War Memories and Today’s Young Adults

[Some of the video clips and images on this page are graphic and may offend some readers.]

Interviewing people about the history and memories of wars, even with those people who are very familiar with me as a friend, proved very difficult. One of the most obvious issues I encountered was finding enough women who would consent to be interviewed. In both the US and Senegal, a higher number of men consented to interviews than women. In asking for interviews, I gave a brief explanation of my assignment to find out what young people in their 20s had learned about several important wars, and, more importantly, where this knowledge came from: school, their families’ oral histories, or movies and popular culture. Despite my insistance that the study was not a test of their intelligence, several women I asked refused, claiming that they did not know anything about history or wars and could not remember what they learned in school. The speed with which several of my potential interviewees refused to participate claiming to not remember what they learned in school suggests that school remains, in both the US and West Africa, the primary source of knowledge about World War II and other 20th century wars. Men, on the other hand, were much more confident in giving interviews, even if they could not answer questions at length.


There were also similarities between how little is taught in African schools about the Algerian War and how minimally the Vietnam War is covered in American schools. Some of my African interviewees admitted to having learnt nothing about the Algerian War, while others claimed to have learned about it, but not about sub-Saharan Africans’ participation on the side of the French. Similarly, some US interviewees learned nothing about the Vietnam War, and barely recall learning about World War II. Others recall learning about the wars in detail. In both West Africa and the US, the range of answers depends to some degree on the individual’s interest in the subject of history, and perhaps even the geographic area of their school, as we will see.


Another striking similarity is that very few people, in the US and West Africa, learned much about the wars from their own families’ oral histories. Several of those interviewed had never met their grandparents who had been alive for or fought in World War II. Even the generation immediately preceding my interviewees, their parents’ generation, were not evident in the passing of war memories from grandparents to my interviewees. The exceptions are Brian, whose father and immediate family members fought in the Vietnam War, and Malick, whose mother did share general knowledge, however nothing specific to her elders’ wartime experience. While most of my interviewees did not meet their grandparents and thus were not given the chance to learn about the wars through oral history, even knowing their grandparents did not necessarily guarantee that oral history would be shared. A university student in Dakar, Cecilia recalls that war was not a subject her family talked about, suggesting that collective war memories are an area of painful and uncomfortable remembrance, and thus a taboo subject.


One difference that arose between the interviews conducted with West Africans and those conducted with African Americans is in the range of answers given when asked about which movies and images recall World War II and other wars for them. In the US, there was a far greater range of movies mentioned. Amongst my West African interviewees, even those from outside of Dakar, Ousmane Sembene’s Camp Thiaroye was the most frequently mentioned movie, often alongside American films and documentaries. It is the only African movie that my interviewees were able to name about World War II, with the exception of one young man from Dakar who had seen Indigénes. 


In both the US and French West Africa, my two points of comparative interviews, it seems that formal schooling remains the dominant and most prolific avenue of education about World War II, the Algerian War, and the Vietnam War. This knowledge is supplemented by more recent dramatic films and images taken from documentaries, while oral histories are very rarely evident in my interviews.


The dearth of oral histories in my interviews may very well be due to the limited sample size of my interviews. More interviews in these areas, as well as more cross-comparative studies of how wars are learned in areas like North Africa would benefit this study. Another interesting area that could be enlightening, but is out of the scope of this particular study, involves interviewing African immigrants to the United Kingdom from Britain’s former colonies. In explaining my interviews, several colleagues at the University of Portsmouth, most of them immigrants from Nigeria, spoke casually at length about their families’ participation in wars on the side of the British Empire. A comparative study could illuminate any differences arising from attitudes surrounding oral war memories between descendants of former British subjects and descendants of former French subjects.



African-Americans on World War II and the Vietnam War



Brian Alexander, 28 years old, English/Art student at California State University, East Bay, Berkeley, CA


Marcelle Levine: Did you learn about World War II and/or the Vietnam War in school?

 Brian Alexander: Yes, I did.


ML: What did you learn specifically about African American participation in these wars?


BA: From what I recall, I learned how minimal their participation was, but I also recall being surprised that African Americans soldiers did participate, that there were regiments fully active in Europe and Italy. I remember being very surprised.

[Interviewer’s note: Growing up in a predominantly white town outside of the greater Berkeley/Oakland area, my high school curriculum spent very little time on World War II, unless a student chose to take a very specialized non-mandatory class on World War II history. Even having taken this class, there was relatively little time spent on African American participation in the war. The majority of time was spent learning decisive battles, country alliances, and politics. Moreover, little attention was paid to the Vietnam War, unless students elected to take a specialized history class.]

ML: And the Vietnam War?


BA: Vietnam War was a little bit more, if I can recall, it was a little bit more… real. It seemed more of a social issue, seen more as having to do with socio-economics than anything else. It seemed a little more tangible in that these soldiers were younger, these soldiers were drafted from poor communities, or economically challenged communities and were sent basically to fight on the front lines.  So I remember Vietnam being a little more rugged or intense to really grasp and understand.

[A well-known argument in American society, and included in California school curriculum, is that surrounding black participation in the Vietnam War. A war that required the government to institute a draft, many draftees were African Americans and whites from poor backgrounds. Especially in the American South, larger numbers of draftees were black than their white counterparts. Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones gives several possible contributing factors, such as the lack of black representation on draft boards, young black mens’ difficulty accessing the educational opportunities to become officers, and possibly even more racist and intentional selection methods by southern draft boards attempting a program of racial control (1999, p. 100). While not everyone in American society, or even the African American community, would agree with the severity of these statements, the draft numbers cannot be disputed. We see from Brian’s emotional discomfort of learning about the disproportionate drafting of young black men that, despite the different experiences of African Americans in different areas of the US and in different social classes, there is the notion of a shared collective grief at the idea that a particular community was unevenly called upon, even forced, to represent and die for the entire nation. There is a sense of distrust of the government among some African Americans when dealing with the Vietnam War, because they may feel that black lives were undervalued compared to those of whites.]

