Harlem Hellfighters

Harlem Hellfighters

J. Patrick Lewis (Author)

Gary Kelley (Illustrator)

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A regiment of African American soldiers from Harlem journeys across the Atlantic to fight alongside the French in World War I, inspiring a continent with their brand of jazz music.

Reviews

Evocative free-verse poems and illustrated panels introduce youngsters to the story of 2,000 African American men who, although treated like second-class citizens, were inspired to valiantly fight for democracy during WWI, awing their enemy, who nicknamed them the "Hellfighters." The opening spread, featuring "headshots" of black soldiers, is the first clue that readers must digest this slowly. The lyrical text is both beautiful and hard-hitting, providing a loose timeline of events and experiences from the men's recruitment through their training in the Jim Crow South, disappointing grunt work overseas, and their courage and tenacity when finally embedded with French troops fighting the Germans. But this is a story of music, too. Many of the soldiers were recruited by bandleader James Europe. Some were fine musicians, who brought the sound of Harlem across the ocean. Fluid, somber-toned pastel drawings depict the desolation and add emotional depth, as when the regiment sails to France and passes a ghostly slave ship in the night. One of the brightest spots in the art is a picture of a piano Europe found in a French farmhouse where he composed songs. This is a powerful tribute. Use it to spark students' research and as an example of courage and creative expression.

–Jeanne McDermott, Booklist (Starred Review), 9/1/2014

Marking the centennial of the Great War, poet Lewis uses the spare strokes of his medium to evoke the trials and triumphs of the African American 369th Army Infantry Regiment, the Hellfighters. Central to Lewis's narrative is bandleader Lt. James Europe, who turned his talents to writing patriotic songs and leading a military band that brought jazz to an eagerly receptive French audience. Short poems and prose pieces, arranged according to wartime chronology, appear in boxes inserted into spreads broken into blocks of illustration, creating an impressionistic take on the war. Although Lewis's imagery is frequently evocative ("The moon took cover / in a bunker of clouds"; "Townsfolk knocked back glasses of liberation with free beer chasers"), the fusion of poetry and prose is awkward, and the segues between topics are abrupt and unfocused. Kelley's grainy, earth-toned illustrations are outstanding, often stepping into command when the text stumbles. The troop transport that passes a ghost slave ship in the foggy Atlantic is visually arresting (though it could benefit from textual support); faces of Frenchmen swaying to "Jim Europe's pizzazz jazz 'Marseillaise'" are eerie, puppet-like figures dancing at the fin du monde; a pair of lynched black bodies bookend a bullet-torn helmet atop a rifle, contrasting the predicaments of the Hellfighters and their brothers back home. A bibliography is included, and artist's notes on several paintings that inspired his work provide a path to further research.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books , 10/1/2014

This picture book makes a striking first impression, opening with a double-page spread of sketched snapshots of 24 African American soldiers that echo those in Shaun Tan's The Arrival (2007). Each soldier, whether serious or smiling, gazes out at readers to introduce a story about all the ways the country for which they willingly fought still systematically discriminates against them, even during wartime. Like these seemingly disconnected portraits at the beginning, episodic vignettes tell the story of how James "Big Jim" Reese Europe used music to motivate his troops under nearly insurmountable conditions; how the Harlem Hellfighters were often relegated to menial "grunt work" jobs instead of being sent into battle, and how lynchings persisted at home despite their war efforts abroad. In the story's most haunting image, the ship on which the soldiers sail passes through the ghostly images of slaves wearing neck shackles, reminding readers that the Middle Passage still affected these black men in 1917. The narrative gaps and Lewis's focus on so many individuals and situations make this a work that packs an emotional rather than an informational punch; it's best when used to supplement a more extensive study of the Harlem Hellfighters. A beautiful book that tells a truth that needs to be told.

Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review), 7/1/2014

The 369th Infantry Regiment. The 15th New York National Guard. The Men of Bronze. The Black Rattlers. The Harlem Hellfighters. They went by many names, the 2,000 black American soldiers, inspired by musician James "Big Jim" Reese Europe, who made history in World War I. They are the subject of a handsome new biography, written by J. Patrick Lewis, former U.S. Children's Poet Laureate, and illustrated by acclaimed artist Gary Kelley. After explaining that the U.S. entered World War I later than other countries, Lewis goes on to lay out how it is that this particular group of black soldiers came together. In the state of New York, politicians asked bandleader James Europe to help assemble a new regiment of black soldiers in Harlem. "And the cavalcade was on." The soldiers were sent to train in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the summer of 1917, facing great discrimination in a part of the country teeming with racism. Lewis writes that the soldiers soon asked themselves "whether German bullets could be as fatal as the rifle eyes of Southern gentry, women--highborn or down-and-out--triggered to rage, ministers sold on buckshot salvation, and deputy sheriffs certain that black was not any color of the rainbow." On the voyage across the sea to Germany and while being moored in France, Jim and his boys played their "pizzazz jazz." Lewis goes on to note their work (at first they were assigned the same "grunt work" they'd have been given at home, as opposed to fighting on the front lines, all because of their skin color), as well as their success in a city in the Alps in 1918, where they found fame playing jazz. He notes their major battles and even includes a tribute to Henry Johnson, a.k.a. "Black Death" Johnson, who was given France's highest military honor for fighting valiantly in a battle that took his life. On one chilling page, author and illustrator pause to note what was happening "back home" in the U.S. South: lynchings (Kelley doesn't shy from their horror in his illustrations) and rampant discrimination. Jim Europe was still able to write songs and perform, Lewis notes; on one spread a "cobwebbed piano" sits in a field of flowers, Lewis noting in the text that Europe wrote his most famous song, "On Patrol in No Man's Land," while recovering from a gas attack. The book closes with their New York City homecoming but includes the "tally," the lives lost, the damage done. Lewis even documents Jim's death, when back home, at the hands of a "mad drummer with a tripwire temper." He was the first black man ever to receive a public funeral in New York with the "hushed instruments" of the Hellfighters marching by his casket. In what can be best described as free-verse vignettes, Lewis writes with a piercing and moving precision about the work of the Hellfighters, capturing moments with evocative figurative language. "The band served honey through a horn to war-weary dough-boys on leave," he writes. They "turned listeners' bones to liquid--cymbal-cornet-clarinet clash coursing in the blood." Lewis is a gifted writer, and the book's closing bibliography shows he did his research as well. Kelley's textured pastel illustrations are beautifully realized, rich and brooding. He puts panels to effective use and doesn't shy from the horrors of war, making this a great picture book for use with older readers. (High school teachers and librarians, take note.) Many panels show men and action in deep shadow, only to be followed by panels that capture light brilliantly and vividly. This is one to pore over. (Lewis and Kelley also brought us And the Soldiers Sang, a 2012 Boston Globe Horn Book Honor title. Good things happen when they collaborate.) A compelling book that tells a little-known story of American history and a dramatic tale of warfare, it's a fascinating story for music- and history-lovers alike.

–Julie Danielson, Kirkus Reviews , 8/1/2014

On February 17, 1919, the 369th Infantry Regiment returned to New York from France. Under a bright sun and cloudless sky, before a crowd of 250,000, the most decorated African American combat unit to serve in World War I marched under the newly erected Victory Arch at 23rd Street and up Fifth Avenue. White observers were awed by the spectacle of some 3,000 black soldiers in French helmets, bayonets gleaming, parading in disciplined lockstep formation, while black residents flooded the streets and cheered wildly, welcoming home their loved ones and heroes. Capped by this extraordinary moment, the 369th was etched in history as the Harlem Hellfighters. The 369th is for World War I what the Massachusetts Volunteer 54th Infantry Regiment is to the Civil War, or the Tuskegee Airmen to World War II. Like those other famous servicemen, the Harlem Hellfighters stand as representatives of the larger African American struggle for equal rights and human dignity in their time, a theme persuasively captured in a new picture book by J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley. Harlem Hellfighters joins a surge of books on the 369th appearing on the centennial of World War I. The men of the regiment, originally the New York 15th National Guard, proudly called themselves the Rattlers, as the title of Jeffrey Sammons and John Morrow’s scholarly Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War attests. Yet the symbolic power of the name “Harlem Hellfighters” endures, reflected in the titles of a graphic novel by Max Brooks and Canaan White; another children’s book by the late Walter Dean Myers and Bill Miles, who died in 2013, that is being reissued; and Lewis and Kelley’s own contribution. The story of the 369th is so compelling because it is both representative and exceptional. Approximately 380,000 African Americans served in the segregated army during the war. A vast majority of black troops were denied the opportunity to fight, instead confined to labor battalions both in the United States and overseas. In December 1918, the 369th was shipped to France, where it initially seemed destined for a similar fate. Their fortunes changed when General John Pershing assigned them to the French Army, which welcomed any fresh soldiers, regardless of race. Challenging the view promulgated by racist military officials that African Americans played no significant role in the war, the 369th served for 191 consecutive days on the front lines, more than any other American regiment, never ceding an inch of ground to the Germans. Two of its soldiers, Henry Johnson and Neadom Roberts, were the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre for valor on the battlefield. The 369th was also the first Allied regiment to reach the Rhine after the armistice and received a unit decoration from the French Army for its gallant service. The central figure of Lewis and Kelley’s Harlem Hellfighters is James Reese Europe, the acclaimed ragtime composer and conductor who led the 369th regimental band and took France by storm with a new, exciting, and soul-rousing sound that helped usher in the Jazz Age. Lewis tells the history of the 369th in free verse, invoking to great effect the syncopated rhythm that Europe and his band made famous. Lewis’s poetics are perfectly complemented by Kelley’s evocative pastel illustrations, which both inspire and unsettle. The men are rendered with a stoic simplicity that conveys dignity and perseverance. Some images are chilling, such as a bespectacled president Woodrow Wilson scornfully glaring from the page, juxtaposed with the suspended bodies of two lynched black men. Kelley skillfully accentuates his dark palette with the occasional red, white, and blue of the American flag, serving to underscore the challenge the 369th faced in fighting for a country that failed to respect their citizenship and, all too often, their basic humanity. The U.S. entered the war, as Wilson proclaimed, to make the world “safe for democracy.” The 369th fought also to make American democracy safe for black people. On and off the battlefield, the Harlem Hellfighters, as Lewis appropriately writes, “defined courage.” That is why, after nearly a century, their legacy remains very much alive.

