Trump’s offshore oil drilling push: Five essential reads

File 20170427 15097 i9v720
Shell’s drilling rig destined for waters off Alaska met with problems in the Arctic and protesters in Seattle.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Martin LaMonica, The Conversation

This article is based on a collection of archival stories. The Conversation

When it comes to energy, perhaps the only thing President Trump loves more than coal is oil and gas. Just a day shy of 100 days into his presidency, Trump is expected on April 28 to sign an executive order to open more offshore oil drilling in U.S. waters.

The move is meant to spur the economy and reverse President Obama’s decision last December to ban drilling from large swaths of sensitive marine environments. Regardless of whether Trump succeeds in overturning Obama’s protections, it’s clear oil won’t be flowing from new offshore wells anytime soon. Why is that? And will Americans even support this promised offshore boom? Our academic experts offer some answers.

Legally protected?

Obama used an obscure provision of a 1953 law to “indefinitely” protect 120 million acres of marine environments in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. Environmental law professor Patrick Parenteau from the University of Vermont explains the legal justification for the ban and why Congress is a critical player in Trump’s plans to open up drilling.

The law “does not provide any authority for presidents to revoke actions by their predecessors. It delegates authority to presidents to withdraw land unconditionally. Once they take this step, only Congress can undo it,” Parenteau writes.

Lessons from Shell’s misadventures

Meanwhile, are oil and gas companies clamoring to get into the Arctic and other offshore sites? Two years ago, Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of the waters off Alaska, citing disappointing results from its exploratory well. It also ran into serious troubles, requiring help from the U.S. Coast Guard, after its offshore drilling rig broke loose and ran ashore. Despite all the technical challenges, though, oil majors have been eyeing the Arctic for decades – and facing opposition to their plans, writes historian Brian Black from Penn State.

“A dramatic emphasis on Arctic drilling reopens debate on the pros and cons of development, arguments that have remained largely unchanged since interest commenced in the 1960s. These include the challenges of technology and climate; impacts on wildlife and native peoples living in the region; and strong resistance from environmental organizations,” Black says.

When it comes to safety, Shell’s about-face in the Arctic was instructive, says Robert Bea, an expert on assessing and managing risk from the University of California, Berkeley. While guidelines for offshore drilling have been updated following the Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of Interior guidelines do not follow the best available safety processes, Bea says.

“Reliance is being placed on the Department of Interior best practices of experienced-based, ‘piece by piece’ prescriptive guidelines and regulations. These have not been proved or demonstrated to be adequate for the unique drilling systems, operations and environment involved in Shell’s operations in the Chukchi Sea this summer,” he wrote in reviewing Shell’s troubles.

Public opinion?

Even with these safety concerns and relatively low oil prices, the industry is moving ahead in the Arctic, in part because of fracking, the drilling technique that revolutionized the energy industry onshore, from Pennsylvania to North Dakota.

“Although it has gone largely unnoticed outside the industry, foreign firms are partnering with American companies to pursue these new possibilities. I expect this new wave of Arctic development will help increase U.S. oil production and influence in world oil markets for at least the next several decades,” Scott Montgomery from the University of Washington wrote recently.

Meanwhile, how does the U.S. public feel about offshore drilling overall? Certainly, few consumers will complain about cheaper gasoline – one of the justifications for boosting oil production. But support for offshore drilling dipped substantially after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, according to an analysis of public polling by David Konisky from Indiana University.

“The fluctuating nature of recent public opinion suggests sensitivity to external factors such as accidents, oil prices, and Middle East politics. But more broadly, one can reasonably interpret the U.S. public as divided on how to achieve the right balance between energy development and environmental protection,” he wrote.

Martin LaMonica, Deputy Editor, Environment & Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Anumeric’ people: What happens when a language has no words for numbers?

File 20170422 25594 1jzbe25
A Pirahã family.
Caleb Everett, CC BY-SA

Caleb Everett, University of Miami

Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.” The Conversation

In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem.

But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.

Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.

Numberless cultures

Cultures without numbers, or with only one or two precise numbers, include the Munduruku and Pirahã in Amazonia. Researchers have also studied some adults in Nicaragua who were never taught number words.

Without numbers, healthy human adults struggle to precisely differentiate and recall quantities as low as four. In one experiment, a researcher will place nuts into a can one at a time, then remove them one by one. The person watching is asked to signal when all the nuts have been removed. Responses suggest that anumeric people have some trouble keeping track of how many nuts remain in the can, even if only there are only four or five in total.