ML: Did your parents or grandparents or another person in your family talk to you about one of these wars?


BA: Yes. A lot of my family on my mother’s side served in Vietnam, so there were constant stories, constant conversations that focused on their experiences, but nothing really… the way they talked about it, they talked about it as if it was a job, as if it was the norm.  My father was actually a little more reclusive, a bit more silent about his experiences. But yes, there were plenty of family members who spoke about these wars.



ML: Were there any stories that really stood out to you, any that they were really fond of telling?


BA: I know that a lot of the stories that I remember, or that I can recall, weren’t really fond, again they really spoke about it like its something you did, something you just kind of fell into. The most light-hearted or fondness I can remember was just talking about meeting up with their regiment or travelling or what they would have to go through to recruit. I specifically remember that my grandfather worked in World War II and he dug trenches. All he ever really talked about was that… it was just something he had to do. My father, on the other hand, was a little more… cryptic, but I know that hearing him speak with other serviceman, that’s where I would get a lot of the jokes, a lot of the playfulness. My father served in the Navy so there was a lot of talk about just going from port to port and also what they would do to recruit, some of the crazy things that they would have to do, some of the crazy standards they would have to reach for recruiting and its something I never realized that my father participated in.


ML: What did they do to recruit?


BA: He would go around, more or less like a Jehovah’s Witness, carrying around brochures recruiting for the Navy and you’d have a quota, I remember he would always talk about the quota that you had register or you had to at least get the information of so many individuals per day. So they would joke about what tactics or what strategies they could use to undercut or sidestep some of the more rigorous requirements. In the South, in the United States, in the South versus states like California, when you’re in the South, like Alabama, Florida, something like that, it’s a little more, obviously, rural, so you’re not dealing with so many people so they would forge names, they would kind of add the same names to the roster. I remember hearing them joke about stuff like that.

[The specific war memories that have been passed down to Brian seem to have been more light-hearted in nature than some of the heavier, potentially painful memories that might also be a part of his family members’ experiences. From my own experience, my grandfathers did not talk about their experiences in World War II. My paternal grandfather only shared one particularly gruesome story with my mother, in order to dissuade her from asking him about the war. She passed this story to me when I showed curiosity in the wars. My grandmother, on the other hand, who lived in Dakar and Bordeaux during the war, refused to talk about the war, but shared a prolonged hatred for Germans, even as late as 50 years after the conclusion of World War II.]

ML: What are the images and films that deal with the wars that have had the biggest impression on you?


BA: World War II… I would have to say some of the biggest films that have had an impression on me are some of the more recognizable ones, ironically both starring Tom Hanks: Saving Private Ryan and…mostly Saving Private Ryan, just because of what you don’t see. Being educated about World War II and blacks and their role in World War II, you’re surprised to learn there were active regiments of black soldiers, but in the films like Saving Private Ryan, the more popular series portraying World War II, Band of Brothers, I can’t help but realize what’s not being seen. We always see soldiers being represented by a certain demographic or a certain ethnic group: white, Caucasian males.  Even though there was very much a policy within the military at that time, there was definitely segregation, we all understand that, its just very rarely explored in films and popular culture. So I would say that would be the biggest impression I have from World War II depictions. Vietnam? I can’t help but always think of Dead Presidents. It really played up again that socio-economic factor of who was actually fighting the war in Vietnam and actually the social ramifications, the social strain that a lot of these soldiers were facing when they came back. It really kind of just put forth the tragic view of the circumstances. I can’t help but think of my own father and some of his closest friends who really came back changed. A lot of…being raised mostly by women, a lot of the women in my life, I’ve always heard them say that a lot of men came back changed and I think Dead Presidents really embellishes that a lot   I just think about soliders being displaced and a system, a socio-economic system, in place that doesn’t take care and doesn’t really benefit the soldiers that had to fight this war. It’s a really tragic view of the toll that kind of experience can have on an individual, if that makes any sense.


[The following official film trailer of Saving Private Ryan gives readers insight to his assertion that African Americans are not well-represented in Hollywood films. It is reminiscent of De Gaulle’s blanchissement towards the end of the war, however it is unlikely that Hollywood producers in the 1990s left out depictions of black soldiers for propaganda purposes.]


[Following is a scene from Dead Presidents that illustrates the contentious attitude some African Americans confronted after returning home from Vietnam, especially from people within their community.]







Deanna Ward, 30 years old, Manager at See’s Candies, Sacramento, CA


Marcelle Levine: Did you learn about World War II and/or the Vietnam War in school, specifically about African American participation in these wars?


Deanna Ward: I didn’t learn about either war in school. It’s just something we didn’t cover…which is sad.


ML: Did your parents or grandparents or another person in your family talk to you about one of these wars?


DW: I knew that my uncle had actually gone to Vietnam from my mother, but she never talked about how his being African American affected him. The stories she remembers him telling were just about the brutality of the war zone in general. Nothing specific that I remember.

[Deanna is one of the few who could say that she had heard specific war memories, however her recollection of “brutality” suggests that it was a subject not often addressed and possibly ignored. In oral histories and collective memory, silences and forced forgetting are just as important and illuminating as the memories people like Deanna could have remembered and shared.]


ML: What are the images and films the deal with the wars that have had the biggest impression on you?


DW: Oooh, I generally hate war movies. So the only one I’ve seen is Red Tails. Good film if you haven’t seen it. It’s about the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II…how they struggled. They had to fight for the right to defend this country and show they were on par with their white counterparts. But really not into war movies.

[Red Tails presents an interesting movie to examine because it also shows similarities with the experiences of African soldiers in Europe during World War II. Deanna has already mentioned that black soldiers had to overcome racism and prove within their own army that they were worthy of fighting for their own country. Additionally, there is a love story, which suggests to audiences that some African Americans found the Europeans they were helping liberate less racist and more accepting than their own countrymen.]





