Galilee Credit Union is part of a shrinking group of faith-based credit unions nationwide.
They are a distinct dimension of the credit union industry, offering aconsumer-focused alternative to payday lenders and impersonal larger banks — along with shared religious beliefs.
As church attendance has fallen nationwide, some small, local church-based credit unions have shuttered.
According to the National Credit Union Administration, there are 133 active credit unions with a faith-based charter in the United States and 276 inactive ones.
Ones that remain open, like Greater Galilee, face obstacles in a rapidly changing consumer bank industry with more, costly government regulations. But Greater Galilee and other faith-based credit unions are finding ways to continue and adapt.
“At the end of the day that is the objective — to make sure the credit union is going at full force,” said Ella Dunbar, who also sits on the board.
The Greater Galilee Credit Union is run out of the Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee. The building, which housed Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue until 1960, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
Greater Galilee Credit Union has about 200 members, all of whom must be members of the church or related to a member. The credit union is run separately from the church though it is housed in two rooms in the basement of the congregation’s home on the north side of Milwaukee. It offers passbook savings accounts and personal and auto loans, along with funeral estate planning. The credit union also hopes to offer services for preparing wills and power of attorney documents for members, said Ed Murphy, board president.
Without its services, many credit union members would likely go to payday lenders and other high-interest-rate institutions, said Murphy, especially in a state that relaxed restrictions on the payday lending industry over the last decade.
“There is a lot of predatory lending that takes place in our community,” Murphy said.
Greater Galilee’s board rates are modest compared to those of a payday lender, Murphy said. And the credit union tries to educate borrowers on the “pitfalls of those institutions,” he said. It is also planning to offer workshops on sound money management and financial literacy.
To increase business, the credit union board is considering opening up membership to people outside the church and is working on offering debit cards and checking accounts.
“We are moving in that direction; we’re just not there yet,” Murphy said. “It’s costly and you have to have a certain level of activity for it to be profitable for you. For us, being a closed shop for just a church and the church members — that’s not a large enough audience.”
Credit unions can be chartered at the state or federal level and are insured by the National Credit Union Administration and regulated by states.
Credit union officials in Wisconsin say faith-based credit unions have decreased statewide.
“It’s definitely been on the decline. A lot of them have mergered out of existence in Wisconsin,” said Mary Bliss, chief operating officer of the Wisconsin League of Credit Unions, based in Madison. “In general, they’ve had challenges in trying to grow.”
Keeping up with increasing government regulations is also costly. Leaders of the Greater Galilee Credit Union say it’s hard to keep up.
“We’re charged with carrying out the same kind of built-in controls, the internal controls, that the larger institutions have to abide by despite the fact that we are considerably smaller,” said Murphy. “We don’t have the resources … and we’re all volunteer.”
Costly compliance and technological changes led Notre Dame Federal Credit Union in Notre Dame, Ind., to create the Catholic Credit Union Association in 2016. Its aim is to help Catholic credit unions nationwide share resources and stay in business.
The group has about 30 member credit unions nationwide and runs a blog to educate the public and Catholic Church leadership about the benefits and history of credit unions in the Catholic Church.
Catholic credit unions have decreased in number from about 827 in 1960 to fewer than 100 today, said Robert Kloska, who works for Notre Dame Federal Credit Union and helped organize the association.
Most Catholic bishops are not aware of the Catholic social teaching that underpins the mission of credit unions, Kloska said.
It was once common to see a Catholic parish, school and credit union work together, a three-pronged institutional approach to serving a person’s soul, mind and temporal needs, said Kloska.
Now, Kloska said, “most of our bishops never talk about them.”
“I think it’s a very balanced and elegant and common-sense response to the needs of the world,” he said.
The association helps smaller Catholic credit unions comply with state and federal regulations and provides technological resources. And larger credit unions will sometimes team up with smaller ones on some loans, allowing the smaller credit unions to get some additional income from interest.
Credit unions largely started in Italy and Germany in the early part of the 19th century. Both were Catholic countries at the time, he said. The idea then spread through Catholic priests who traveled as missionaries to North America and Canada, he said.
