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Culture

Max Brooks on how France embraced US all-black WWI unit

© Broadway Books

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2014-03-28

Max Brooks’s last graphic novel, “World War Z”, became a big-screen blockbuster starring Brad Pitt and a bunch of zombies. His next book, “The Harlem Hellfighters”, may have a similarly starry and high-profile, though less fantastical, fate.

The film rights to “The Harlem Hellfighters”, a fictionalised account of the true story of an African-American unit sent by the US army to fight with the French army during World War I (to hit bookshelves in the US on April 1), have been acquired by Will Smith. Brooks is slated to write the screenplay himself.

Brooks collaborated with illustrator Caanan White to trace the 369th Infantry Regiment’s awe-inspiring journey from the streets of Harlem to France’s trenches, and back to an America where racism trumped any appreciation of the soldiers’ sacrifices.

FRANCE 24 interviewed Brooks – the 41-year-old son of comedy legend Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft (star of “The Graduate”) – about the little-known story, French acceptance of black soldiers ostracised by the US during World War I, and the link between the new book and his previous sci-fi-inflected work.

FRANCE 24: Why did you want to tell this story?

Max Brooks: The first time I heard about it, I was about 11 or 12. There was a young man working for my parents to put himself through school. When he told me about the Harlem Hellfighters, I was shocked by the sheer injustice of it (especially given my sheltered existence on the west side of LA). The story never left me, and I remained curious right up until the late 90s, when [US cable channel] TNT came out with the TV movies “Buffalo Soldiers” [about an African-American unit that fought against Native Americans after the Civil War] and “Tuskegee Airmen” [about African-American pilots during World War II]. I thought the time was perfect for a telling of the Hellfighters. Unfortunately, I had to wait another 15 years.

Some of the Harlem Hellfighters. Front row: Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Leon Fraitor and Ralph Hawkins. Back row: H.D. Prinas, Dan Strorms, Joe Williams, Alfred Hanley and T. W. Taylor. (US National Archives)

F24: This is a little-discussed aspect of World War I history. Was it hard to find material on it?

MB: I was very, very lucky to find two pieces of research material that have remained with me to this day. The first is a book by one of the actual Hellfighers, Arthur W. Little. It’s called “From Harlem to the Rhine”. It is a first-hand account of what these men had to endure, from the earliest formation of the regiment to their triumphant return to New York. The second essential piece of research material was a documentary from the 1970s. It was called “Men of Bronze” and it had, to my knowledge, two of the last living Hellfighters. One of them, Melville T. Miller, was so important for me to understand how these men spoke. I call Mr. Miller my “primary dialogue coach”.

F24: France certainly struggles with racism, but the French army was more respectful of black soldiers during World War I than the US. Could you comment on that?

MB: Racism was everywhere. The type of racism changed with each country, however. In America, there were a lot of black people so there was a lot of built up hate and fear of them. In Europe, however, there were not a lot of black people, so they were a curiosity and not a threat to the social status quo.

The French Army had had a lot of success with their black African colonial troops. The French Army had used the Africans as frontline combat troops and was very impressed by how brave they were. The French were also in love with jazz, the new American music that the Hellfighters had brought with them. And, finally, the French army was simply exhausted after so many years of war. They were desperate for anyone who could hold a rifle, and that desperation erased the luxury of racism. The end result was that, for the first time, African-Americans felt more at home in this foreign land than in their own country.

The Harlem Hellfighters in the trenches, wearing French helmets. (National Archives and Records Administration)

F24: Why do you think these African-Americans volunteered to fight for a country that considered them inferior?

MB: I think these soldiers truly understood the ideals of America, more so than most white people. The ideals of the United States were specifically created to protect the weak from the strong, and to provide opportunity for those who had none. No group needed those ideals more than the former slaves. So when America declared that they were fighting to “make the world safe for democracy”, it was African-Americans who really needed democracy.

F24: The story of these soldiers remains mostly unknown, even compared to other all-black units in other wars. Why do you think that is?

MB: In [the US], the first World War is largely overshadowed by the second World War. Most Americans know nothing about the [World War I], so it is easy to see why the story of these men has been largely ignored.

F24: Your most famous work is about zombies. How was the transition to exploring World War I history and telling very real human stories?

MB: I think my stories, no matter what their subject matter, deal with humans overcoming tremendous obstacles. I also believe that there is nothing zombies or any other monsters can do to us that we haven’t already done to ourselves.
 

Date created : 2014-03-28

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