Brandon Cain, 23 years old, student at San Francisco State University/ waiter at Chili’s Grill & Bar, Antioch/San Francisco, CA


Marcelle Levine: Did you learn about World War II and/or the Vietnam War in school, specifically about African American participation in these wars?


Brandon Cain: Yeah, of course.


ML: What did you learn, especially about the involvement of African Americans?


BC: The thing I remember the most was the Tuskegee Airmen.

[Brandon’s specific recollection of learning about the Tuskegee Airmen might stem from regional differences in school curriculums. Brandon attended school in Antioch, where black and Hispanic students vastly outnumber white students. Just north of Antioch, in Sacramento, Deanna attended school in the center of the state capital, which experiences a larger range of ethnicities and backgrounds. Just south of Antioch, I attended a school at which there were only five black students out of 500 students. Both Deanna and I did not learn anything about World War II as specific as who the Tuskegee Airmen were.]

ML: What did you learn about the Airmen?


BC: I wish I could remember.


ML: Did your parents or grandparents or another person in your family talk to you about one of these wars?


BC: Not really. Except my grandmother’s siblings fought in World War II.


ML: What did your grandmother or your family members tell you about the war?


BC: Not much. Barely anything at all.


ML: What are the images and films the deal with the wars that have had the biggest impression on you?


BC: Honestly? Watchmen and Full Metal Jacket, Vietnam War movies.


ML: Did you ever see the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen [Red Tails]?


BC: Yes.





Jerrelle Wilson, 23 years old, student at California State University, Stanislaus, Stockton, CA 

Marcelle Levine: Did you learn about World War II and/or the Vietnam War in school?


Jerrelle Wilson: Yes, definitely in high school.


ML: What did you learn, especially about black participation?


JW: I know a lot of people didn’t support the wars in America. World War II was pushed by the President at the time, even though we truly did not need to intervene for the reasons we did. Vietnam was completely different, the government completely lied to the people about how the war was actually turning out and when the truth came out, people were disgruntled. Pertaining to black participation, I didn’t learn a whole lot. Just that blacks were able to participate in the wars. They were only able to fight in squads made up of blacks. Once they got back to the US, they were, they went back to being treated like people who weren’t fighting for the country.


ML: Did any parents or grandparents or another person in your family talk to you about the wars?


JW: No, no one talked to me about the war. I never even met my grandfathers on my dad’s side. Or my mother’s.


ML: What are the movies dealing with either of the wars that had the biggest impression on you?


JW: My two favourite movies dealing with the wars are Saving Private Ryan and Men of Honour. I really love Men of Honour.



 Francophone West Africans on World War II and the War of Algeria

El Hadji Malick Badji, 25 an, Gestionnaire du site a ENDA, Dakar, de Casamance

Marcelle Levine: Avez-vous étudié la deuxième guerre mondiale et/ou la guerre d’Algérie a l’école?


MB: J’ai étudié la deuxième guerre mondiale  mais un tout petit peu la guerre d’Algérie. J’ai étudié seulement la guerre– deuxième guerre mondiale. Pas la guerre d’Algérie.


ML: Qu’est-ce que vous avez appris?


MB: Tous est-ce que j’ai appris?


ML: Sur la deuxième guerre mondiale, comme le début, les détails.


MB : Sur la guerre…


ML: Oui, en général.


MB : En général. Je sais que c’est en quelque sorte les Allemagnes qui ont lancé la guerre parce qu’ils n’étaient pas satisfaits du– des résultants de première guerre et ils voulaient s’expendre beaucoup plus. Donc c’est pour ça raison tout fait pour déclencher la deuxième guerre, Hitler et autres. Donc il a tout fait pour une deuxième guerre pour qu’ils puissent s’imposer dans le monde. Ça c’est le debut de la guerre.


ML: Et la participation des Africains ?


MB : La participation des Africains, c’est parce que la France a été envahie et elle a sollicité les soutiens des Africains pour que plus faire partir les Allemagnes parce que les Allemagnes avaient envahi la France. Donc il a fallu que les Africains par le biais des tirailleurs sénégalais puissent aller au secours des français pour chasser les Allemagnes de la France. Donc c’est pour ça que les Africains étaient en France pour la deuxième guerre mondiale. C’est en quelque sort la participation de l’Afrique à la deuxième guerre mondiale via les tirailleurs.

[Malick, as well as Yann in the following interview, were able to give by far the most information about what they learned in school. Both Malick and Yann’s accounts, presented to them by African schools, present the Africans coming to the aid of the French in a style that is wholly different than the history taught in French schools.]


ML: Est-ce que vos parents ou grands-parents ou un autre membre de la famille vous ont parlé d’une de ces guerres?


MB: Un peu ma mère mais pas exactement parce que ma mère n’avait pas fait d’études très éloigne. Mais elle m’a un tout petit peu expliqué la deuxième guerre mondiale. Elle m’a expliqué le fait que Hitler voulait tuer tous les juifs parce qu’il disait que cet est une race inférieure et il les mettait dans les camps de concentration pour les exterminer par le gaz et autres. C’est tout ce qu’elle m’a expliqué. Elle m’a aussi expliqué la participation des tirailleurs sénégalais parce que lui, son grand–, son oncle étais aussi un tirailleur sénégalais. Donc elle m’a expliqué son oncle aussi est tirailleurs sénégalais qui étais partis en France pour faire la guerre et après il est retourne à Casamance.

[The information passed from Malick’s mother to Malick seems to have been general knowledge of the war, not personal war memories. In addition to Malick’s inclusion of the plight of the Jews and his familiarity with the brutal history of extermination camps, Beau’s interview will also show traces of how powerful those images were. These were images not called on by any of my American interviewees.]


ML: Quels sont les images et films qui traitent les guerres qui vous ont la plus marquées ?


MB :La deuxième guerre mondiale ? La guerre mondiale ou les guerres en général ?


ML: La deuxième guerre mondiale.


