Sunday, September 17, 2017

I Sit and Sew

Detail of WWI recruiting poster

Referring to your memorandum of February 12th, relative to the appointment and training of colored nurses for colored soldiers, at the present time colored nurses are not being accepted for service in the Army Nurse Corps, as there are no separate quarters available for them and it is not deemed advisable to assign white and colored nurses to the same posts.
            W.C. Gorgas, Surgeon General, U.S. Army, Feb. 14, 1918*

As America mobilized for war in 1917, political rallies, recruiting events, posters, and news editorials reminded them of why they were joining the bloodiest conflict the world had yet known: they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy.  But an editorial appearing in the New York Tribune voiced the concerns of many Americans and challenged that premise:
Democracy implies equality of privilege and equal obligation of service.  If we fight for this for the world in general we ought to be prepared to practice it among ourselves.  At present we mingle democracy with discriminations.  All the elements of our citizenship do not stand on the same level.**

Crisis, March 1918
The editorial denounced the inequities and harsh treatment that black soldiers were regularly experiencing, but it failed to mention that black women who attempted to assist in the war effort were also the victims of prejudice. Hired for factory work at salaries considerably below those paid to white women performing the same jobs, black women were also frequently barred from volunteering as canteen and aid workers. Perhaps most concerning was the treatment of black nurses. Emmett J. Scott, Special Advisor of Black Affairs to the Secretary of War, sent a memo denouncing the War Department’s discriminatory policies:
 It is difficult for me to understand why some colored nurses have not been given an opportunity to serve. This vexing question is being put to me almost daily by colored newspaper editors, colored physicians, surgeons, etc., who are constantly bombarding my sector of the War Department, inquiring what has been done, and urging that something should be done in the direction of utilizing professional trained and efficient colored nurses.***

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a poet, playwright, journalist, and political activist. During the war, she was the only black woman to serve on the Women’s Committee of the Council of Defense (organizing women’s groups and supporting women’s war efforts), and she was active in the Circle of Negro War Relief, establishing a local chapter to provide assistance to black soldiers and their families.†  

 In 1918, her war poem “I Sit and Sew” was published in the A.M.E. Church Review.

I Sit and Sew

I sit and sew – a useless task it seems,
Alice Dunbar-Nelson
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams –
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath –
But – I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew –  my heart aches with desire 
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe 
But  – I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?
            —Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Stifled, despairing, yet dreaming, a woman occupies her hands with a mundane domestic task while her heart and mind yearn to leave for the battlefields.  She is not naïve in imagining a glorious war. This woman knows of the “wasted fields” on which lie “writhing grotesque things/ Once men.” It is in fact because of these men who are “Pitifully calling me” that she longs to travel to “that holocaust of hell,” to assist the wounded where they “lie in sodden mud and rain.” But—as is repeated three times in the poem—she is condemned to wait, to sit, to sew.

Crisis, August 1918
In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson’s lengthy essay “Negro Women in War Work” appeared in Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War.††  Her essay describes how “Into this maelstrom of war activity the women of the Negro race hurled themselves joyously. They asked no odds, remembered no grudges, solicited no favors, pleaded for no privileges. They came by the thousands, hands opened wide to give of love and service and patriotism” (375).

And yet as Dunbar-Nelson acknowledges, “The problem of the woman of the Negro race was a peculiar one….There were separate regiments for Negro soldiers; should there be separate organizations for relief work among Negro women? If she joined relief organizations, such as the Red Cross Society, and worked with them, would she be assured that her handiwork would reach black hands on the other side of the world, or should she be great-hearted and give her service, simply for the sake of giving, not caring who was to be benefited?” (376).

Dunbar-Nelson’s essay asserts that black women “did all that could be done—all that they were allowed to do” (377), but they were blocked from fully supporting their troops.  Like Emmett J. Scott, she found the order excluding black nurses from overseas service deeply troubling: “Colored women since the inception of the war had felt keenly their exclusion from overseas service. The need for them was acute; their willingness to go was complete; the only thing that was wanted was authoritative sanction” (378).

The African American community feared that without black nurses, black soldiers would receive inadequate medical care. Social codes forbidding intimacies between the races were likely to prevent white women from nursing black soldiers, and segregated hospital facilities were likely to offer substandard medical care. The concerns were real: during the war, black soldiers died at a disproportionately higher rates due to poorly staffed, segregated hospitals.†††

The poem “I Sit and Sew” testifies to the complex intersections of gender and race in America.  In the conclusion to her essay “Negro Women and War Work,” Dunbar-Nelson praises black women for not only their war service, but their persistent hope in the face of discrimination:
She shut her eyes to past wrongs and present discomforts and future uncertainties. She stood large-hearted, strong-handed, clear-minded, splendidly capable, and did, not her bit, but her best, and the world is better for her work and her worth (397).
Crisis, May 1919

*Emmett J. Scott, Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, Homewood Press, 1919, p. 448. 
**“Race Prejudice and the War.” New York Tribune, Sunday, 18 Nov. 1917, p. 2.
***Scott, Official History, p. 451.  The memo was sent by Emmet J. Scott to Dean F.P. Keppel, Office of the Secretary of War, dated 28 Feb 1918. 
†Sandra L. West, “Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (Alice Ruth Moore), ” p. 93.  Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Infobase, 2003.
††Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Negro Women in War Work,” pp. 374-397. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, edited Emmett J. Scott, Homewood Press, 1919.
†††Emmett J. Scott, “Did the Negro Soldier Get a Square Deal?” pp. 429-430. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, edited Emmett J. Scott, Homewood Press, 1919.


  1. This entry is my favorite yet.

  2. Thanks, Katie -- this was a heart-breaker to research and write, and I'm still not sure I did the subject matter justice.