Engendering race: Jamaica, masculinity and the Great War

Smith, Richard William Peter (2000) Engendering race: Jamaica, masculinity and the Great War. Doctoral thesis, University of North London.


This study places the experiences of black Jamaican volunteers in the Great War in the context of challenges to white masculinity presented by the conflict. Elaine Showalter's discussion of "male hysteria" is developed to show that the prevalence of shell shock brought into question constructs of black masculinity. The doubts raised by male hysteria intersected with renewed fears of racial degeneration with implications for both military undertakings and Imperial hegemony. These twin anxieties informed the policies and attitudes that attempted to exclude Jamaican volunteers from the masculine realm of war.

Historically, black people have been associated with physical strength, sensuality and emotional vitality. When mapped onto the bodies of black Jamaican volunteers, these constructs clashed dramatically with the psychologically and physically impaired white British soldier. Within certain constraints, black servicemen provided a revitalised image of masculinity. This had the potential to further destabilise the racial order and contributed to the anti-black feeling that developed in the metropole from the middle years of the war.

The war served as an impetus to the rise of nationalism and popular discontent throughout the British Empire. This study emphasises ihe masculine discourse within which nationalist aspirations were framed. Black Jamaicans were subject to many contradictory messages as to the part they should play in the war. The construction of black people as irrational and lacking in self-control meant that they were not regarded as desirable military material. However, in order to maintain cohesion within the Empire, potential black volunteers were encouraged to take a role in the war effort that would be rewarded by post-war reforms. Furthermore, many of the white elite in Jamaica saw the war as a means to encourage the black population into manly endeavour and industry.

Stereotypes of black irrationality, combined with a desire to protect the white masculine hegemony of the Empire project, served to generally exclude Jamaican volunteers from the ultimate arena of masculinity - the front line. Nevertheless, these men maintained an attachment to the language of military sacrifice. Images of military valour continued to captivate black soldiers in the pursuit of national, racial and masculine identity. This, in turn, reinforced the essentially masculine nature of the Jamaican nationalist cause.

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