Race and Service in the Pacific During World War II

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tags: racism, military history, African American history, World War 2

Karen Cook Bell is Associate Professor of History at Bowie State University. Her areas of specialization include slavery and the slave trade, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and women’s history. Her book, Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018), received the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council Excellence in Research Award. Follow her on Twitter @kbphd08.

Historian John Dower has noted that “apart from the genocide of the Jews, racism remains one of the great neglected subjects of World War Two.” Expanding upon Gerald Horne’s masterful study, Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (2004) and Horne’s Facing the Rising Sun: African Americans, Japan, and the Rise of Afro-Asian Solidarity (2018), Chris Dixon’s African Americans in the Pacific War, 1941-1945is a study of the war time experiences of African Americans in the Pacific Theater. It examines the tension between race and nationality—specifically African American identity and American identity. According to Dixon, race was at the center of the transformations that occurred during the war in the Pacific as Japan depicted its quest for regional hegemony as a crusade of liberation against the tyranny of Western colonialism. The war time Asia-Pacific was a world turned upside down as prevailing hierarchies within, as well as between, nations were tested by the tumult of total war, and as oppressed groups fought for freedom and demanded democracy (2).

African Americans were active participants in this complicated and convoluted quest for liberation. In part, Black military service in the Pacific was an adventure, a chance to see the world as Calvin Miller, a young recruit from North Carolina stated (2). The war was a chance to transform as well as defend the United States. Race, war, and citizenship have always been linked in American life since the War of Independence. African Americans offered their service to the nation hoping that their wartime efforts and sacrifices would be repaid with full rights of citizenship to which they were entitled (4). African Americans were symbols and agents of American power across the Asia-Pacific. Emboldened by their war time experiences and conscious of the transnational nature of the struggle against racism, African Americans challenged white Americans’ attempt to cast Blacks stationed in Japan as trouble makers (253).

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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