This and many other experiments have converged upon a simple conclusion: When people do not have number words, they struggle to make quantitative distinctions that probably seem natural to someone like you or me. While only a small portion of the world’s languages are anumeric or nearly anumeric, they demonstrate that number words are not a human universal.

It is worth stressing that these anumeric people are cognitively normal, well-adapted to the environs they have dominated for centuries. As the child of missionaries, I spent some of my youth living with anumeric indigenous people, the aforementioned Pirahã who live along the sinuous banks of the black Maici River. Like other outsiders, I was continually impressed by their superior understanding of the riverine ecology we shared.

Yet numberless people struggle with tasks that require precise discrimination between quantities. Perhaps this should be unsurprising. After all, without counting, how can someone tell whether there are, say, seven or eight coconuts in a tree? Such seemingly straightforward distinctions become blurry through numberless eyes.

Children and animals

This conclusion is echoed by work with anumeric children in industrialized societies.

Prior to being spoon-fed number words, children can only approximately discriminate quantities beyond three. We must be handed the cognitive tools of numbers before we can consistently and easily recognize higher quantities.

In fact, acquiring the exact meaning of number words is a painstaking process that takes children years. Initially, kids learn numbers much like they learn letters. They recognize that numbers are organized sequentially, but have little awareness of what each individual number means. With time, they start to understand that a given number represents a quantity greater by one than the preceding number. This “successor principle” is part of the foundation of our numerical cognition, but requires extensive practice to understand.

None of us, then, is really a “numbers person.” We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.

Number words and written numerals transform our quantitative reasoning as they are coaxed into our cognitive experience by our parents, peers and school teachers. The process seems so normal that we sometimes think of it as a natural part of growing up, but it is not. Human brains come equipped with certain quantitative instincts that are refined with age, but these instincts are very limited. For instance, even at birth we are capable of distinguishing between two markedly different quantities – for instance, eight from 16 things.

Alex, an African gray parrot, was trained by ethologist Irene Pepperberg to count objects.
AP Photo/File

But we are not the only species capable of such abstractions. Compared to chimps and other primates, our numerical instincts are not as remarkable as many presume. We even share some basic instinctual quantitative reasoning with distant nonmammalian relatives like birds. Indeed, work with some other species, including parrots, suggests they too can refine their quantitative thought if they are introduced to the cognitive power tools we call numbers.

The birth of numbers

So, how did we ever invent “unnatural” numbers in the first place?

The answer is, literally, at your fingertips. The bulk of the world’s languages use base-10, base-20 or base-5 number systems. That is, these smaller numbers are the basis of larger numbers. English is a base-10 or decimal language, as evidenced by words like 14 (“four” + “10”) and 31 (“three” x “10” + “one”).

We speak a decimal language because an ancestral tongue, proto-Indo-European, was decimally based. Proto-Indo-European was decimally oriented because, as in so many cultures, our linguistic ancestors’ hands served as the gateway to realizations like “five fingers on this hand is the same as five fingers on that hand.” Such transient thoughts were manifested into words and passed down across generations. This is why the word “five” in many languages is derived from the word for “hand.”

Most number systems, then, are the by-product of two key factors: the human capacity for language and our propensity for focusing on our hands and fingers. This manual fixation – an indirect by-product of walking upright on two legs – has helped yield numbers in most cultures, but not all.

Cultures without numbers also offer insight into the cognitive influence of particular numeric traditions. Consider what time it is. Your day is ruled by minutes and seconds, but these entities are not real in any physical sense and are nonexistent to numberless people. Minutes and seconds are the verbal and written vestiges of an uncommon base-60 number system used in Mesopotamia millennia ago. They reside in our minds, numerical artifacts that not all humans inherit conceptually.

Research on the language of numbers shows, more and more, that one of our species’ key characteristics is tremendous linguistic and cognitive diversity. While there are undoubtedly cognitive commonalities across all human populations, our radically varied cultures foster profoundly different cognitive experiences. If we are to truly understand how much our cognitive lives differ cross-culturally, we must continually sound the depths of our species’ linguistic diversity.

Caleb Everett, Andrew Carnegie Fellow, Professor of Anthropology, University of Miami

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is the US immigration court system broken?

A man has his fingerprints scanned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others wait their turn. Reuters/Jeff Topping
A man has his fingerprints scanned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others wait their turn. Reuters/Jeff Topping

Is the US immigration court system broken?

