Monday, May 28, 2007

Songs of Negro patriotism

“Be wide awake and take no naps. Let’s bomb the Japs and change our maps…”

The last century’s two World Wars had a profound impact on race in America. After black folks laid down their lives on distant battlefields – such as the “Harlem Hellfighters” in France during WWI – it was harder to deny them their rights at home.

That much, most people are aware of. I had less of a sense of any gung-ho, stars-and-stripes patriotic fervor among black Americans. But it existed.

Consider the words of Kelly Miller (pictured), a prominent black intellectual of his day. In his 1920 book “An Appeal to Conscience,” Prof. Miller wrote:

“They sometimes tell us that America is a white man’s country. The statement is understandable in light of the fact that the white race constitutes nine-tenths of its population, and exerts the controlling influence over the various forms of material and substantial wealth and power.

“But this land belongs to the Negro as much as to any other, not only because he has helped redeem it from the wilderness by the energy of his arm, but because he has bathed it in his blood, watered it with his tears, and hallowed it with the yearnings of his soul. …

“It seems to be an anomaly of fate that the Negro, the man of all men who is held in despite, should stand out in conspicuous relief at every crisis of our national history. His blood offering is not for himself or for his race, but for his country.”

What’s really wild is to hear some of the gospel-style patriotic songs black people sang during WWII.

Click here to hear “We Are Americans, Praise De Lawd” by Bertha Houston.

Then click here and listen to “Tear Tokyo Down” by Deacon Sam Jackson.

You can hear more such recordings from the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival collection of the Library of Congress.

It might cause a little discomfort to hear black people shit-talking “the Japsies,” but hey, it was wartime. Like Sister Bertha said: “There is one thing they must not do: attack our red, white and blue!”

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