The lasting legacy of the Harlem Hellfighters now in graphic novel

Max Brooks, the author of the popular World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, collaborated with artist Canaan White to create the graphic novel “The Harlem Hellfighters.”  It tells the story of the fighting 369th Regiment, the first African-American unit to fight in World War I.

They overcame unimaginable discrimination and neglect to become one of the most decorated units of the war. But before they got to fight “over there,” the men of the 369th had to fight every day over here.

As the nation observes strides made by African-Americans under the Civil Rights initiatives implemented 50 years ago, it should not go unnoticed that the precursors of success may lie in the black man’s determination to serve this nation.

Today, African-Americans in military service are an integral part of America’s fighting force. But it it wasn’t always that way.

Brooks told theGrio.com that what makes WWI significant in the black man’s struggle for recognition is that the war was the fought under the banner of freedom and democracy when in fact there was no outward attempt to offer the same rights to black Americans in the armed forces. Before the 369th was formed, any black man who wanted to actually fight in “The Great War” had to enlist in French or Canadian units. Blacks had previously been detailed to service units, behind the lines or stateside.

Once the war started, many African-Americans believed that their valor would be rewarded with a push to turn the tide of discrimination against black people in America.

The 369th fought so hard and with such tenacity that they were dubbed “The Harlem Hellfighters” by the German troops they faced. The 369th became the first American unit to be cited with the French Croix de Guerre. One medal of honor and many Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to members of the regiment.

When white units leaving New York for Europe embarked upon their ships mid great fanfare and marching bands, this was not the case for the Harlem Hellfighters, an issue that plagued the soldiers during their entire tour.  But underlying that theme was the fact that the 369th had to train with second-hand uniforms and broomsticks as rifles.

When they were shipped off to Spartanburg, SC, for basic training, they were verbally assaulted and often physically attacked by groups of white townsfolk who resented their presence there. They were ordered not to strike back in self defense and had to rely upon the conscience of fellow white soldiers to intervene when they were attacked. The 369th was told if a single complaint was lodged against the unit, the regiment would be disbanded and they would never get the change to fight overseas.

As the war ground on, the 369th would emerge as the unit that spent the longest time in combat and would become the most decorated combat unit in the field. But the mere appearance of the 369th was confusing beyond the fact that the unit was black. Members of the 369th were issued French helmets and belts and attached to French regiments. The dramatic scenes drawn by Artist Canaan White accurately depict the “look” of these black heroes while dramatically depicting their valor and struggle in illustrations that capture each moment of action in uncanny ways.

The graphic novel is illustrated by Caanan White, an accomplished artist whose drawings bring to light the action, pain, energy and horrors of the battlefield. The frames are drawn in black and white and researched to be historically accurate. The illustrations and text revel in the diversity of the black man, showing the many layers of what it was like to be “colored” in the military with the expressions of pain, joy, triumph and brotherhood coming together in a phenomenally proud literary treatment.

TheGrio asked author Max Brooks: what makes this a “graphic novel” as opposed to a comic book? Brooks said, “It is an important educational medium that is visually compelling and totally immerses the reader.” Brooks told theGrio.com that at first he wanted this project to be a movie, but we can tell you that in its current form as a graphic novel, its impact is equally if not more powerfully felt.

The Harlem Hellfighters is available now from Random House in bookstores and online.

(This story originally appeared in theGrio.com in July 2014.

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