Lindsay M. Harris, University of the District of Columbia

In the U.S. today, a single immigration case takes an average of 677 days simply to get to the initial scheduling hearing. The Conversation

There are more than half a million cases in the system, and just over 300 judges working on them. The Trump administration’s push to aggressively enforce immigration laws will make this backlog worse.

Since 2002, funding for immigration enforcement has more than quadrupled, from US$4.5 billion to $20.1 billion in 2016. During the same time period, resources for immigration courts have increased by much less – 74 percent.

President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal 2018 and request for supplemental funds for fiscal 2017 indicate he will continue this trend of funding immigration enforcement but not adequately funding immigration courts.

His budget requests would add to the more than $40 billion that the Department of Homeland Security will receive this year. It would include $4.1 billion to start building a border wall and $2.65 billion to increase the number of immigration detention beds. In comparison, the fiscal 2018 budget requests $80 million to add 75 new immigration judges.

As a law professor, I have devoted my career to representing asylum seekers and studying our nation’s immigration courts. I witness the daily effects of the immigration court backlog on the lives of immigrants.

Backlogged immigration courts

The U.S. has 57 immigration courts nationwide. The judges in these courts preside over cases in which an individual is in the U.S. and the U.S. government alleges that they may be removable. This includes immigrants who have recently arrived and are seeking asylum protection, lawful permanent residents rendered potentially removable due to a criminal conviction and undocumented immigrants who may be allowed to stay in the U.S.

An asylum seeker outside immigration court with his lawyer in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
An asylum seeker outside immigration court with his lawyer in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In 2015, the TRAC Immigration Project out of Syracuse University estimated that full resolution of cases in the backlog would take from 2 to 6 ½ years. Asylum applicants who are seeking U.S. protection from persecution in their home countries may wait five or more years simply for an interview to assess their claim.

The backlog has arisen largely because of an increase in the number of Central American women and children seeking asylum. Many families without authorization are sent to detention centers to be held while they undergo expedited removal.

The expedited removal process was created to bypass the immigration court system and allow for the swift removal of undocumented immigrants. However, if those immigrants say they’re afraid to return home, the Department of Homeland Security must give them a “credible fear interview” to determine if they are eligible for asylum. These individuals can then take their cases to immigration court.

Asylum officers are sent to detention centers to conduct credible fear interviews. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of families interviewed are granted the right to present their case in immigration court.

Asking asylum seekers to present their cases before both asylum officers and judges is repetitive and time consuming. It would be more efficient to either allow asylum officers to grant asylum after a credible fear interview when they see a strong case, or simply bypass this step and allow all asylum seekers to present their cases in court.

As of February 2017, there were only 527 asylum officers working in the nation’s eight asylum offices, even though the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has authorized hiring as many as 625. The nonprofit Human Rights First estimates that 272 of those officers are needed just to conduct credible fear interviews.

Effects of the backlog

As I have detailed in my work, delays in processing immigrants cause hardships for asylum seekers.

While an asylum seeker is awaiting a decision in their case, they often face financial instability, difficulty finding employment and prolonged separation from immediate family members. Years of delay also make it more difficult for immigrants to find pro bono legal representation.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has cited the “historic backlogs” in immigration courts to justify increasing expedited removals.

There’s evidence that such expedited removals circumvent due process for asylum seekers. In some cases, U.S. border officials have even failed to properly implement safeguards to protect asylum seekers from being returned to harm or death. Recently, the U.S. government did not attend a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding Customs and Border Patrol illegally turning asylum seekers away from our southern border.

The nonprofit Human Rights First estimates that the U.S. needs at least 524 judges working to address the immigration court backlog, in addition to more law clerks and administrative support.

More asylum officers are also needed. Human Rights First estimates that with 800 asylum officers on the job, we could get rid of the backlog by 2022.

Solving the problem of our nation’s backlogged immigration courts should be a priority for any administration to ensure that the system functions in a timely and efficient manner.

Lindsay M. Harris, Assistant Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kindergartners get little time to play. Why does it matter?

Image 20160425 22352 1n7h3a2
Has play gone out of kindergarten?
Navy Hale Keiki School, CC BY

Christopher Brown, University of Texas at Austin

Being a kindergartner today is very different from being a kindergartner 20 years ago. In fact it is more like first grade. The Conversation

Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.

As a former kindergarten teacher, a father of three girls who’ve recently gone through kindergarten, and as researcher and teacher-educator in early childhood education, I have had kindergarten as a part of my adult life for almost 20 years.