MB : La guerre mondiale… c’est le film d’Ousmane Sembene. Comment il s’appelle ?


ML: Camp Thiaroye ?


MB : Camp Thiaroye ! Voilà ! Le film d’Ousmane Sembene, Camp Thiaroye. Il décrie comment les tirailleurs sénégalais étaient tués après qu’ils demandaient la compensation après avoir aide les Français. Apres, les français leur ont fait un coup tordu et leur ont bombardé tirailleurs. C’est le film qui m’a la plus marquée pour la guerre mondiale.




Yann Kouame, 27 ans, auditeur interne cerifié a Nestle, Dakar, d’Abidjan

Marcelle Levine: Avez-vous étudié la deuxième guerre mondiale et/ou la guerre d’Algérie a l’école?


Yann Kouame: J’ai étudié la guerre mondiale, et la guerre d’Algérie aussi, a l’école, oui.


ML: Qu’est-ce que vous avez appris ?


YK : Ohlala. De la deuxième guerre mondiale ? J’ai appris la construction du mur de Berlin, Hitler, Mousseline, le bloc ouest contre le bloc est. En gros c’était ça, les Etats-Unis ont sauvé le monde. Et comment l’Afrique a sauvé la France.

[Yann’s knowledge of the war seems very thorough and general, however he also learned to some extent that Africans played a large role in the liberation of France, even if this is not the image that the French were intent on proliferating.]


ML: Et la guerre d’Algérie ?


YK : Ohlala. La guerre d’Algérie avec les pieds-noirs. Plus ou moins brève, sans beaucoup de détails j’allais dire.


ML: Et la participation des Africains ?


YK : Des Africains a la guerre mondiale ou la guerre d’Algérie ?


ML: Les deux.


YK : Oh, la guerre d’Algérie, je ne sais pas si les Africains ont participé en masse, mais je sais que la guerre mondiale, les deux guerres mondiale, il y a une participation massive des Africains, notamment des tirailleurs sénégalais qui étaient composés de plusieurs soldats Africains de tout les pays, l’anciens colonies françaises. Mon grand-père a fait la deuxième guerre mondiale.


ML: C’est ma questionne prochaine. Est-ce que vos parents ou grands-parents ou un autre membre de la famille vous ont parlé d’une de ces guerres?


YK : Je n’en ai parlé avec mon grand-père paternel. Je n’ai pas connu, mais mon père a expliqué que mon grand-père avait fait la deuxième guerre mondiale. Paternel. Et mon grand-père maternelle n’a pas fait la guerre, mais a vécu la guerre à partir d’ici, parce qu’il connaît les amis a lui qui ont combattu la guerre.


ML: Ton père, qu’est-ce qu’il vous a dit ?


YK : Mon père m’a raconté que mon grand-père a fait la guerre. Ils ont allé en Europe, ils ont combattu en France, en Italie. C’est seulement des idées vagues. Je n’ai pas des détails, mais  je pourrais dire qu’il m’a expliqué qu’il a combattu.  Sans beaucoup de détails.


ML: Et après la guerre ?


YK : Apre la guerre, il est revenu en Cote d’Ivoire, il a vécu une vie normale.


ML: Quels sont les images et films qui traitent les guerres qui vous ont la plus marquées ?



YK : J’ai d’une image en tête ou de film a parle celle a qui je pense maintenant, la guerre qui ont concerne l’Afrique ou la guerre en général ? Certain film que j’ai vu, il y a longtemps quand j’étais petit qui parle des arabes ou des Français qui partaient combattre en Europe et après qui étaient anciens combattants sont reste en Europe et luttaient pour leur droits. Mais j’ai oublie le titre du film. Mais j’ai vu un film comme ça.


ML: Un film Africain ?


YK : Oui, c’est Africain exactement. En fait, c’est un film Africain qui est tourne entre l’Afrique et l’Europe. J’ai oublie le titre, mais il parle de la vie de soldats Africains qui combattu en Europe, et après la guerre. Mais j’oubliais les détails et le film.


ML:Camp Thiaroye?


YK Voilà, c’est là !



ML: Et la guerre d’Algérie ?


YK : La guerre d’Algérie. Maintenant, j’ai une idée très vague. Je sais que c’était les pied-noirs en Algérie. Les Français   contre l’Algérie presque plus ou moins. Mais, sans les détails particuliers, non. On n’en parle très peu a l’école, connaissances très vagues.



Cecilia Thior, 22 ans, étudiante d’anglais a l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, d’une banlieue de Dakar

Marcelle Levine : Avez-vous étudié la deuxième guerre mondiale et/ou la guerre d’Algérie a l’école?


Cecilia Thior : Oui, bien sûr. On l’a étudié en terminal en deux mille dix.


ML : Qu’est ce que vous avez appris ?



CT: Concernent la guerre mondiale…



ML: Notamment la participation des Africains.


CT : La participation des Africains…bon, on n’a pas trop euh.., on ne s’est pas trop appesanti  sur le participation des Africains.  Juste ce que les Allemagnes ont tout le monde fait dans la guerre.  Pas ce que les Africains,leur participation…non, non.


ML : Est-ce que vos parents ou grands-parents ou un autre membre de la famille vous ont parlé d’une de ces guerres?


CT : Non, non, jamais, jamais. Ce n’est pas de coutume d’en parler, juste regardé un film sur ça.


ML : Quels sont les images et films qui traitent les guerres qui vous ont la plus marquées ?


CT : La guerre du Rwanda, Liberia et tout, ils ont fait des films sur ça, oui ça m’a beaucoup marqué.


ML : Les films de la deuxième guerre mondiale ?


CT : Oui oui oui j’en ai regardé des films de la deuxième guerre mondiale mais bon c’étais affreux ce qu’ils faisaient, c’étais un peu douloureux aussi.


ML : Les films qui traitent de la guerre d’Algérie ?


CT : La Guerre d’Algérie…non, non, je n’en ai pas regardé non, juste étudié à l’école.


ML : Avez-vous un titre de film ?


