'Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?'

Coming up Friday at 11 a.m.

A man smiles and poses next to his book
Minnesota native and Dartmouth College history professor Matthew Delmont’s new book, “Half American,” paints a painful portrait of life for Black service members in World War II, who fought fascism abroad even as they fought racism at home.
Courtesy photos

In January 1942, a young Black man from Kansas wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s largest Black newspaper at the time. He poignantly asked the questions that many Black men also asked while serving in a segregated military during World War II.

“Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” wrote James G. Thompson. “Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow? Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life? Is the kind of America I know worth defending?”

That letter echoed in the mind of historian Matthew Delmont. The title of his new book, “Half American” was inspired by Thompson’s letter. In it, he painfully recounts what Black service members of the day faced as they fought in a segregated military.

During World War II, Black Americans were inspired by the idea of a double victory — to defeat not only the fascism abroad, but also racism at home. But the idea of equality was dismissed by many in leadership, who saw the cry as radical and even seditious.

Friday, on Big Books and Bold Ideas, host Kerri Miller spoke with Delmont about how Black men and women fought for that double victory, why Black Americans saw World War II coming before white Americans did, and how what we acknowledge — or ignore — in history shapes our world today.

Guest:

  • Matthew Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College and an expert on African American history and the history of civil rights. His new book is “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.”

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above. 

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