As a parent, I have seen how student-led projects, sensory tables (that include sand or water) and dramatic play areas have been replaced with teacher-led instructional time, writing centers and sight words lists that children need to memorize. And as a researcher, I found, along with my colleague Yi Chin Lan, that early childhood teachers expect children to have academic knowledge, social skills and the ability to control themselves when they enter kindergarten.

So, why does this matter?

All work, and almost no play

First, let’s look at what kindergarten looks like today.

As part of my ongoing research, I have been conducting interviews with a range of kindergarten stakeholders – children, teachers, parents – about what they think kindergarten is and what it should be. During the interviews, I share a 23-minute film that I made last spring about a typical day in a public school kindergarten classroom.

Learning for tests?
MJGDSLibrary, CC BY-NC-ND

The classroom I filmed had 22 kindergartners and one teacher. They were together for almost the entire school day. During that time, they engaged in about 15 different academic activities, which included decoding word drills, practicing sight words, reading to themselves and then to a buddy, counting up to 100 by 1’s, 5’s and 10’s, practicing simple addition, counting money, completing science activities about living things and writing in journals on multiple occasions. Recess did not occur until last hour of the day, and that too for about 15 minutes.

For children between the ages of five and six, this is tremendous amount of work. Teachers too are under pressure to cover the material.

When I asked the teacher, who I interviewed for the short film, why she covered so much material in a few hours, she stated,

There’s pressure on me and the kids to perform at a higher level academically.

So even though the teacher admitted that the workload on kindergartners was an awful lot, she also said she was unable to do anything about changing it.

She was required to assess her students continuously, not only for her own instruction, but also for multiple assessments such as quarterly report cards, school-based reading assessments, district-based literacy and math assessments, as well as state-mandated literacy assessments.

In turn, when I asked the kindergartners what they were learning, their replies reflected two things: one, they were learning to follow rules; two, learning was for the sake of getting to the next grade and eventually to find a job. Almost all of them said to me that they wanted more time to play. One boy said:

I wish we had more recess.

These findings mirror the findings of researchers Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham and Anna Rorem that kindergarten now focuses on literacy and math instruction. They also echo the statements of other kindergarten teachers that kids are being prepared for high-stakes tests as early as kindergarten.

Here’s how play helps children

Research has consistently shown classrooms that offer children the opportunities to engage in play-based and child-centered learning activities help children grow academically, socially and emotionally. Furthermore, recess in particular helps children restore their attention for learning in the classroom.

Focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.

Giving children a chance to play and engage in hands-on learning activities helps them internalize new information as well as compare and contrast what they’re learning with what they already know. It also provides them with the chance to interact with their peers in a more natural setting and to solve problems on their own. Lastly, it allows kindergartners to make sense of their emotional experiences in and out of school.

Children learn through play.
woodleywonderworks, CC BY

So children asking for more time to play are not trying to get out of work. They know they have to work in school. Rather, they’re asking for a chance to recharge as well as be themselves.

As another kindergarten boy in my study told me,

We learn about stuff we need to learn, because if we don’t learn stuff, then we don’t know anything.

Learning by exploring

So what can we do to help kindergartners?

I am not advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. All of the stakeholders I’ve talked with up to this point, even the children, know and recognize that kindergartners need to learn academic skills so that they can succeed in school.

However, it is the free exploration that is missing. As a kindergarten teacher I filmed noted:

Free and exploratory learning has been replaced with sit, focus, learn, get it done and maybe you can have time to play later.

Policymakers, schools systems and schools need to recognize that the standards and tests they mandate have altered the kindergarten classroom in significant ways. Families need to be more proactive as well. They can help their children’s teachers by being their advocates for a more balanced approach to instruction.

Kindergartners deserve learning experiences in school that nurtures their development as well as their desire to learn and interact with others. Doing so will assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.

Christopher Brown, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood Education, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why can’t America just take out Assad?

 

A roll of pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri
A roll of pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

David Alpher, George Mason University

The Trump administration has done an abrupt about-face on Syria, contradicting its own nascent foreign policy. Within 24 hours, it went from calling out the Assad regime for using chemical weapons to launching missiles at military targets. As limited as the strikes were, there are also statements that plans are in the works to target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: It “would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of Assad on April 6.

As costly as inaction has been in the six years since the Arab Spring uprisings first took hold in Syria, recent history suggests that removing Assad in a hurry would be an even bigger mistake. In 16 years studying and working with complex conflicts like Syria, I have yet to see an exception to this rule.

