How have I not been aware of the work of illustrator Gary Kelley before? He knocked my socks off with this book.
It’s also a great story, even without the riveting art work.
The United States did not enter World War I until April, 1917. The Army was segregated, but this did not prevent African-Americans from joining. Between 350,000 and 380,000 black American soldiers played a pivotal role in the conflict.
The 15th New York National Guard Unit, federalized as the 369th Infantry Regiment, was called “Harlem Hellfighters” by the Germans for their tenacity as fighters. They were assigned to the French Army by General John Pershing, and served longer than any other American regiment – 191 days on the front lines. The 369th was 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 369th also became known for their regimental band, “a mix of primitive jazz, blues, and upbeat ragtime never heard before.” The band’s leader, James “Big Jim” Reese Europe, played on the recruitment buses in New York, and later he led his band cross the ocean.
How to describe the effect of the music on the soldiers? The author writes:
“Europe’s big band ‘jazz spasm,’ riffing to ten pianos, turned listeners’ bones to liquid – cymbal-cornet-clarient clash coursing in the blood.”
Meanwhile, even as the black soldiers were fighting for America’s cause, back home in the States, there was a rash of lynchings in the South. The author reports:
“The Hellfighters were writing their own epigram: At war, men die bravely and escape the rope. At home, cowards lasso trees suspending hope.”
In a text box, the author provides a “tally” at the war’s end:
Mustered in: 2,000 Harlem Hellfighters.
Killed or wounded: 1,500 in 4 French campaigns.
Citations: the Croix de Guerre to 171 Hellfighters; the Medal of Honor to 1 officer (white).
Known as: “The regiment that never lost a man captured, a trench, or a foot of ground.”
Jim Europe’s band: 90 musicians on parade; 30-50 in ballroom orchestra.
Jim Europe was killed in May 9, 1919, by one of his drummers who had gone crazy. On May 13, “the first black man ever to be given a public funeral in the city of New York rolled through the streets of Harlem past a delirium of mourners.” The author observes: “In black armbands, the Hellfighters marched last, their hushed instruments at their sides.”
[Jim Europe is not well known by many, but should be. He was the head of the first black music society in New York, the Clef Club. The Clef Club Orchestra led by Europe – the first all-black orchestra in America, consisted not only of traditional symphony instruments like violins, cellos, brass and wind, but also featured more than twenty strummed instruments – mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and guitars. Europe also became involved with the Music School Settlement for Colored People of Harlem; Europe and a staff of black volunteer Clef Club music teachers provided daily lessons in piano, violin, voice, sight reading and musical theory – at twenty-five cents per lesson. According to an article in “Jazz Times”: “It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Clef Club concert in the history of American music.”]
A bibliography and references end the book.
I found Gary Kelley’s pastel illustrations to be jaw-dropping in their simplicity, beauty, and ability to engage the emotions of the viewer. The palette is mostly dark, with accents of red, white, and blue. The pictures are just stunning.
Evaluation: The author served as Children’s Poet Laureate of the United States from 2011 to 2013, and he has won a number of awards, including for his poetry. The verse in this book testifies to his talents. This is an outstanding book with haunting art work.
Published by Creative Editions, an imprint of The Creative Company, 2014
You can see a short video history of the Harlem Hellfighters on Youtube.