Book Review: The Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks & Caanan White (2014)

August 23rd, 2014 12:20 pm by Kelly Garbato

“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books.)

In 1917 we left our home to make the world “safe for democracy.” Even though democracy wasn’t exactly “safe” back home.

We went by many names. The 15th. The 369th. And before going “over there,” we called ourselves “The Black Rattlers.” Our French allies called us “The Men of Bronze.”

And our enemies called us “The Harlem Hellfighters.”

Recruited in Harlem, trained in Camp Whitman, New York (and, disastrously, Spartanburg, South Carolina), and eventually deployed to the Western Front in France, the 369th Infantry Regiment – otherwise known as The Harlem Hellfighters – changed the course of history, even as its own government engineered its failure.

The 369th spent 191 days in combat – more than any other American unit, black or white. None of their men were captured by the enemy, nor did they lose any ground; in fact, they were the first men to reach the Rhine River. The 369th volunteered to stay behind in the front trenches for an expected German bombing the day after Bastille Day, 1918, even though it meant almost certain death. One of their soldiers single-handedly fended off German raiders with only a rifle and a bolo knife; for this, Henry Lincoln Johnson earned the nickname “Black Death” – and was the first American to receive the French Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War). In 2003, the US awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Cross; his supporters are still lobbying for the Medal of Honor.

Despite the urgency of the situation – and the depth of their sacrifice – the men of the 369th (as well as other “colored” units) were consistently undermined by their own government. In training, they practiced with broomsticks, while private gun clubs received free rifles from Uncle Sam (“just in case”). Against their leader’s stringent objections, the 369th was sent to Dixie to complete its training – even though, just weeks beforehand, thirteen men from the 24th Regiment were lynched in the wake of racial conflicts in Houston, Texas. And when they finally reached France, the 369th initially performed manual labor alongside black civilian workers.

African-American soldiers also faced racism abroad: both imported, at the behest of U.S. brass, as well as from ordinary French citizens (though some of this seems tempered by their gratitude for the soldiers’ help: “While our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.”). American policy vis-à-vis “colored” units was as much about fear as it was hatred: “They know what will happen if we return to our people as heroes!” As it turned out, the returning survivors of the 369th got the parade they were denied at the time of deployment – but they also came home in the Red Summer of 1919, only to find a country torn apart by racial violence.

The text by author Max Brooks (yes, of World War Z fame) is wonderful – both informative and engaging – and the illustrations by Caanan White are vivid and richly detailed. Sadly, the entirety of the book is in black and white; some color, even on strategically placed pages or panels, really would have made the artwork pop. Nonetheless, White’s illustrations manage to convey the horror and desperation of war.

While writing about the origins of this graphic novel, Brooks quotes one of his college professors: “Colonization…begins with the mind, and the best (or worst) way to colonize a people is to bury their past.” With The Harlem Hellfighters, Brooks shines a light on a mostly-unknown aspect of American history.

While his decision to tell the story in graphic novel format was mostly one born of necessity (for years Brooks struggled to bring The Harlem Hellfighters to the big or small screen, to no avail), The Harlem Hellfighters introduces this chapter of history to whole new audience: comic book readers, not all of whom would read this if written as a biography or history book. (Though hopefully it will also inspire readers to do further research on their own. To that end, Brooks provides a lengthy bibliography.)

In this vein, The Harlem Hellfighters is a potentially excellent resource for high school history classes; I know that, if my teachers had given us comic books instead of chapter after chapter of dry textbook reading assignments, I would have found the materials much more engaging.

I loved the graphic novel, but am holding out hope that The Harlem Hellfighters will become a movie or miniseries yet. Get on it, TNT. After Falling Skies there’s nowhere to go but up.

(This review is also available on Blogging for Books, Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The 369th Infantry Regiment – otherwise known as The Harlem Hellfighters – was a “colored” unit in WWI. The racism they experienced – both from the citizens they were dispatched to protect, as well as their fellow service members and own government – is explored in detail.

 

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