Sweden as Symbolic ‘North’ in African American Narratives of the Vietnam War: George Davis’ Coming Home and Terry Whitmore’s Memphis-Nam-Sweden

Shirley A. James Hanshaw

Abstract


Representation of the Vietnam War by African American writers ranges from oral narratives to novels to drama to poetry.  This vast corpus often explores the heroic quest   within the context of the protagonist’s rite of passage/identity quest.  Because the Vietnam War era coincided with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in America, matters of identity, self-determination and liberation figure prominently in an exploration of the conundrum of fighting to defend a country that devalues the black soldier’s humanity.   This presentation focuses on George Davis’ novel Coming Home and Terry Whitmore’s oral narrative Memphis-Nam-Sweden, both of which use first-person narration to portray the psychological and emotional impact of the war.  The characters spend an inordinate amount of time thinking – about why they are in Vietnam, about their tenuous relationships, about the larger implications of the war, about the consequences of their actions, about escape.  Davis portrays the thought processes of a black Air Force officer who is so plagued by his complicity in the oppression of other peoples of color and by the loss of his identity as he ascends the ladder of success that he becomes a deserter from the military; whereas Whitmore chronicles his own personal odyssey from the southern United States to service in the Vietnam War, which he deserts.  In both instances, asylum is found in Sweden, a neutral country that symbolizes humanitarianism.  The escape route to freedom in Sweden is via a Japanese “underground railroad,” a trope of escape and liberation that signifies upon the slave narrative in early African American literature.

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