CT : Un titre de film ?


ML : De deuxième guerre mondiale.


CT : Non, non y’en a pas.




El Amine Beau Ndiaye, 25 ans, étudiant des sciences économiques et de gestion, Dakar, de Dakar

Marcelle Levine : Avez-vous étudié la deuxième guerre mondiale et/ou la guerre d’Algérie a l’école?


Beau Ndiaye : Oui, j’ai étudié la deuxième guerre mondiale et la guerre d’Algérie quand j’étais en première et terminal.


ML : Qu’est-ce que vous avez appris ?


BN : Ohlala. J’ai appris que c’est un peu a cause de la deuxième guerre mondiale que le monde est devenu ce qu’il est. C’est-à-dire que la deuxième guerre mondiale a beaucoup changé le monde. Ça a dessiné les puissances qui dominent le monde aujourd’hui.  Les Etats-Unis sont devenu beaucoup plus fort grâce a la deuxième guerre car la guerre ne s’est pas déroulé là-bas. L’Europe a été affaiblie, beaucoup de choses ont changé avec la naissance d’Israël pour les juifs, et aujourd’hui tous ce que nous voyons dans l’histoire,  c’est un peu à cause de le deuxième guerre mondiale.


ML : Qu’est-ce que vous avez appris de la participation des Africains ?


BN : Les Africains, en ce moment, ils ont été colonisé par les puissances européennes, l’Angleterre et la France. Ceux qui en ont beaucoup plus utilisés sont la France. Ils ont une armée qu’ils avaient appelé les tirailleurs sénégalais qui étaient composés de tous les militaires venus de la zone francophone.  Ils ont beaucoup participé à la deuxième guerre, ils ont beaucoup aidé la France.


ML : Est-ce que vos parents ou grands-parents ou un autre membre de la famille vous ont parlé d’une de ces guerres?


BN : J’ai eu un grand-parent qui a été a cette guerre, mais malheureusement, je n’ai pas eu la chance de le connaître. Il est décédé alors que j’étais encore bébé, alors je n’ai pas eu de récit sur la deuxième guerre mondiale à part mes grands-parents qui vivaient a Dakar et qui ont eu quelques problèmes quand la France a bombardé en Afrique.



ML : Quels sont les images et films qui traitent les guerres qui vous ont la plus marquées ?


BN : Les images de guerre qui m’ont plus marquée…Ce sont les images de camps de concentration. Les camps de concentration, c’étaient vraiment les images horribles avec des personnes qui avaient tellement faim, qu’ils avaient la peau sur les os, c’était vraiment bizarre, ils ont montré des fours et tout, c’était horrible.


ML : Vous avez vu cette image à l’école ?


BN : Non, dans le documentaire, mais pas l’école. Je l’ai vu à la télévision. Pour un film, je dirais Pearl Harbour.


ML : Ce sont tous les films et toutes les images ?


BN : J’aime bien Pearl Harbor, ça retrace une partie de la deuxième guerre au moment que les Etats-Unis sont entrés dans la guerre. Comme autre film aussi, je ne sais pas. Peut-être Soldat Ryan…soldier Ryan, I don’t know how do you call it in English. Tom Hanks.


ML : Oh, Saving Private Ryan.


BN : Saving Private Ryan ! J’aime bien trop ce film. C’était naturel et ça montrait la véritable histoire de la deuxième guerre mondiale.


ML: Pas des films Africains?


BN : Pour les films africains, le seul film que j’ai vu sur ça c’est Camp Thiaroye. Camp Thiaroye, c’est l’histoire de tirailleurs sénégalais qui etaient en armée française. Quand ils sont revenu, ils demandaient de l’argent pour faire vivre les familles. Les français avaient refuse, ils ont fait une grève et les français leurs on tiré dessus. C’était une histoire triste.


ML : Avez-vous vu le film a l’école ?


BN : Non, pas forcément. On n’utilisait pas trop les vidéos. Nos profs d’histoire n’utilisaient pas de vidéos, mais je me suis renseigné par le biais de la télévision, notre chaîne nationale met des films sur ça.


[Following is the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan, which, as Beau says, gives a very realistic, natural, and thus believable image of what the worst of the war possibly looked like. It is a bit different from the Saving Private Ryan trailer featured earlier, in that it is a much less romanticized sampling of the film and more realistic to wartime brutality.]


Djibril Drame, 25 ans, photographe et journaliste indépendant, Dakar, de Dakar

Marcelle Levine : Avez-vous étudié la deuxième guerre mondiale et/ou la guerre d’Algérie a l’école?


DD : Oui, j’étais étudié, mais c’étais en première. C’étais en première, quand j’étais un petit jeune a l’école première.


ML : Pas en terminale ?


DD : Terminale ? Non, je ne l’ai pas étudie en terminale. On l’a étudié, mais de façon très différente. Ce n’étais pas comme en première. En première, c’étais juste les leçons, en terminale, on fait la recherche.


ML : OK. En première, qu’est-ce que vous avez appris de la deuxième guerre mondiale, notamment de la participation des Africains ?


DD : Donc la participation des Africains, on a appris que général De Gaulle avait pris les tirailleurs, des jeunes Sénégalais, aussi des jeunes Africains en général, mais on les a nommés les tirailleurs sénégalais mais il n’était pas seulement les Sénégalais. Il n’était pas seulement composé de Sénégalais. Il y avait des autres Africains, comme les Congolais, etc., etc.

 [As we have seen, several West Africans pointed out to me that the tirailleurs sénégalais were not necessarily Senegalese, perhaps a very important piece of information in their curriculum.]

ML : Est-ce que vos parents ou grands-parents ou un autre membre de la famille vous ont parlé d’une de ces guerres?


DD : No, not really…no.


ML : Quels sont les images et films qui traitent les guerres qui vous ont la plus marquées ?


DD : J’ai bien aime Camp Thiaroye avec Ousmane Sembene. Et aussi Indigènes avec Jamel Debbouze. Je l’aime aussi.



