Tag Archives: segregation

To Hell, and Black: The Harlem Hellfighters’ race to the Rhine

A historian, the old joke goes, is someone who chases after you calling out “that’s not how it happened!” Good history sees the devil in the details. It looks past the obvious events to understand the human relationships that lie underneath. But beyond good history, there is great history. Great history links these human experiences to the systems of power and domination that shaped the past and continue to shape the present. In exploring the experience of black men serving in the American army during WWI, ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ achieves both.

HarlemHellfighters

Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Author: Max Brooks
Illustrator: Caanan White
Published: Broadway Books (2014)
Pages: 272 pages
Other Specs: Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Store


The Harlem Hellfighters is not about WWII, a fashionable war regardless of your politics. It is about the Great War for Civilization, now often described as World War One, though the first global war was the Seven Years War. There was nothing particularly civilized about it, and ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does a great job of tracking this from the United States to the artillery-chewed meadows of an exhausted Europe. It follows the eponymous Hellfighters, an all-black combat regiment, at a time when there was a great deal of anxiety that if people of colour were allowed to shoot white people, they might get a taste for it. This racism ran so deep that the army was sending their rifles out to private gun clubs and issuing broomsticks to the Hellfighters. Nonetheless, they made it to the front, and the comic takes us along for a flame-throwing, bomb-dropping, trench digging slaughter of a tour through humanity’s most wretched moments. We see through mud and clouds of poison gas- the death of the romance of war.

harlem_hellfighters1The obvious way to write this story was to showcase the heroic determination of black Americans who enlisted in the US army. Military service and citizenship are tied in a very tight knot in American culture. For black Americans, who were persecuted and marginalized throughout the United States, participating in this ultimate expression of citizenship is easy to hold up as a virtue. There are certainly times when the narrative takes this route. In one instance, a black recruit is walking through a southern American town during training and is attacked by a gang of white racists. Following orders to keep his cool, he endures their violence silently. On another occasion, a black soldier is rescued from a gang of his white ‘comrades’ by a military policeman. When the MP encourages him to drop it rather than press charges for assault, he ends up beaten and imprisoned, but he doesn’t leave the army. All of this is an accurate depiction of the determination that it was necessary for black soldiers to show in the openly white supremacist American army. It highlights the courage, patience and endurance necessary for these men to stay their course.

This kind of easy liberal narrative is a popular one for general histories. Liberal history has no trouble acknowledging that things were bad in the past. But it stops there, often tying up the narrative strings in a neat little package of self-congratulatory nationalism. ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ could have stopped here. But it didn’t, thank fuck. Instead, it calls out the ugly facts of history. It opens by explaining how bloody, how pointless and how ultimately futile the First World War was. It has a character cheekily explain that the cause of the war is that having made a hell for peoples of every colour all around the world, there was nothing left for the white man to do but turn on himself. And it shows, at every opportunity, the shabby treatment of black soldiers in the Army. This goes beyond blacks being second class citizens and actively shows that the Army made policies specifically to keep black people from getting the idea they were equal to whites.

The problem with liberal history is that it stops with the personal. It situates discrimination in the past and leaves it implicit that of course our great, open-spirited democracies have long since overcome the kind of chauvinism that marred the dignity of our otherwise distinguished forebears. It is comfortable with showing the ills of the past, precisely because it needs those ills to tell a story that things are continuously getting better. While ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does not come out and name colonialism, white supremacy or capitalism as the root cause of the suffering endured by black Americans, that level of explicit political consciousness would seem out of place in the mouths of many of its characters. But they understand these things intuitively from experience, and they offer their own understanding to each other and to the reader. This is a more valuable thing.

