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. Harlem Hellfighters will be on shelves next week.
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 “cob-webbed 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. “[T]he 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 Soliders 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.
HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS. Copyright © 2014 by J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrations © 2014 by Gary Kelley. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Creative Editions, Mankato, Minnesota.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.