–Chad Williams, New York Times , 9/1/2014

Lyrical storytelling and haunting illustrations from the duo behind And the Soldiers Sang recount the achievements of the all-African-American 369th Infantry Regiment in WWI. Known as the Harlem Hellfighters, the 2,000-strong regiment was recruited with the help of “magnetic bandleader James Europe. … Even the tops of buses hosted Big Jim’s band, recruits hopping aboard to the irresistible tug of patriotism, ragtime, and jazz.” Panels in dark hues appear alongside Lewis’s free-verse poems, which feature titles like “Recruited in Song” and “Orders to Move.” These small poetic stories depict the Hellfighters’ journey to the French front, battles, and the racism back home. The often jarring images, with their shadows and angular lines, hit hard with poignancy. One spread intimates a ghost slave ship passing the Hellfighters’ troop transport ship over the Atlantic; chained slaves stare out from an eerie fog, their faces coming closer with each panel. Classic works of art inspire Kelley’s pastels (one softer scene features an upright piano in a field of impressionist red poppies). That these musicians turned soldiers didn’t give up their music strikes a hopeful tone in this powerful tale.

Publishers Weekly , 7/1/2014

This beautifully illustrated collection of free-verse poems introduces readers to the Harlem Hellfighters, a group of black American soldiers who fought in World War I, impressing the French with their courage and tenacity while also inspiring Europeans with their music, “a mix of primitive jazz, blues, and upbeat ragtime.” Despite the picture book format, the sophisticated writing style will be best understood by older readers. In addition, background knowledge is necessary to fully comprehend the poetry. For example, the poem “Somewhere” reads, “Somewhere / in the mid-Atlantic / fog of history, two / dark ships passed / in the night. …” The illustration shows a slave ship crossing paths with the soldiers’ vessel, but the slave trade itself is not mentioned anywhere in the text. The poems are of varying quality: some read more like expository text with some figurative language thrown in, while others feature strong imagery that will help readers visualize the sights and sounds of war. Kelley’s atmospheric, pastel illustrations in muted tones are a perfect match for the time period, documenting the violence of war in Europe and the horror of lynchings at home. Those who look closely may notice that the illustrator has referenced some other works of art that are detailed in the artist’s notes. Refer students who would like to know more about these brave soldiers to Walter Dean Myers’s The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage (HarperCollins, 2006). Though this title isn’t a comprehensive look at the subject, it imparts the mood and feeling of the war well and serves as a good jumping-off point.

–Jackie Partch, School Library Journal , 9/1/2014

The story of the 15th New York National Guard, or the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an all-black regiment that joined the Great War in its final year, is a revealing lens through which to view that conflict. Lewis brings a stark poetic sensibility to his topic. His free verse captures the world the men left, a training camp in the South, a place of “deputy sheriffs certain that black was not any color of the rainbow.” In fourteen words he references the irony of black men being shipped across the Atlantic—“Somewhere in the mid-Atlantic fog of history, two dark ships passed in the night …”—while in Kelley’s atmospheric illustrations enslaved men in neck shackles appear out of the mist. In “The Tally,” Lewis lets the statistics speak for themselves, contrasting the bravery of the soldiers honored by the French (“Citations: the Croix de Guerre to 171 Hellfighters; the Medal of Honor to 1 officer [white]”), with their meager recognition at home. Through the whole tragic enterprise there is music, with ragtime as a recruitment tool, a jazz version of the “Marseillaise,” musician James Europe composing songs on a beat-up piano in an abandoned French farmhouse, and happy horns on Armistice Day. An introduction gives just enough background, and especially welcome artist’s notes point out how Kelley echoes images of Monet, Delacroix, and Renoir in his illustrations. A bibliography is also included. This offering by the author-illustrator team behind the Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor book And the Soldiers Sang is a needed antidote to some of the more sentimental WWI books of this centennial year.