There is some worrying sentimentalism towards the end of the comic, with the usual lines about America being founded as the first nation of ideals. But the founding myth of American exceptionalism was often used by black Americans resisting white supremacy, and if it is not politically appetizing, neither is it out of place. The comic tells a story, not only of individual suffering and solidarity, but of the systems of violence that run underneath. It makes it perfectly clear that it is not bad people here or there responsible for incidents of discrimination; it is a system supported by the American government and maintained by the American military for the benefit of white people.

harlem_hellfighters8We talk about visual styles being striking, but in Caanan White’s case it doesn’t strike so much as barrage the reader. The detailed, expressive style can be a bit busy at times and one gets the sense that this is a comic that deserves to be printed in colour. But the faces and postures of the men convey their emotions expertly, and the trenches come to death in gory detail from peeling flesh to rotting corpses. If the style were a little cleaner, it might explode more exactly on target, but I suppose war is a busy, confused business too. This is not to say that it is unworthy of the narrative; far from it. But the devil’s in the detail and I can’t help feeling there’s a bit too much of it.

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There is something a little bit disturbing about the blood-lust of the soldiers in ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’. The comic does not quite express their motivations for being there, unless we are meant to believe that they share the sentiments of the man who says he couldn’t down an opportunity to be paid by white people to shoot white people. But the eagerness to fight instead of rot in the trenches waiting for a shrapnel squall to shred your flesh was a real enough part of the First World War. Trench warfare traumatized a generation of men who coped in whatever way they could. Displaying the grim brutality of that conflict underscores the moral ambiguity of the story as a whole. For all that ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ is about racism, it is the story of a group of men determined to cross the ocean and kill strangers who have never harmed them. If it is uncomfortable at points, it should be. ★

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Review of “MARCH: Book One”

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Title: MARCH: Book One
Creators: John Lewis, Andrew Aykin, and Nate Powell
Published: August 2013 by Top Shelf Press

March: Book One is the first part in a trilogy graphic memoir detailing the life and times of Civil Rights activist and Congressman John Lewis.

Growing up in the United States, you’re led to believe that you learn all there is to know about the Civil Rights Movement in school. You learn about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts; you learn about the most famous American speech of the 20th Century: “I Have a Dream”.

In a recent article shared through the Zinn Education Project, historian and black activist Bill Fletcher Jr. describes the method by which certain moments and people in the Civil Rights movement have been “mythologized” and “sanitized“. And boy, has our understanding of this history been manipulated! We would be led to believe that forces of the status quo in the 1950s and 1960s–from local police departments up to the President’s office–supported non-violent forms of protest; that racism and racists were isolated to the masses of simple folk in the South.

Of course, the result of this is that students are not understanding the context of these important pieces of history. That is why I’m hopeful of a book like March making its way into classrooms… students deserve a broader view of these issues than what will be allocated to them in 2 or 3 paragraphs of a standard-issue textbook.

As John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell so eloquently show us in March, this was not the case. The Civil Rights movement was a bloody, uphill battle. The struggle and its gains were not the results of a few actions by those now famous historical figures: the movement moved by way of thousands of committed activists, many of whom were students.

This is a truly beautiful comic book that paints a portrait not just of a man (John Lewis was one of the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and is now a Congressman; he is also the last living person to have given a speech alongside Martin Luther King on Aug 28, 1963). It paints a vivid portrait of a movement that you think you know, but maybe, possibly, probably don’t. Why was non-violent civil disobedience so radical at the time? Why were there rifts between the younger activists and the older black leadership–figures like Thurgood Marshall? How was the Civil Rights movement connected to religious groups? To the labor movement?

Nate Powell has a way of making every picture personable–crisp, yet dreamy, with solid black ink brush strokes complimented by dabbles of watercolor staining. And Andrew Aydin, who works on Congressman John Lewis’ staff, has obviously been instrumental in taking the vast treasure trove of information that is John Lewis’ life experience, and organizing it into an epic memoir. I particularly like the stories that attest to his core character, like growing up on an old sharecropper farm, wanting to be a preacher and practicing his talks on his chickens. These are wonderful stories that bring out the humanity behind the political battles.