Jeffreys-Jones, R. (1999). Peace Now! American Society and the Ending of the Vietnam War. New Haven: Yale University Press.







A comparative analysis of the role of war veterans in the American Civil Rights movement and the French West African independence movements


In the areas of the American Civil Rights movement and the West African colonies’ struggles for independence, there has been a vast amount written on the role of war veterans, usually treated as a fraction of the larger movements. African historian Fred Cooper (2002) tends to focus on the role played by labour unions, with veterans unions included to some extent. Other scholarship focuses its attention on the wartime experiences of African soldiers in France. Perhaps the most famous historian of African participation in World War II is Myron Echenberg, who aimed his study at illuminating the previously neglected massive participation of Africans in the French military during World War II (1985). In US scholarship, attention is paid largely to troop segregation as part of a larger trend of scholarship on segregation and southern violence during the Civil Rights era. There is currently little attention paid to a cross-comparative analysis of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the nationalist movements in African colonies, especially with special consideration of war veterans’ roles. My aim is thus to explore the similarities and differences between the struggles of African and African American war veterans to gain their political demands after the wars. Despite a few fundamental differences between African war veterans’ struggles for political rights in French West Africa and African American war veterans’ fight for equal civil rights in the US, I argue that their experiences were more similar than different.


Perhaps the most well-documented example, the experience of African Americans in the US military was fundamentally similar to that of African conscripts in the service of the French forces in the racism both groups faced within the military structures, although discrimination in the US and French militaries took on slightly different forms. In his account of the experiences of African soldiers fighting in France during World War II, Echenberg portrays the French army as relatively free from racism, especially in comparison to their German enemies. He later, however, describes De Gaulle’s process of blanchissement, or ‘whitening’ of the French army as the war was ending with France on the side of the victors. African soldiers who had survived the brutal battles and French winters were quickly replaced with newly-graduated French soldiers at the moment of victory, under the pretence that France’s African soldiers were ill-equipped to continue fighting through the winter of 1944; stripped of their weapons and uniforms, many spent the winter suffering in the south of France with little clothing and provisions (Echenberg, 1985, p. 374). Perhaps far from his overt intention, this blanchissement of the military by De Gaulle was racist in two ways. First, De Gaulle’s excuse that Africans were not physically capable of surviving the cold winter reveals his scientific racism, which is especially unfounded considering the winters African soldiers had previously survived in France. Second, the purpose of ‘whitening’ the army at the moment of victory was a political move to downplay France’s dependence on its colonies for military recruits and promote the idea that white Frenchmen had liberated France from German occupation. With this policy, African soldiers who had fought in France for several years were almost instantly robbed of their military pride and their moment of glory, a circumstance that did not go unnoticed by those discarded soldiers.

In a similar vein, although differing slightly in their explicit treatment within the US armed forces, African American soldiers also experienced structural racism. Williams follows the post-World War I careers in political activism of three African American former officers and soldiers. While their education levels and backgrounds differed, they all experienced racist practices within the US military during World War I that shaped their post-war attitudes. Black soldiers in the US army were immediately separated into segregated troops, received sub-par training, and trained and often served under racist white officers from the South. Following training, they overwhelmingly served in labour divisions, digging trenches during World War I (Williams, 2007, p. 350-1). Like their African counterparts, African American soldiers were implicitly slighted by being resigned to that work which the US military judged them the best equipped for: physical labour. In addition, institutionalised segregation mirrored the segregation they experienced in their civilian lives, despite their new positions in the US army as defenders of Woodrow Wilson’s ideals of freedom and equality. Their insufficient training meant that they were largely incapable of proper organisation, resulting in poor, not to mention tragic, combat results. Despite the service they provided their country, they, like the Africans fighting for the French, experienced continued racism once they returned home after periods of war.


The racism felt within the militaries reflected larger racial hypocrisies of French colonial and American societies; these hypocrisies between government-issued rhetoric of racial equality and the daily reality of discrimination were a catalyst for political mobilization of veterans. In the propaganda and rhetoric of the Allies, racism, discrimination, and inequality was explicitly linked to German Nazism and fascism. Despite this linkage, the US and France exhibited discriminatory practices against their respective black citizens and African subjects. In French West Africa, the first groups of soldiers returning home from service in France encountered a very slow process of repatriation. Instead of receiving their back-pay and being released from duty, African servicemen were held at Camp Thiaroye in Dakar, Senegal, and denied their benefits. Citing unfair and discriminatory practices on the part of the authoritarian and hypocritical French military officers, a protest ensued during which French guards opened fire and killed thirty-five African soldiers, injuring many more (Echenberg, 1985, p. 376). African American soldiers experienced similar discrepancies in their military benefits after the major 20th century wars. Following the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, black soldiers, well-known to have represented a disproportionate number of war draftees and an equally disproportionate percentage of those killed in action at the front of the US lines, often did not receive the benefits promised them under the G.I. Bill. By 1973, 25 percent of African American veterans had received their education benefits, compared to the almost 50 percent of white veterans who had received their benefits (Boulton, 2007/2008, p. 57). The uneven treatment of veterans in both the French army and the US forces was perhaps the single biggest impetus towards veterans’ political mobilization after the war.