“They saw that the people in town were not being treated well by the banks so they organized their parishioners,” Kloska said. Before long, some of their Protestant neighbors began joining as well.
Solidarity — a key Catholic social teaching — is also a pillar of the credit union’s mission, Kloska said. In this case, solidarity means people banding together for the common good.
“The purpose of a bank is to make money for the investors,” said Kloska. “The purpose of a credit union is to serve the membership.“
Rick Gonsiorek, 37, became a member of Notre Dame Federal Credit Union when he was a student at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame. He stayed on after graduation, because he says the credit union didn’t charge ATM fees and had great customer services.
Eventually, Gonsiorek, the general manager of a Catholic radio station in South Bend, made the credit union his primary banking institution and got his mortgage through it. He said the credit union’s values fit with his Catholic faith.
“I’ve been really impressed with the ways they give back to the community and the types of organizations they choose to give back to,” he said. “Many of them are Catholic organizations that are doing such great work.”
A sense of mission also drives the leaders of Greater Galilee’s credit union. Keeping their credit union alive and figuring out how to adapt is about helping their neighbors attain a higher quality of life and affording them opportunity, said board members.
“We care enough to give them an opportunity,” Neff said. “We care about them — we genuinely care. That’s the key.”
Lisa McNair’s older sister Denise McNair, 11, died in the bombing of a black church 55 years earlier in Birmingham, Ala. Denise was one of four black girls who died when a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klansmen exploded outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
Before he was accused of shooting and killing two black people in a Kentucky grocery store last week, Gregory Bush knocked on the door of a predominantly African-American church.
It was 2:44 on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a day when many churches have midweek services. About 70 people had been inside First Baptist Church Jeffersontown for a Bible study, but it had ended by the time Bush arrived and the doors were locked.
If Bush had been there just 45 minutes earlier, “it probably would have been very different,” said Pastor Kevin L. Nelson.
“We caught him on camera at the front door, after he knocked and pulled on it and banged on it, he stood there and put his hand on his gun,” Nelson said, adding that he believes the gunman would have shot whoever came to the door.
“We felt that that was his attempt to make it another Charleston,” he said.
A police chief in Kentucky has acknowledged the shooting deaths of two black people at a Kroger grocery store in suburban Louisville were racially motivated. Bush, who is in custody, is white, and the FBI has said it is investigating the shooting as a potential federal hate crime.
On Saturday, a man killed 11 people in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, adding to a growing list of violence at houses of worship. Nelson mentioned the 2015 racially motivated shooting deaths of nine black people at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Others followed, including the shooting deaths of two people at a New York City mosque in 2016 and the murder of 26 people at a Baptist church in Texas in 2017.
Federal prosecutors set in motion plans to seek the death penalty against Robert Gregory Bowers, the man charged in the Pittsburgh shootings. Authorities say Bowers expressed hatred for Jews during the rampage and later told police that “I just want to kill Jews” and that “all these Jews need to die.”
Speaking to a gathering of the conservative Federalist Society in Kentucky, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the Kentucky and Pennsylvania shootings: “if these aren’t the definitions of hate crimes, I don’t know what a hate crime is.”
Asked by a reporter if overheated political rhetoric bears any blame for violent actions, McConnell replied: “It’s hard to know. The political rhetoric is always pretty hot before an election. It’s not the first time.”
“I think the whole tone in the country right now needs to be ratcheted down,” McConnell said. “And these horrible, criminal acts only underscore the need for all of us to kind of dial it back, and to get into a better, more respectful place.”
The violence has prompted church leaders to grapple with finding a balance between securing their congregations and maintaining robust outreach programs they say are the core of their faith.
“I think it is sad you have to even lock the doors of the church,” Nelson said. “It was just the mindset where I grew up; you didn’t do certain things around the house of worship or even among the people of God. All that is changed today.”
In March, the Kentucky Baptist Convention — one of the state’s largest denominations — held a statewide church security conference for the first time. More than 1,000 people attended, said Paul Chitwood, the convention’s executive director. He said many people come to church because “they are hurting and they are confused.”