These are the stories from the Civil Rights Movement that, I believe, reclaim the history and restore its heart and soul. You can’t learn about a protest movement from a government-sanctioned textbook.. they’ll make you think the whole thing was their idea. And although Congressman Lewis is now a part of that system, well… how he got there will be explained in the next two books of the trilogy.

I’m excited about what I’ve seen so far–this is an often raw, ugly–yet true history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. To get a glimpse of this, I’ve asked the kind folks at Top Shelf to show you the first five pages of March. I hope you see what I mean–and be sure to pick up a copy when you get the chance!

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Black History: A Comic Book Reading List

For the last 10 days of February, I put out a list of Top 10 Comics relating to Black History. I didn’t consider this a quintessential list; moreso, I wanted it to be a startting point for anyone interested in exploring the genre/medium combo.

From the get-go, I knew I could at least name 10 different titles, although I hadn’t read them all. And as research tends to do, I’ve added another few to this list, along with some notes. 

Black History Comics – A Reading List

bayou page shotBAYOU – 2010, by Jeremy Love.
It’s the Deep South–in the deep dip of the Depression. Young Lee was already afraid of the Bayou–that was where they dumped the body of Billy Glass–and who knows how many other blacks who “hadn’t known their place”. But when Lee’s white friend goes missing and her father is suspected to be involved, Lee sets out into the Bayou, a dark place of murder and magic, to rescue the girl from whatever has taken her, and in turn rescue her father from the fate of the gallows.
Here in the “new world” we often have a hard time picturing our history as folklore and our folk lore as mythology, but that is what is at work here. Jeremy Love does a great job with this book bringing that mythology to life in the stylization of Uncle Remus and his Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, et al. He even takes it a little further, with pieces of social memory that still seem a little too real, too close, to feel entirely comfortable with: flocks of “Jim Crows” that will eat you alive; monsters with the faces of minstrel characters. There is an anthropomorphic element here–lots of talking animals, stories and song that make the characters really pop. Think “Alice in Dixieland”.
Two Volumes have been released of the story so-far: I do hope that more is on the way…
Published: 2010 by Zuda Comics (online arm of D.C. – now closed.)
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Writer, Best Artist, Best Female Character, Best Comic Strip, and Story of the Year (2009);
Best Digital Comic for the Eisner Awards – Nominee (2010);
American Library Association – 1 of Top 10 Graphic Novels for Teens (2010);
Further Reading: Nice Analysis over at Web Comic Overlook (although self-admittedly long.)

nat turner page shotNAT TURNER – 2006 by Kyle Baker. Four issues bound into two volumes here tell the story of Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, leader of one of the largest slave revolts in American history. The genius of this comic is that it tells a compelling story while allowing the historical value to shine through. It uses all excepts of Nat Turner’s own words, taken from a “confession” he gave to a newspaper while in prison awaiting his execution (the word “confession” of course, is an editorialization from the newspaper of the time–however, one can hardly expect him to be remorseful for killing the men who killed and enslaved his kinfolk). We not only have a primary source, but a first-hand account of what we’re seeing depicted in pictures: the life of a 19th Century slave, the horror of life from capture, transport, sale, work, and punishment. The role of religion and prayer for slaves who survived. As a political and historical comics enthusiast, this is one of the gems. Kyle Baker looks to have taken 19th Century newspaper illustrations and breathed them full of life and human emotion. This and a nail-biting narration have practically gift-wrapped this bloody episode of American history.
Published: 2006 by Kyle Baker Publishing
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist, Best Cover, Story of the Year (2006);
Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist (2008);
Further Reading: Nice review on Eye on Africa Blog

