Teach This: The Harlem Hellfighters
Thanks to Max Brooks and Caanan White you can stop teaching All Quiet on the Western Front. Seriously. Just stop. Right now. You don’t need Remarque’s four hundred pages of Paul Bäumer ruminating on camaraderie, lice, mud, and the horror of World War One. Instead you now have The Harlem Hellfighters.
The Harlem Hellfighters is Max Brooks and Caanan White’s fictionalized history of United States’ 369th Infantry Regiment. Much like All Quiet, the precise details of the story and characters are fiction, but the context and the core history are accurate. This makes the text applicable in both English and Social Studies contexts. Brooks even includes a brief, but thorough bibliography for students or teachers who want to do more research into the war or the 369th.
It’s also a graphic novel. If your school teachers Maus or Persepolis you should have no trouble justifying Hellfighters. It’s on that level of greatness.
So What’s So Great About The Book?
Hellfighters is a great war story. It has incredibly poignant depictions of the horror of war, dehumanizing combat technology, and deep camaraderie. Hellfighters is a story about a few men who hoped to fight for their country’s honor and found a much tougher battle when they got to the front line and had to fight a two front war. One against the German enemy and one against an American enemy. Hellfighters is also a black story; a story specifically about black Americans during World War I.
There’s no two ways about it. The standard canonical curriculum needs more black stories. There are bits and pieces of black stories when we cover 18th century slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement, but those are scattered pebbles. There is rarely a clear path through the chronology. Black voices are typically absent or tokenized in the curriculum.
Hellfighters examines the black experience in the United States through the lens of World War I. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty. Brooks doesn’t sugar coat the oppression and bigotry the soldiers faced while trying to fight for this country.
Historically, the Hellfighters stand out as the American unit that spent the most time in combat during World War I, never losing ground to the enemy and never losing a soldier to capture. (I’d never heard of them before reading the book.) The Hellfighters were also the United States’ first black regiment to serve in World War One, but the regiment was assigned to the French Army for the duration of the war because white American soldiers refused to serve alongside black solders. Such is our legacy.
It Also Has Pictures:
If counteracting a hegemonic historical narrative is not enough reason to you use Hellfighters in your class, it’s also a comic and White’s art is incredible throughout. Somewhere between manga and Jack Kriby styles White’s art has extremely clean lines that explode into chaos as the battle ignites. Throughout the text White’s art supports Brooks’ words with raw, immediate, emotional content. It’s powerful stuff. Just as powerful as Remarque’s vivid descriptions of bombardments and hand to hand combat and more accessible to a range of students.
There’s Nothing Wrong With All Quiet:
All Quiet is a phenomenal text. It might be the greatest war novel ever written. (The cover says it is.) I also really like the book. It was probably my favorite school book before Ms. Jones blew my brain open during my junior and senior years of high school. It’s also one of two school books that I voluntarily reread later in life. All Quiet also has the unique position as a historical document, being written by an active soldier immediately after the war. There is great power in situating the book in its historical context and I fully encourage using All Quiet with students. There would likely be no Hellfighters without All Quiet.
The problem is time. I don’t know of any high schools that offer a narrowly focused class on World War I, or the Literature of War, or any other course where you can justify teaching multiple complex texts on the same fairly narrow subject. We simply ask high school for too much breadth. (The fact that I can call World War I a “narrow subject” tells you how packed the history curriculum is.) With that in mind, swapping in Hellfighters in place of All Quiet is efficient. It’s a much quicker read without sacrificing emotional or historical content.
It’s also a black story and we need more of those. Hellfighters solves the dilemma of how to add other perspectives without sacrificing core content.
Stop Doing Good Things:
World War I is an important topic to U.S. history and world history courses and the canon has a truly outstanding text already in place with All Quiet on the Western Front. Asking teachers to drop that text in favor of The Harlem Hellfighters is a prime example of the difficulty of changing education. For the most part, teachers are doing very good work. That means in order to improve we have to stop doing very good work in order to do excellent work.
Teaching Hellfighters would be a bold move and I appreciate the difficulty of asking teachers to stop doing very good things to risk something new and unknown, but there’s a big gap in much US History curriculum. The black experience frequently disappears from the classroom and Hellfighters reminds us that black people didn’t disappear. That is a critical message to send our students.
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