We know where this goes next

Targeting Assad would likely give birth to the same kind of catastrophe we saw in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall. In Libya, with no true civil governance to hold the structure together, tribal alliances collapsed and a four-way fight for power emerged. It continues even now, accented by a growing presence of the Islamic State. The power vacuum that would follow the sudden and unwise removal of Assad could be worse than the current warfare, and nourish the already fertile growing conditions for violent extremist and paramilitary actors.

Assad shouldn’t remain in power – he’s been proving that for six years. The recent Sarin gas attack is only the most recent on a long list of other human rights violations. But he should be part of a political and legal process that removes him. That process must come from the Syrians themselves, not from the outside. His departure should be negotiated with Syrian civil society leadership to legitimize the claim to power of a civilian government. Justice for his crimes should be served by Syrian courts.

Here’s why:

Nature abhors a vacuum: Unlike in a game of chess, in war removing the king is not the end, but only another beginning. The idea that Syria still exists as it looks on the map is a fantasy. Part of its territory is held by the government, part is lost to the Islamic State, part of it is in rebel hands. It won’t come cleanly back together should the fighting suddenly end tomorrow. Tensions among rebel groups – which are already high – and between pro- and anti-IS forces will only increase with one combatant removed from the field. We can only attempt to predict where Assad’s loyalist forces will go with their leader removed.

In order for Assad’s withdrawal to be beneficial, it needs to come in the context of a sound Syrian-driven plan to move from immediate containment of violence to a return of civilian Syrian leadership and security. That plan currently doesn’t exist.

Outside solutions never work: In the international development world, it’s been repeatedly shown that solutions to complicated problems can’t be imposed from outside. They won’t be sustainable and often do harm. Solutions have to come from inside a country’s own civil society. Otherwise, the result is to undermine the legitimacy of the same systems of politics and justice that are necessary to hold a population together in the long term. At present there is little left of Syrian civil society, but local councils continue to provide the connective tissue that holds the country together in areas not held by Assad. These organizations can jump-start efforts to create new democratic institutions.

What’s the endgame? The classic underpinnings of our own strategic doctrine stress that military action should never be taken without a clear goal for a desired end-state. Of all the possible actions the U.S. could take, regime change is the most deceptively simple – but it doesn’t qualify as an end-state. In fact, it would usher in a more chaotic and violent environment that would be hard to contain even by several countries working together militarily.

Libya and Iraq both demonstrated this all too clearly. They fell into chaos despite the efforts – or perhaps because of the efforts – of multinational coalitions. Thursday’s strikes only increased the sense of crisis and confusion, as everyone from the Syrians to the Russians to America itself wonders what the next move will be. Most worrisome, it’s unclear whether Trump himself has a firm grasp on what he’s doing next or why.

Whither the ship of state? Most of America’s high-level diplomatic positions are still unfilled. These are positions that manage complex State Department processes, and which have the political heft to hold their own with the Department of Defense in fights over direction and leadership. They coordinate with international partners to ensure there are no miscommunications and that missteps are minimized. They provide much-needed analysis about dynamics and changes in conflict zones. They also help to mitigate the heightened probability of accidental clashes with international actors such as Russia in the confusion and increased tension that follows military action.

The infrastructure through which Assad mounts his offensives cannot be decisively destroyed by anything limited and quick. They are too dispersed and numerous. Unless the United States is willing to commit to a sustained and substantial campaign or to throw its weight behind a political end to the war, Thursday’s strikes are an empty gesture. At the same time, it’s also true that even a sustained and substantial military campaign would not bring about peace and security, and would put American troops on a battlefield that’s essentially one big crossfire. It’s a catch-22.

The fact that the U.S. has now literally fired its opening salvo limits the American government’s options – but the political process is a sustainable path that offers a way out of the catch, and there’s still time to put our weight behind that. It does neither the Syrian people nor our own security any good to find urgency overnight, only to make a bad situation worse.

David Alpher, Adjunct Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

How World War I sparked the artistic movement that transformed black America

Image 20170330 4551 1tsqipp
Aaron Douglas. “Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction.” Oil on canvas, 1934. The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division.

Elizabeth J. West, Georgia State University

Though we often discuss World War I through the lens of history, we occasionally do it through literature. When we do, we’ll invariably go to the famous trilogy of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald – the authors most representative of America’s iconic Lost Generation. Their work is said to reflect a mood that emerged from the ashes of a war that, with its trail of carnage, left survivors around the world with a despairing vision of life, self and nation.

