Max Brooks (illus. Canaan White): The Harlem Hellfighters

The great World War One historian Michael Neiberg acknowledges that American students (and Americans in general) know far, far less about World War One than their European peers. And no wonder: U.S. participation in that war was brief, casualties were not high, and the battles were all overseas. Still, in this centenary period, in this war-torn world of 2014, we might do well to educate ourselves a little.

After a billion years of studying British modernism and Mrs. Dalloway, I’ve learned more about the War than many and I’m looking forward to teaching my class on the Literature of World War One this fall. I’ve been reading up on the war all summer, as my infrequent recent blog posts suggest.

I wanted to find some material on race and the war. There is a lot of great historical material emerging now on Chinese workers and African soldiers, but for a literature class, choices are harder. And what about a straight up story about the African-Americans who fought. The main character in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem is a deserter; a main character in Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion fights heroically and recognizes a relative in a white man who shares his surname. Both of these novels capture the two important things I know and want my students to know about the War: that black soldiers served bravely and that they were very, very poorly treated indeed. However, in the context of these novels, the war is just a small part. How can I convey the texture of this story in the limited time I have.

One of the great discoveries of the summer was Max Brooks’ book on the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit from New York, dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans who fought them. This graphic historical fiction is so gripping and heartbreaking. It tells, in miniature, a story that you might be able to guess from what you know of our shameful treatment of heroic black soldiers in World War Two, but this is a forgotten bit of history that is worth a few hours of your time. If you or a young person in your life wants to read one short exciting thing about the War, I strongly recommend it.

Both Brooks (who is white) and White (who is black) took great care to be as accurate as possible in their renderings of the stories here. The illustrations are absolutely gripping and, paired with Brooks’ elegant text, which quotes liberally from W. E. B. DuBois and other historical documents, makes the whole thing a thrilling read. Although the main character is fictional, other characters are real, including jazz musician James Reese Europe who paved the way for Duke Ellington and for jazz in France; Eugene Jaques Bullard, who fought in both World Wars as a pilot in the French Army; and Henry Johnson, the first American (black or white) to receive the French Croix de Guerre. Their photographs and information on sources appear in the back of the book.

I’m sorry that the stories of racism are so familiar and predictable—the officer’s club suddenly closed to black men, the racism the New York soldiers (from across the state) experienced training in the South, the denial of a ticker tape parade. Most amazing to me—and most heartbreaking in light of Ferguson, MO and open carry—is the fact that the U.S. Army denied rifles to the 369th while providing free rifles to any gun club, just in case the gun clubs might be called up. So, actual soldiers were denied weapons. What I love—and what Brooks and White clearly delight in telling—is how the soldiers of the 369th made up fake gun clubs from all over the state and thus requested and received the guns they should have had in the first place.

It’s just terrific. I hear that Will Smith is talking to Brooks about a film. Let’s hope