–Sarah Ellis, The Horn Book Magazine , 11/1/2014

The Gary Kelley–illustrated book Harlem Hellfighters has been chosen by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best [Illustrated] Books of the year. Kelley also has been honored with a [silver] medal from the Society of Illustrators, a professional society based in New York City, for his artwork. The Cedar Falls–based artist is a member of the Society’s hall of fame and has received nearly 30 medals in his career. Released in September, Harlem Hellfighters is another in the list of award-winning collaborations between Kelley and author J. Patrick Lewis for publisher Creative Editions. And the Soldiers Sang, an illustrated version of the true story of the 1914 Christmas Truce released in 2011, [was named an honor book for] the prestigious Horn Book Award for picture books. The New York Times book review gives Harlem Hellfighters high praise: “Lewis’s poetics are perfectly complemented by Kelley’s evocative pastel illustrations, which both inspire and unsettle. The men are rendered with a stoic simplicity that conveys dignity and perseverance.” The book chronicles the achievements of the First World War’s all-African-American 369th Infantry, a 2,000-troop regiment recruited in New York and lead by famous band leader James Reese Europe. After training for combat in the South, bigotry kept them digging ditches and other grunt work. “The U.S. Army would not trust them to fight because they were black,” Kelley says. “The French said they wanted them, so the regiment was sent to France in 1917 and fought with great distinction in French uniforms. They took their ragtime piano with them to war.” German soldiers gave the unit their nickname because of their ferocity as fighters. The first Americans to reach the Rhine River, the Hellfighters and Sgt. Henry Johnson received the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military medals. Given the nickname “Black Death” in combat, Johnson also was the first American soldier to be honored by the French. It wasn’t until 2003 that Johnson received the U.S. military’s Distinguished Service Cross. In August 2014, he was posthumously given the Medal of Honor for his actions under fire. “They came home to New York and a short but glorious reaction with a parade down Fifth Avenue, everyone lining the streets and cheering. Everyone thought it might be a turning point in race relations, but obviously it didn’t turn out that way,” Kelley explains. Their success in battle paralleled the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the black regiment who fought for the Union during the American Civil War. Ironically, bandleader James Reese Europe was stabbed to death after an argument with his drummer the night before his band was scheduled to play at the Boston dedication for the 54th regiment monument. Kelley learned about the Hellfighters while researching World War I for And the Soldiers Sang, then pitched the idea to his publisher. Early stages on the project were “a little challenging” because Lewis initially wanted to write the story in verse. “It’s difficult to match picture and narrative in verse, but I finally figured it out. By that time, the editor and publisher decided they wanted free verse or prose, so Pat had to start over. Then our editor died in the midst of the project, so the book is dedicated to him. In the end, though, the book turned out beautifully,” Kelley says. One of Creative Editions’ bestselling picture books, Harlem Hellfighters is in its third printing. Publishers Weekly said, “the remarkable narrative nonfiction rendering of WWI—and American—history uses free-verse poetry and captivating art to tell the century-old story of hellish combat, racist times, rare courage, and inspired music.” Kelley praises his publisher as “one of the last truly independent and adventurous publishers in the picture book genre.”

–Melody Parker, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier , 11/1/2014

Just released from Creative Editions, this picture book tells the story of African American soldiers who fought in an all-black regiment in World War I, and which included among their ranks Henry Johnson, whom Theodore Roosevelt called “one of the five bravest soldiers” in the war. The Harlem Hellfighters also included Jim Europe, a jazz bandleader, and his band members, who played for the weary troops overseas. The book includes the history of the unit during and after the war, as well as giving details about some of the things going on back in the United States, such as the shameful lynchings of black men in the South, which went ignored by President Wilson for far too long. A mix of free verse and prose poems is paired with illustrations reminiscent of a graphic novel style, evocative as much as descriptive, as in the case of the spread on pages 12 and 13. The text reads, “Somewhere / in the mid-Atlantic / fog of history, two / dark ships passed / in the night …” The illustrations juxtapose the serviceman on the left, sailing toward France to defend his country, with a ghostly slave ship coming west, and it’s one of the most haunting series of images in the book, which is saying something. The back matter in the book includes an eight-book bibliography, as well as five different artist’s notes, in which the artist credits other artists from whom he borrowed an image or idea. The book covers a lot of ground in only 32 pages and does it in a thoughtful, informative way. A real must for libraries everywhere, people interested in World War I history and/or African American history, and folks who love great poetry and great art.

–Kelly Fineman, Writing and Ruminating , 8/1/2014