Roi Ottley’s World War II

Roi Ottley thought of himself as a Negro. To him, Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, as well as the nameless dark-skinned American soldiers he reported on, were Negroes. To us, today, that noun never crosses our minds. If it did, we would shove it out of sight in shame. Ottley and his brethren are African Americans. We use the term proudly, and with self-assurance. We rarely, if ever, examine the term’s problems. Ottley’s observations in Roi Ottley’s World War II (Mark A. Huddle editor) affords us the chance to examine some of our assumptions regarding race and challenge our own complacency.

In July 1944, a month after the invasion of Normandy, Roi Ottley traveled to Europe on assignment for the labor newspaper, PM. Actually, he made clear in his journal/letters that he was given no advance and had none of his expenses paid. He was, in effect, a freelancer. Yet he was also a captain in the Army, commissioned according to regulations so that he could serve as a war correspondent. Officer status provided him many benefits that he would enjoy during his six months abroad. That PM was a “white” paper gave Ottley status, too, especially vis-a-vis his colleagues from the Negro press.

How did Ottley secure a modicum of status at a time when most black Americans hoped mainly for benign neglect? The publication of his book New World A-Coming: Inside Black America the year before surely had a lot to do with it. (In all the writing of Roi Ottley’s WWII, Ottley uses ‘black’ rarely and only as an adjective. He uses ‘Negro’ exclusively as the noun.) Though “a maddeningly uneven work,” according to Huddle, the book was well-received and sold well for attempting “to explain Black America to uncomprehending whites.” [24] New World A-Coming was built on a decade of work and writing experience, mostly confined to New York City: bell hop, soda jerk, railroad porter, social worker, newspaper columnist (theater and sports for Harlem’s Amsterdam News), and supervisor for WPA Federal Writers’ Project. By reading and hanging out with other New York writers and activists, Ottley educated himself on political movements of the day–and there were many.

For his formal education, he had chosen an unlikely setting: St. Bonaventure University, far upstate in Olean, New York. He was among the first black students to attend SBU and received a full scholarship. He competed in track and cross country, wrote for the campus newspaper, read widely, and by all accounts thrived in an environment free from racial prejudice. During these years, he said later, he “forgot he was a Negro.” [11]

Even before college, Ottley’s experience was out of the norm.  His parents were Caribbean immigrants who settled in Harlem at the turn of the century. Hard-working and entrepreneurial, Ottley started as a laborer, saved his wages, took classes, sold insurance, and eventually opened his own business as a real estate broker. By the time Roi (né Vincent) reached adolescence his family were property owners and thoroughly middle class. He counted Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., W.C. Handy, Jr., and Thomas “Fats” Waller as friends. This was the Harlem Renaissance, and Roi Ottley came of age smack in the middle of it.

So it was that Roi Ottley, child of the Harlem Renaissance and West-Indian parents, graduate of a non-segregated university, experienced reporter and author, found himself one of a few Negro war correspondents in Europe, and possibly the only one selling his work to white publications. Ottley resisted the label of Negro correspondent, yet he still focused the bulk of his reporting on the experiences of Negro servicemen. What did it mean to serve in a segregated army while living in an unsegregated country? Ottley quotes one  serviceman saying, “I’m treated so, a man don’t know he’s colored ’til he looks in the mirror.” [96] It was eye-opening stuff for these men who had never “been away from their homes and communities.” [97] And for Ottley, too. He made sure to share these shock, little and large, with every dispatch he sent home for publication.

Eye-opening wasn’t limited to African Americans. In their first day in Liverpool, Ottley reports, “I talked with a white major–from the South–who was amazed that there was no Jim Crow in the England. He said white Southern troops will be very disturbed when they find out. They assume that Jim Crow exists everywhere.” [45] They protested any actions Negroes taking advantage of new rights and freedoms. In Ottley’s eyes these men were “still fighting the Civil War,” only on European soil. [96]

The next day, Ottley chatted with a couple Russian engineers, who “commented on the paradox of Americans fighting for “democracy” and at the same time denying it to their Negro citizens.”[45] They asked how Negroes could fight for such a country. “I tried to explain that the answer to that question was the same as why the Russian peasants loved Russia during the Czarist regime.” [48] Later he expanded on his answer, “For 300 years Negroes have put blood, sweat and tears into the building of the Nation, so they have the love the one has for a personal possession.” [177]

Over and over, Ottley encountered Europeans who expressed both bewilderment and revulsion at American race prejudice. Ottley’s reaction to their reaction was complicated. On the one hand, it was gratifying to learn that the worst abuses of American racism was not universal. On the other hand, he occasionally took offence at their misunderstandings. Some Europeans he encountered believed American Negroes were still slaves and couldn’t even walk on the same sidewalks with whites. To his surprise and bewilderment, Ottley often found himself defending the state of Negro advancement in America. “I’ve been put in the unenviable position of explaining the subtleties of Jim Crow,” he wrote. [111]

Clearly the Europeans were ahead of their American cousins on the sticky issue of race. Or were they?