 

jackie robinson coverJACKIE ROBINSON, Issues 0 – 6 – Written by sports-writer Charles Dexter. Now I know nothing about this comic – save that it was published in 1950 and that it’s real. That makes it one of the earliest comic book depictions of a black historical figure (maybe the first?) and impossible to leave off this list, where I try to encourage that there is black representation, but also a note-worthy link to Black History (sorry Black Panther, Storm, Huey Freeman…)
That being said, I know nothing of the quality of this comic – the writing, the artwork. But regardless I like having this comic on my reading this for two reasons. It’s not only that it’s the sole comic that is more than 10 years old… consider the fact that a black baseball player would have difficulty finding lodging or a bar to sit in when this comic was released. Second, it’s written by a sportswriter, and I love sportswriter/political commentator cross-overs (the “Olberman” effect?).
Published: 1950 – 1951 by Fawcett
Further Reading: Good luck getting yourselves a copy of this – some issues retail as high as $75 for their 16 pages. But a decent telling of Jackie’s story (and the story of African Americans in the major leagues) can be found here at Awesome Stories.com 

 

 

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THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS – 2008, Written by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and illustrated by Nate Powell. This is a deceptively simple memoir of a man who moved to a small Texas town with his liberal white family in the 1960s. The town was intensely segregated, and the author remembers the stir it caused when his Dad invited a black friend and his family over for dinner. Besides political overtones and largely untold events of recent Texas history, which included protests and a serious accusation of black demonstrators firing on police–which was later determined to be false–Silence of Our Friends is a story of childhood memory that is touching, personal and honest. With a heavy emphasis on Powell’s art, the narrative re-creates the [often quiet] tension of racism, privilege, and friendship.
Published: 2008, by First Second Comics / Macmillan
Awards:
Further Reading: I’m a huge fan of Nate Powell’s artwork, so I will take this time to direct you to his blog over here at See My Brother Dance

MALCOLM X A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY – 2006, by Andrew Helfer, Randy DuBurke.
Published: 2006 by Hill and Wang
I have yet to full read this piece, but have it on my list. There is also another Malcolm X biography – by Jessica Sara Gunderson and Seifu Hayden. Neither Helfer nor Gunderson are names that I’m very familiar with in comics, so I’ve been slow to pick these titles up. However they are available for those interested.

King coverKING: A COMICS BIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. – 2005, by Ho Che Anderson. Generally considered to be more comics journalism, this volume collects over 10 years of Ho Che Anderson’s work into a biography of the renowned civil rights leader.  From a review on Amazing: “KING probes the life story of one of America’s greatest public figures with an unflinchingly critical eye, casting King as an ambitious, dichotomous figure deserving of his place in history but not above moral sacrifice to get there. Anderson’s expressionistic visual style is wrought with dramatic energy; panels evoke a painterly attention to detail but juxtapose with one another in such a way as to propel King’s story with cinematic momentum.”
Published: 2005, by Fantagraphics (the Complete Edition)

birth of a nation coverBIRTH OF A NATION – 2004, by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker.
McGruder, Hudlin and Baker definitely have satire in their sights for this piece – that being said, it touches on black culture and history more uniquely than other books mentioned here. Aaron has admittedly used some real stories in this work, gathered by himself and friends over the years to make this comedic work ask a darkly humorous question: If East St. Louis seceded from the Union, would anyone really care? East St. Louis (“the inner city without an outer city” it says), is an impoverished town, so poor that Fred Fredericks, its idealistic mayor, starts off Election Day by collecting the city’s trash in his own minivan. (A real story is inserted here, says McGruder – some people kept their trash on their rooftops to discourage the packs of wild dogs from rummaging through it. No joke…well, yeah, I guess he kind of makes it into a joke.) But the mayor believes in the power of democracy and rallies his fellow citizens to the polls for the presidential election, only to find hundreds of them disenfranchised (this was the 2000 election, so that part is also totally believable).
“Birth of a Nation” to me, is what comics have always been about–pointed political commentary that makes you split your stomach laughing at the same time. And in doing so, it raises questions of culture and national identity. A great read.
Published: 2005, by Three Rivers Press