While not explicitly linked to wartime experiences, new concepts of racial identities were introduced and popularized during the interwar period between World War I and World War II; in French West Africa, the idea of negritude was promoted in a similar light as the concept of the “New Negro” in the US. Following World War I, the idea of the “New Negro” in the US was characterized by a radical racial militancy informed by experiences of black migration, an increasingly global consciousness, and disillusionment from the hypocritical rhetoric from the war. The “New Negro” was fundamentally different from the “Old Negro” in that the “New Negro” was far more militant and radical, rejecting the perceived submissiveness of the older generation of black activist leaders (Williams, 2007, p. 348). While fundamentally different, negritude developed at roughly the same time as the “New Negro” and also drew on the idea of a diasporic consciousness that sought to connect blacks globally. Developed by Senegalese-born, Paris-educated Léopold Sédar Senghor in collaboration with Aimé Césare, negritude rejected the dualism inherent in the colonial system in favour of a cultural homogenization that valued African cultures without denouncing the colonial power (Cooper, 2002, p. 18-9). While both sought to empower blacks following increased exposure to international conditions throughout World War I and during the interwar period, the “New Negro” movement differed from negritude in that it sought rejection of white racist culture, as well as the more accommodating African American groups. People within this movement may have viewed Senghor’s negritude as too accommodating and lenient towards the colonial system, as the “New Negro” took a much more militant stance. Both negritude and the “New Negro” were promoted in their respective locales as part of the rhetoric and attitude of the political struggles of African reformists and African American civil rights proponents.

In pressing for increased equality and political rights, the plights of war veterans in France’s West African colonies and the US were often incorporated by other groups and institutions also demanding political rights; in this way, war veterans often became a sub-group of larger civil rights and independence movements. In outlining Guinea’s different and accelerated path towards independence compared to other former French colonies in West Africa, Schmidt argues that the main political party of Guinea, the local branch of the RDA, owed its successful demand for independence by mobilizing and incorporating groups that were already active in politics. War veterans as a generalized group were among those already demanding equality with metropolitan France, as they benefited from their position as a French colony (Schmidt, 2005, p. 1002). War veterans were one of the groups that were able to use the French idea of universalism to demand equality; in the case of veterans, they demanded equal pay as French veterans and benefited from remaining a colony as long as France was paying their wages, an idea we will return to shortly. The RDA mobilized groups already involved in politics, like war veterans demanding equality, towards the RDA’s political aims of demanding independence when individual groups’ demands for equality went unsatisfied. Moreover, to varying extents, groups such as the RDA were able to use the plights of ex-servicemen as part of their political mobilization efforts. In the former British colony of Ghana, politician Kwame Nkrumah successfully presented himself as a promoter of veterans’ claims and appealed to ex-servicemen to join the Convention People’s Party and fight for independence (Israel, 1992, p. 367).  Political parties and other labour unions thus attracted war veterans to their causes by highlighting and proliferating their unique wartime experiences and emphasizing their continued lack of equality under French rule to spur them to demand independence rather than equality.           

A similar thing occurred in the US, in which larger, pre-existing organizations attracted veterans to their cause, often with African American veterans in leadership roles. In his argument that military service was the biggest indicator of protest and activism for equal civil rights, Parker addresses the importance of “group-based resources” in black mobilization in the South, notably the church and fraternal groups such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These groups provided social support for war veterans, as well as feelings of group identification (Parker, 2009, p. 116). While still arguing that military service was more likely than not to dictate veterans’ level of risk in political activism, group identity within larger organizations played some role in mobilization and provided a wider platform for civil rights demands.

The key difference in this regard between the situation experienced in West Africa and that experienced in the US was that, in the US, there was less dissension over what the war veterans’ political aims were. In general, they joined with larger groups to demand an end to southern violence against blacks and full equality under the law. Except in the case of a few radical groups, such as the Black Panthers, most African American political groups demanded equality, not for a radical alternative to the existing government. In colonized West Africa, however, there was less uniformity in the demands of war veterans and the political institutions they became a part of. As we have seen, along with labour groups dependent on French companies and French government for their pay and benefits, war veterans generally demanded equality as French citizens rather than independence because of their French military pensions, working relationships forged with people in France, and their military discipline. There were groups, however, that did not demand equality under French universalism; one such group of war veterans formed the Mouvement Nationaliste Africain, which was the first group after the war to denounce imperialism and demand outright independence, although very unsuccessfully and without a large following (Chafer, 2002, p. 46). This is the most marked difference between the independence movements in West Africa and the Civil Rights movement in the US: the fundamental issue that African Americans were American citizens and therefore were more uniform in their demands, while Africans experienced a greater range of opinions, from those who benefited from French colonialism and sought reforms to those more radical elements who fought for immediate independence.


While pertaining to the broader struggles for civil rights, equality and independence, which included war veterans and other diverse participants, both African Americans and African colonial subjects utilized similar strategies to fight for their causes. Forms of activism on both sides of the Atlantic took on varying forms, including public protests, such as marches, and more low-risk forms, such as the publication of newspapers. Returning to the example of the former British colony that became independent Ghana, veterans in the Ex-serviceman’s Union organized a march to Christiansborg Castle in Accra in order to present a petition for reform to the Governor (Israel, 1992, p. 363). Coupled with a boycott of British businesses and swelled support from the public in Accra and surrounding cities, the ex-servicemen in Ghana utilized high-risk activism (a public march that risked a violent reaction, and resulted in such) to their advantage. Similarly, American war veterans, such as World War II ex-serviceman Hosea Williams was an organizer and leader in the famed march from Selma to Montgomery, a march believed to have had a massive effect on black voting rights under President Lyndon Johnson (Parker, 2009, p. 113).

Considered less of a high-risk form of activism, but equally as important, the publication of newspapers for a specific audience was a strategy used by war veterans in both the US and West Africa. The Mouvement Nationaliste Africain, while not successful in realizing their demands for independence immediately after World War II, did continue to publish their monthly journal, La Communauté, for several years before ending publication (Chafer, 2002, p. 77). In the US, World War I saw an explosion of black press outlets, with newspapers such as The Messenger joining older publications such as The Crisis, which additionally turned to more radical and militant overtones. Through these newspapers, black veterans were able to publicize and gain wider support for their experiences of racism during the war (Williams, 2007, p. 351). The use of newspapers as a way to proliferate the racial experiences of former servicemen and to emphasize their political demands for equality and/or independence was vital in both former West African colonies and the US.


