“How did they pick John Doe?”

Mark Whalan

in The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro

Published by University Press of Florida

Published in print April 2008 | ISBN: 9780813032061
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780813039015 | DOI:
“How did they pick John Doe?”

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This chapter discusses the racial politics of remembering the Great War. In the 1920s, the intersection of race and remembering was bitterly contested. The chapter focuses on the interest of many African American writers in the famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This tomb served as memorial to commemorate all the soldiers who had offered their lives in the war. This chapter discusses the prevalence of representations that claimed and staged an ironic revelation that the “Unknown Soldier” was an African American. This can be seen in the works of James Weldon Johnson, Edward S. Silvera, and May Miller and the photographic memorials of black soldiers by James VanDerZee. This chapter looks into the struggle to remember against “dominant memory” which strategically forgets the contributions of the African Americans. This chapter examines the question of how African American history and its contributions to the making of the United States is integrated and included in the history of the United States as a whole. The Unknown Soldier's anonymity, and the way one soldier represented the nation, tacitly excluded nonwhite soldiers, and yet the monument's anonymity always held a potential to disrupt social norms because of the inevitable truth that the body interred may not have been white.

Keywords: racial politics; Great War; African American writers; Unknown Soldier; tomb; African American; black soldiers; anonymity

Chapter.  21697 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literature

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