Ottley observes that the British were not used to seeing large groups of Negroes and so took them as a novelty. The man and woman of the countryside had no preconceptions and were “naturally hospitable” [159] (even if some English children look behind Negroes to see their tails!). Ottley wants to convince us what British racial prejudice that exists is mostly “confined to colonial and military official.” [97] This reader, for one, is not convinced. The distinction between social classes and their views seems a bit too pat, to politically convenient.

Discussing the race issue in France, Ottley is all over the map…in three sentences! “For the average Frenchman is not anti-Negro [he begins, modestly]. Moreover, Negroes are very popular with the French people [he continues more boldly]. Actually, though, Negroes in Paris complain about the lack of sincerity of the Frenchman in racial matters [he ends, contradicting with a hint of evidence, what he merely asserted before].” [122] We are left to make our own determination about where exactly the French reside in their racial consciousness.

Or, perhaps, the enterprise is beside the point. What matters is not that the French are more enlightened than Americans, with their three hundred year history of human bondage, that the French reside outside the strictures of human nature, that a single, simple sentence can describe the complex attitudes of forty million people. What matters is that French history and, thus, French culture is not American history or culture. Conversely, American culture is not universal. The statement seems too banal to be stated, but the particular evidence for it that Ottley provides is crucial.

In every dispatch he sends, Ottley is telling his (mostly white) American readers, Things are different over here. American assumptions about race don’t apply here, or elsewhere. Our thinking need not be limited to our own narrow preconceptions. A black American soldier walking down a lane with a white Englishwoman; a Frenchman kissing a black man, according to custom, on both cheeks; Negro and white soldiers, on the transports to Normandy, sleeping on the deck shoulder to shoulder, Jim Crow-be-damned. These are the images that caught Ottley’s attention and which he shared eagerly with his readers.

There are other images, too, that remind us Europe was far from a racial paradise.  Lest we forget it was Europe that was at war, total war, for the second time in a generation. Genocide of a scale unknown in history was in full swing. Ottley tells us of the French official expressing his love for Negroes while decrying, almost in the same breath, the alleged evils of Jews. Ottley introduces us to Baroness de Haviland, who “seems to be quite a gal,” but, during the four years her husband has been fighting to defeat Hitler, she has been “going with a big bruising Negro wrestler,” and, at the same time, is “violently anti-Semitic and agree[s] with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.” [132] If Europe was an exception, it also proved the rule of race hatred and discrimination all-too common to humanity.

Today, with France’s ban on facial veils, anti-immigration protests in Brussels, and the rise of far-right political parties across the EU, we Americans are aware that Europe has its own racial history and racial troubles. On the other hand, despite the wide availability of international news, we still tend to be insular in our views. Our understanding (such as it is) of race is so strongly influenced by our own history of slavery that we have difficulty seeing it through other lenses. We American whites might feel inoculated from past racism when using the term “African American.” Yet we become flummoxed when talking about African-descended individuals (or groups) of more complex, or merely different, lineages. Is the Jamaican Canadian race walker also an African American when he competes in a historic foot race across the continental United States? Is the first African American president African American in the same way Toni Morrison is (was)? Is the star soccer player’s African ancestry assumed or ignored when he is called, simply, Brazilian? Does any of this matter?

The issue is emphatically not merely one of nomenclature, though the terms and concepts we use can limit our understanding as much as they can enlighten. And our focus on American history can impede our apprehension of other possibilities. More to the point, awareness other cultures can help us more fully understand our own. (Banality again.) In 1944, as the world was clasped in a struggle to the death, as it were, Roi Ottley was looking ahead to the new world order that would follow what he expected would be an Allied victory. Would Negro soldiers (and their families and kin) enjoy the freedom that they had fought to help preserve–and which they had tasted in bite-sized morsels while behind the lines in England, France, and Italy? Ottley reported what he saw with an eye for upsetting his compatriots’ preconceptions, with the purpose of opening up possibilities and effecting change.

But he wasn’t concerned with his homeland only. As the Belgians celebrated the liberation of their country in mid-September 1944, and made plans for rebuilding their society, Ottley perceived the elephant-sized irony in the room. “But no one apparently is talking about a new deal for the Congo–Belgium’s rich colony and brightest jewel in King Leopold’s crown.” [155] The world, not just America, must change.



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