One final consideration in the comparison between the civil rights struggle in the US and the equality and independence movements in colonized West Africa is the consistent role of international institutions and the global audience in aiding the struggles of war veterans and their broader activist groups against discrimination and inequality. Aiding the African American fight for equal civil rights in the US was aided largely by the propaganda circulated internationally in the Cold War ideological struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. In order to combat Soviet propaganda highlighting American hypocrisy of racism and inequality following two world wars fought on the basis of anti-imperialism and anti-discrimination, US politicians, including conservative presidents like Eisenhower, were obliged to concede to elements of the Civil Rights movement and publicized these concessions world-wide, such as the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in state education systems (Skrentny, 1998, p. 252). In the French West African colonies, the negative global attention attracted by incidents like the massacre at Camp Thiaroye prompted the French colonial administration to concede to some of the reformist political demands of veteran groups and other political activists in order to avoid similar incidents and more negative international attention. Following the protest and massacre at Thiaroye, returning African soldiers were quickly paid and returned to their points of origin, and other union groups took notice and were able to achieve more of their demanded reforms based on the colonial administration’s fear of more violence and bad press (Chafer, 2002, p. 46). While not specific to war veterans’ cause, the influence of international opinion can be considered one of the lasting effects of the world wars, and, as in the case of Camp Thiaroye, it was African veterans who set the precedent of being able to utilize imperialists’ fear of global opinion to achieve their aims.


In a comparison of the role of war veterans in the US Civil Rights movement and the independence and reformist movements in French West African colonies, there are far more ideological similarities than differences. Though fundamentally different in that Africans were colonial subjects whereas African Americans had already gained citizenship, the issues of racism, inequality, and discrimination were alike in both regions of the world at roughly the same time. The principles promoted during World War I and reinforced during World War II against racism and imperialism marked a similar development in blacks’ fight for equal rights and self-determination in both the US and Africa. A larger study might even reveal a similar trajectory in other places touched by imperialism. Far from isolated events in the US and Africa, the study of the use of wartime experiences, especially ideologies like racism, requires far more attention and will continue to demand cross-comparative analyses.





Boulton, M. (2007/2008). How the G.I. Bill Failed African-American Vietnam War Veterans. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 58, pp. 57-60.


Chafer, T. (2002). The End of Empire in French West Africa: France’s Successful Decolonization? Oxford: Berg.


Cooper, F. (2002). Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Echenberg, M. (1985). ‘Morts Pour la France’ : The African Soldier in France during the Second World War. The Journal of African History 26 (4), pp. 363-380.


Israel, A. (1992). Ex-servicemen at the Crossroads : Protest and Politics in Post-War Ghana. The Journal of Modern African Studies 30 (2), pp. 359-368.


Parker, C. (2009). When Politics Becomes Protest: Black Veterans and Political Activism in the Postwar South. The Journal of Politics 71 (1), pp. 113-131.


Schmidt, E. (2005). Top Down or Bottom Up? Nationalist Mobilization Reconsidered, with Special Reference to Guinea (French West Africa). The American Historical Review 110 (4), pp. 975-1014.


Skrentny, J.D. (1998). The Effect of the Cold War on African-American Civil Rights : America and the World Audience, 1945-1968. Theory and Society 27 (2), pp. 237-285.


Williams, C. (2007). Vanguards of the New Negro : African American Veterans and Post-World War I Racial Militancy. The Journal of African American History 92 (3), pp. 347-370.

Cake and Conference

Dear Everybody,

Welcome.  This is a very first blog post on the AOH website and it has been written for two reasons.  Numero uno: I think that there are far too many ‘pages’ and not enough ‘posts’ on this here website at the moment and this intends to redress (by a very small amount) the balance somewhat.  (Make the most of all the tools available.  Add strings to bows and all that CV kind of thing.)  Segundo: what I’m going to say has been gestating over the course of today and I don’t think there’s enough stuff there for a page all to itself, and besides I was warned that what I had already written might have to be redone.

By an almost complete coincidence, I arrived home earlier today to discover that my housemates had been busy baking a cake, which is exactly what I was going to talk about here: cake and its power to facilitate interactions with people.

The original idea for a discussion about cake came to us at yesterday’s conference, where the AOH website was unveiled for the very first time to actual, other people to see what they might think.  Overall, it seemed to go down very well, and talk afterwards turned to individual experiences of trying to interview people.  Two main situations emerged where the interviews proved difficult and it was discovered that on both occasions cake could make everything go that bit more smoothly.

  • Situation 1: When trying to interview members of the general public it was often the case that they would appear reticent to offer you so much as the time of day.
  • Situation 2: When talking about memories and recollections, sometimes of a particularly harrowing time in the past, the interviewee would break down in tears.

Now, before revealing the answers we came up with, how do you think cake could help?

While you think about that, here’s a picture of some cake cut-offs (because I was too late to take a picture of the actual cake) to give you an idea of the kind of thing we’re talking about:

2013-05-23 20.12.00

So, what d’you reckon?  Well, here’s what we decided upon:

When going around hopefully trying to interview people cake could be that little something extra that makes the people you are meeting just that little bit more interested in what you have to say.  The words “excuse me, but would you mind answering a few questions?” don’t sound nearly as appealing as “excuse me, I have cake, would you mind answering a few questions?”

When the tears well up from inside the interviewee, cake (accompanied by comforting words and empathy of course) can go an awful long way to making that person feel better and able to continue with the interview.  It’s much better than ploughing on regardless and often a bit better than the words of comfort on their own.  Cake also gives you something else to talk about for a few minutes: “Oh, this is an awfully nice cake, what type is it?” for example.

And talking about types of cake, there are so so many possibilities that you are limited only by your spirit of adventure and your baking ability.  I think we agreed that lemon cake was considered quite a good version to have, but chocolate cake could also be a good idea considering that chocolate on its own has a tendency to melt in warmer climates.

To summarise: Cake – a useful and versatile tool in any would-be oral historian’s arsenal.

Thanks for your attention!  RC

(And thanks to H Finch-Boyer and K Suggitt for (unwittingly) playing the part of inspirational muses for this post)