ROSA PARKS & THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT – 2007, by Connie Colwell Miller (Author) and Dan Kalal (Illustrator).
Part of the Graphic Library series, this book is an introduction to Rosa Parks and her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Because the author provides a sequential and clear outline of the historical events of the time, the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott is told in a meaningful and interesting way. The graphic novel is broken into four chapters, each one telling a specific part of Rosa Parks’ story. Through the content presented, readers are introduced to important figures involved in the civil rights movement, racial segregation laws, significant dates and court decisions, important events in the civil rights movement, and the political and social climate of the time. Furthermore, the author shows the impact the Montgomery Bus Boycott had on the civil rights movement and tells about Rosa s life after the boycott.
Published: 2007 by Capstone Press

still-i-rise-graphic“STILL I RISE”: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS – 2009, by Roland Laird (Author), Taneshia Nash Laird (Author), Elihu “Adofo” Bey (Illustrator), Charles Johnson (Foreword)
Still I Rise is a lot packed into a little book: the entire history of Black America– recently updated in a new edition that includes the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.A.’s first African American president (the first edition, published in 1997, took us up to the Million Man March). I believe this work has excelled in highlighting history left out of a lot of American textbooks, for whatever reasons: including early attempts of slaves and former slaves uniting with white indentured servants, along with the rise of early black entrepreneurs and politicians in the South who were constantly attacked, broken down and weeded out. it it a solid portrayal of a lengthy question, and shows that the notion of American history as “white” history is manufactured, and deliberately dismissive of black culture.
Published: 2009 by Sterling

BLACK IMAGES IN THE COMICS – 2012, Edited by Fredrik Stromberg (Introduction by Charles Johnson).
Endlessly browsable illustrated journey through comics’ history of radical portrayals both good and bad.
This book spotlights over 100 comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels to feature black characters from all over the world over the last century, and the result is a fascinating journey to, if not enlightenment, then at least away from the horrendous caricatures of yore. Fredrik Stromberg, who is from Swede, explains in the introduction that he more of less made the volume because it had not yet been made; he set out to make a comprehensive art history of (mostly) white people’s depictions of blacks: as primitive and savage–even cannibalistic, then as dim-witted clowns. Halfway through the 20th Century, this begins to change, and with the inclusion of more positive representations of blacks (mostly African Americans), we see the emergence of black writers and artists, breaking new ground once again.
What begins as a somewhat depressing window on the small-ness of humanity has something of a happy ending with this evolution. However I’m reminded of the words of Charles Johnson, who in the introduction writes, “I wait for the day when…stories in which a character who just happens to be Black is the emblematic, archetypal figure in which we — all of us — invest our dreams, imaginings, and sense of adventure about the vast possibilities for what humans can be and do– just as we have done, or been culturally indoctrinated to do, with white characters…”
Published: 2012 by Fantagraphics


Some Additions:

My entire reading list is seriously lacking in the realm of arts and culture. I looked far and wide for a Hip Hop Graphic History, but am perhaps a bit early on that one – Ed Piskor’s exciting Hip Hop Family Tree comes out this October. Until then, you can preview some work on Boing Boing – or pre-order it from Fantagraphics!

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture
Damian Duffy (Author), John Jennings (Author), Keith Knight (Introduction) – 2010, by Mark Batty Publisher

Super Black – 2011, by Adilifu Nama.
Super Black, although not a comic, it the most thorough work yet to break ground on the subject of black people in comics – their representation and significance. This also extends to blaxploitation film and art, where we see a real packaging of the ‘Black Hero’ for the first time in mainstream American culture.  Available through Amazon, some university literature courses, and perhaps your more-than-average book store.

ABINA AND THE IMPORTANT MEN – 2011, By Trevor R. Getz. Read more about it on the publisher’s website at Oxford University Press.

BAYOU ARCANA – An anthology of work in a similar vein to Bayou, looking at historical roles of race and gender in the Deep South.

The MARCH TRILOGY – Coming out in August, 2013. A graphic novel memoir of former Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis.

THE CAMPFIRE SERIES – by Steerforth Press includes “Mohammed Ali: King of the Ring” and a “Nelson Mandela” graphic biography.

There is also a “Nelson Mandela: Authorized Comic Book” that was produced by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

African American Classics