October 19, 2012 by Lydia Syson
‘There are loads of histories that deserve remembering’ wrote Catherine Johnson this week on The History Girls blogspot, on the subject of Black History Month. What better time to remember a few more? Until I started work on A World Between Us, I had no idea of the roles played by black volunteers and conscripts in the Spanish Civil War – volunteers on the Republican side, Moroccan conscripts fighting for Franco. Histories within histories. This will be the first of a few posts on the subject.
‘Spain was the first place that I ever felt like a free man,’ said one African-American volunteer in the International Brigades, Tom Page. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the first army in which black and white American soldiers had ever fought side by side. Why did African-Americans join the struggle in Spain? Read this moving letter written from the International Brigade HQ (see AWBU, p49-53) by Jamaican-born Canute Frankson, from Pennsylvania, who became Head Mechanic at the International Garage.
Albacete, Spain , July 6, 1937
My Dear Friend:
I’m sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here. Since this is a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every kind of insult and abuse upon us, segregated and jim-crowed us; why I, a Negro who have fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today?
Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we’ll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler’s Fascist heels.
All we have to do is to think of the lynching of our people. We can but look back at the pages of American history stained with the blood of Negroes; stink with the burning bodies of our people hanging from trees; bitter with the groans of our tortured loved ones from whose living bodies ears, fingers, toes have been cut for souvenirs—living bodies into which red-hot pokers have been thrust. All because of a hate created in the minds of men and women by their masters who keep us all under their heels while they suck our blood, while they live in their bed of ease by exploiting us.
But these people who howl like hungry wolves for our blood, must we hate them? Must we keep the flame which these masters kindled constantly fed? Are these men and women responsible for the programs of their masters, and the conditions which force them to such degraded depths? I think not. They are tools in the hands of unscrupulous masters. These same people are as hungry as we are. They live in dives and wear rags the same as we do. They, too, are robbed by the masters, and their faces kept down in the filth of a decayed system. They are our fellowmen. Soon, and very soon, they and we will understand. Soon, many Angelo Herndons will rise from among them, and from among us, and will lead us both against those who live by the stench of our burnt flesh. We will crush them. We will build us a new society–a society of peace and plenty. There will be no color line, no jim-crow trains, no lynching. That is why, my dear, I’m here in Spain.
More American Volunteers’ Letters from Spain can be found among Cary Nelson’s excellent Spanish Civil War pages at Modern American Poetry.
Coming soon here…Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes and the Army of Africa.
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