Review: The Harlem Hellfighters

The Harlem Hellfighters
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“In 1917 we left our home to make the world safe for democracy even though democracy wasn’t safe back home.” Despite 191 days in combat (longest for any unit, black or white, in World War I), despite being one of the most decorated units, and despite having the first American (black or white) be awarded the French Croix DeGuerre (Cross of War), the Harlem Hellfighters are still largely unrecognized in many historical accounts of World War I. Thanks to the writing of Max Brooks and the illustrations of Caanan White, this will change. After reading this, the Harlem Hellfighters’s story will not be forgotten.

The images and pain of racism are war have been etched forever into my mind. Our American men, who volunteered to fight on another land, were treated worse than dogs. While in training, they were teased, provoked, and beaten. Our own government provided inadequate training, broomsticks for guns, and tin can boats instead of parades. These men stood up and fought in trenches that smelled of a “mix of charcoal, gunpowder, unwashed bodies, and rotten meat. A lot of rotten meat.” They were there, “so while our own country didn’t want us…another country needed us.” They even forbidden to fight alongside their own army, but they were strong enough to never lose a single trench and were the first soldiers, of any race, to reach the Rhine River.

Anyone dismissing graphic novels, I beg to differ. This is the perfect medium to share multi-facets of a oft-times dismissed war. Through this medium, we learn in words and illustration of the tragedies of “the great war”. 16,000,000 dead: as the book describes, equivalent to “a whole town gone, every day for four years”. This book describes the advent of the machine gun, without the change in battle strategy. In the “meat grinder of Verdun” 160,000 Frenchmen were lost in 11 months. In “the great [f-up] of the Somme” 20,000 British were lost in one day. (Curse words in this book use #, $, and * in place of the letters.) We learn of the Spanish flu, shell shock, influenze, Pnomonia, phosgene gas, rats, body lice, mud, and “Jack Johnson”. Again, if you dismiss this medium, I beg to differ.

The back of the book has some pictures which I’m sharing on my blog. Looking up “Harlem Hellfighters” in Google or Bing will yield others. Henry Johnson was the winner of the French Cross of War. James Reese Europe, known as “the king of Jazz” or “the Martin Luther King of music” is also featured.

Bottom line: read this!

Thanks to Crown Publishing for this book. You can find an interesting interview with the author on their site: (Come on Hollywood, make this a movie!!)

Comment time: what are your thoughts regarding graphic novels as a serious reading medium?

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. You can find this book’s preview and other reviews on Amazon: The Harlem Hellfighters

Or, you can rock the independent thing over at Powell’s:


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