Breaking Racial Barriers During WWI: A Visual Narrative

9780307464972By Max Brooks, author of The Harlem Hellfighers (Broadway Books, April 2014).

I first learned of the Harlem Hellfighters from an Anglo-Rhodesian named Michael Furmanovsky when I was 11. Michael was working for my parents while getting his MFA in history from UCLA. He taught me about the British Empire, the Falklands War, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and a host of other topics not covered in my fifth-grade western civilization class. Of all his after-school lessons, the one that left the deepest impression was the story of a unit of American soldiers who weren’t allowed to fight for their country because of the color of their skin. To a white, privileged kid growing up on the west side of L.A. in the 1980s, that kind of prejudice was just inconceivable. When I confessed that I didn’t know about them, he assured me that I wasn’t alone.

Ten years later I was an exchange student at the University of the Virgin Islands. The experience brought me back into the orbit of the Hellfighters when, while walking through an old cemetery, I noticed some graves from 1918. I wondered if they might be casualties of the Great War, maybe even members of the 369th. I decided to ask my professor of Virgin Islands history. He was an African-American from the mainland, and to call him passionate would be a laughable understatement. With his beard and spectacles and flaring dashiki, he would rail against the historical crimes committed by white men of Europe and North America. Most heinous was the erasure of black accomplishments by white historians. Colonization, he would tell us, begins with the mind, and the best (or worst) way to colonize a people is to bury their past. “There were no black soldiers in World War I.” That was his dismissive answer to my question about the graves from 1918. When I started to argue, even bringing up the name “Harlem Hellfighters,” he assured me that I must have been confused with the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. I was shocked. Here was a scholar, a crusader, a thoughtful, driven man who’d made it his life’s mission to trumpet the glory of Africa and her diaspora, and HE didn’t know about the Harlem Hellfighters. I wish I could say that I decided then and there to write their story, but that would have to wait for nearly another decade.

In 2006, I began collaborating with Avatar Press on a graphic companion to my first book, The Zombie Survival Guide. I learned very quickly how different comic book writing was from prose, but how similar it could be to movie scripts. I also realized that comics presented a forum for telling very visual stories without the cumbersome budget of movies or television. It seemed the ideal medium for telling the story of the Harlem Hellfighters. It’s now been close to six years since I began working with William Christensen of Avatar Press and the amazingly talented artist Caanan White. And now it’s time to share this heroic regiment’s story of courage, honor, and heart with you and your customers. I hope that you and your students are as captivated by it as I have been.

MAX BROOKS is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.

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