The anxiety and hopelessness of the Lost Generation has become embedded in literary and cultural history. But for black artists, writers and thinkers, the war meant something entirely different: It spawned a transformation of the way African-Americans imagined themselves, their past and their future.

With Africa as a source of inspiration, a “New Negro” emerged out of the ruins of the Great War – not broken and disenchanted, but possessed with a new sense of self, one shaped from bold, unapologetically black models.

Denying an African legacy

Before World War I, African-American literature depicted stoic, but constrained, black protagonists. They emulated European codes of class and respectability while rejecting any sort of African legacy or inheritance. In other words, they talked like white people, dressed like white people and accepted the narrative that white men were the source of America’s greatness.

From the most well-known 19th-century African-American writer, Frederick Douglass, to his less remembered contemporary, Alexander Crummell, literary black advocacy or racial uplift too often rested on this approach.

Still, in the years leading up to World War I, there were rumblings of the “New Negro” archetype. For example, in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1902 novel “The Sport of the Gods” and Pauline Hopkins’ serialized novel “Hagar’s Daughter,” we see restless, dissatisfied young people who have no desire to become shuffling, servile second-class citizens.

This defiance, however, would not become widespread in African-American literature until the end of the war.

A ‘New Negro’ emerges

Black soldiers abroad during World War I experienced a type of freedom and mobility unattainable back home. In cities from London to Paris, many, for the first time, could travel without the worry of being denied equal lodging accommodations or admission to entertainment venues.

Once they returned stateside, they became increasingly impatient with Jim Crow laws and codes of racial discrimination. Life, they realized, didn’t have to be this way. In a nation that was now half a century beyond slavery, the fever spread among a new generation of blacks.

A group of soldiers pose from the 93rd Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment, which was nicknamed the ‘Harlem Hellfighters.’
US National Archives

In the war’s aftermath, racial tensions heightened – a reflection of this mood. The summer of 1919 was known as the “Red Summer” for the number of race riots that erupted around the country, with one of the worst in Chicago, where 38 people died.

And in black literature, African-American characters no longer looked to the white man – or his nations – as models of civilization. In his 1925 anthology entitled “The New Negro,” writer, philosopher and Howard University professor Alain Locke has been credited with marshaling in the era we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. Locke, in his text, called on a generation of emerging black writers, artists and activists to look to Africa and to black folk culture in the United States and the Americas as a way to mine and explore a new strand of humanity.

We see this in Langston Hughes’ poetry; in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” he heralds Africa as source of creativity and cultural grounding:

   I built my hut by the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
   I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

Two Jakes – one black, one white

Unlike the emerging literati of the Lost Generation, blacks, for the most part, weren’t angst-ridden over a post-war world devoid of meaning: they had never internalized the myth of America as a shining “city upon a hill.” For them, the war brought no end or loss, no disillusionment or void.

Claude McKay.
Wikimedia Commons

We see this difference if we compare Hemingway’s protagonist Jake in “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) to Claude McKay’s protagonist in “Home to Harlem” (1928), also named Jake. Unlike Hemingway’s lost, sullen and impotent hero who can’t find his way home, McKay’s Jake happily traverses Europe for a period after the war until he realizes he yearns for home.

While life is still a struggle and racism persists, McKay’s hero looks to the future with hope; he returns to Harlem where he relishes the many shades of black and brown beauties that he missed in Europe. McKay’s Jake immerses himself in a black world of love and laughter – a place that loudly celebrates life. He becomes inspired not by the readings and ideals of white thinkers and writers, but through black prototypes in and beyond America. His West Indian co-worker introduces him to Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jaques Dessalines, the black heroes of the Haitian Revolution, and to the history of great African empires dating back to antiquity.

In the literary works of black women, a new ethos also emerged. In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the main character, Janie, is daring in her quest for freedom: She leaves the confines of her restrictive community to take up with a younger man.

Black musicians, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance are celebrated as leaders of this transformative era in black history. But Harlem wasn’t alone. Cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago also became hubs of black cosmopolitanism.

Above all, the African-American literary works born out of the ashes of World War I went on to spur the bold spirit of resistance of the African-American protest movement into the 21st century.

We also see that American literature is not a monolith of interpretation and experiences: In the case of post-World War I literature, even though one generation was lost, another was found.

Elizabeth J. West, Professor of English, Georgia State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation