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 Their Only Crime: African American WWI Poet James Seamon Cotter, Jr.
 by Connie Ruzich

 CotterJrAfrican American WWI soldier posing in Front of mockup of American flag. Courtesy Stars and Stripes.

Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being with whom relations of business or service only are possible.  The black is constantly being censured for his want of intelligence and discretion, his lack of civic and professional conscience and for his tendency toward undue familiarity. The vices of the Negro are a constant menace to the American who has to repress them sternly.”

—“Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops,” sent August 7, 1918 from Colonel J.L.A. Linard with the A.E.F. to the French Army. Later published by W.E.B.  DuBois in the Crisis, May 1919, pp. 16-18.

Cotter2Portrait of James Seaman Cotter, Jr. 

Over 350,000 black Americans were inducted into the American Army during the First World War, but units were strictly segregated by race, and black soldiers were assigned to hard labor and low status jobs (such as the grave digging, exhumation, and reburial work of the war). Few black units saw combat; an exception were the units who were assigned to the French military, where they fought with bravery and distinction. In the American Army of the First World War, racism was not only accepted, but often enforced. 

cotter5James Seamon Cotter, Jr. has been described as a “forerunner of the African American cultural renaissance of the 1920s,”* and the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance notes that his poetry and one-act play On the Fields of France  provide an important contribution to First World War literature.  Cotter’s poem “O Little David, Play on Your Harp” uses a well-known African-American spiritual to frame the oppression and misery of war, genocide, and racism.  You can listen here to a 1919 recording of the song performed by Lt. Noble Sissle and Lt. James Reese Europe of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters.

O, Little David, Play on Your Harp

O, Little David, play on your harp,
That ivory harp with the golden strings
And sing as you did in Jewry Land,
Of the Prince of Peace and the God of Love
And the coming Christ Immanuel.

O, Little David, play on your harp.

                                                                     A seething world is gone stark mad;

                                                                     And is drunk with the blood,

                                                                     Gorged with the flesh,

                                                                     Blinded with the ashes

                                                                     Of her millions of dead.

                                                                     From out it all and over all

Image below courtesy of Crisis, June 1918cotter6There stands, years old and fully grown,

A monster in the guise of man.

He is of war and not of war;

Born in peace,

Nurtured in arrogant pride and greed,

World-creature is he and native to no land.

And war itself is merciful

When measured by his deeds.

Beneath the Crescent

cotter7Lie a people maimed;

Their only sin—

That they worship God.

On Russia’s steppes

Is a race in tears;

Their one offense—

That they would be themselves.

On Flanders’ plains

Is a nation raped;

A bleeding gift

                                                                     Of “Kultur’s” conquering creed.

                                                                     And in every land

                                                                     Are black folk scourged;

cotter4Their only crime—

That they dare be men.

O, Little David, play on your harp,
That ivory harp with the golden strings
And psalm anew your songs of Peace,
Of the soothing calm of a Brotherly Love,
And the saving grace of a Mighty God.
O, Little David, play on your harp.

            —Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr.

The celebratory refrain of the Negro spiritual contrasts sharply with a “seething world” that has “gone stark mad.”** Spiraling out of control, the world at war is drunk on blood, sated by the decaying bodies of the dead, and blinded by the ashes of destruction. 

Yet bigger than the war and more terrible than even its slaughter, a monster “of war and not of war” towers over all. This fiend, born in peace, raised by pride, and fed by greed, is a citizen of every nation, and he wears a human disguise. In the Ottoman Empire (“beneath the Crescent”), he has directed the massacre of the Armenians; in Russia’s pogroms; he has murdered thousands of Jews; and he has brutally commanded German atrocities in occupied Belgium. Cotter’s poem unites these victims of deadly prejudice with blacks who are whipped and beaten “in every land”; their only crime is daring to believe themselves fully human. 

Many black Americans hoped the war that was to “make the world safe for democracy” would also address the racism that was prevalent in America. In “O Little David,” Cotter challenges his audience to acknowledge that the enemy within, the “monster in the guise of man,” is as terrible a foe as any to be encountered on the battlefields of Europe. ***


*James Robert Payne, “Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr., The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford, 2001, p. 90.

**The subject of the song, however, is relevant to the poem’s message. David’s harp playing was commanded by King Saul, who employed the boy to soothe his mad rages (I Samuel 16), and the young shepherd shocked Israel’s army with his courage and skill in fighting the colossal Goliath (I Samuel 17). 

*** Posters not credited appear to exist in public domain.


Author's bio

Ruzich Fulbright PhotoConnie Ruzich is a University Professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has published on aspects of language, culture, and identity, and has lived and taught in the U.S., Italy, and the United Kingdom. Ruzich was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the use of poetry in British centenary commemorations of the First World War. Her blog, Behind Their Lines, shares lesser-known poetry of the First World War, providing discussion and research on international lost voices, poems written by those on the home front, and poetry that has been neglected in modern anthologies. Her research can also be followed through her twitter feed (@wherrypilgrim).