“The church wants to receive those people. And just because somebody looks different or acts a little different, well we want them in our churches,” he said. “But sometimes there is an individual who wants to do harm. We want for our churches to be prepared to respond to that and protect the congregants.”
Nelson said his church, which is not affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, has police officers in their services. He said they would likely “tighten up” security. In the meantime, he says he his praying for the victims and for the men charged with the crimes.
“Every soul is precious to God,” he said. “And it should be to us.”
During a round-table discussion about costumes on the Today show, Kelly said it was OK for white people use blackface to dress up as Black people. She defended a reality star who portrayed Diana Ross last year. “But what is racist?” Kelly asked. “ …Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
It now seems NBC will fire Kelly as a result of this incident, undoubtedly raising questions about whether such a response is an over-reaction.
Many claim the offensive element of blackface dates back from a long time ago, and doesn’t have anything to do with today. They claim blackface costumes, especially at Halloween, are just innocent fun. What could be the harm?
What is blackface?
Blackface is the practice in which non-Black people darken their skin to deliberately impersonate, and usually to ridicule, Black people. It’s popular right now on university campuses, often during Halloween and at campus events for students.
Blackface costumes often include other paraphernalia such as wigs, fake dreadlocks or stuffed bosoms or behinds to further parody Black people. They also occasionally celebrate violence against Black people.
The minstrels in these shows were white performers pretending to be Black. They painted their skin black with burnt cork or shoe polish, leaving wide areas around the mouth uncovered or painted red or white giving the appearance of oversized lips.
Minstrel performers would then use ungainly movement, exaggerated accents, malapropisms and garish attire to further ridicule Black people. Blackface was a deliberate attempt to represent Black people as bizarre and deviant, while appropriating their cultural forms for profit and to get a laugh.
My research has found that when used in the present, blackface still intensifies feelings of racial pleasure for those who wear it, and for their audiences. But humor is a funny thing.
What is it that makes blackface “funny” in the first place? Why are we motivated to put on costumes that appropriate other people’s bodies, experiences and lives?
Humor and racism
While we imagine that we each have individual tastes in humor, this is only to a degree. Our humor depends integrally upon the contexts in which it occurs. We rely on prevailing ways of thinking and common understandings of what things mean. These “shared ideas” make us fairly certain that others will find our jokes funny. No one wants to laugh alone.
Costumes of sheiks, geishas or Mexicans in sombreros emphasize the foreign-ness and ostensible absurdity of non-Black racialized groups.
The “humor” and allure of these costumes flow directly from investment in settler-colonial relationships. It matters little whether those who engage in this kind of costuming understand the implications, or say that they wear them as tribute. Racist humor pushes the limits of acceptable racial discourse.
Heightening this effect is the way in which blackface is practiced despite Black objection. Even if they claim not to know about minstrel shows, very few people who wear blackface nowadays are unaware of the fact that it is a racially edgy form of costuming, or that many Black people object to it.
In wearing blackface, they, like Kelly, defend it despite these objections instead of trying to find out why Black people find it offensive. Doing so dismisses Black people’s perspectives and insists instead that their interpretations prevail.
In fact, in recent years, the far right has become quite adept at using racist humor to air racist ideas. This makes claims that “I was not aware” largely irrelevant, if not suspicious.
Even when apologies follow, the damage has been done. It is much like removing a nail from a piece of wood. It never repairs the damage.
The circulation of these ideas bolsters the increasing global racial nationalism of our day. So it is actually a much larger issue than people failing to be sensitive because Black people cannot get over the past.
Rather, the issue is the denial and furthering of racist relationships in the present. Efforts to defend blackface and justify other racist expressions erase the racism of the past and, crucially, protect the racism of the present.
They also serve to delegitimize Black opinion, and anyone who objects to racist humor. These “jokers” label dissenters as oversensitive and politically correct. This plays into the same disregard of Blackness that blackface represents. These effects must be taken seriously if we wish to push back against the ways in which racist narratives and practices are becoming increasingly normalized in our day.