If you want to catch up a bit on the history you weren’t taught in school, these three graphic novels are a great way to do so. Nat Turner gives detail and perspective on the 1831 slave rebellion that was probably mentioned in a textbook but only covered in passing. The Harlem Hellfighters reveals not only the bravery and heroism of the all-Black 369th regiment fighting in WWI Europe, but also the racism and violence they faced from their fellow Americans. Muhammad Ali covers the rise of this phenomenal athlete, from his childhood in Louisville to his ascendency to “the greatest” boxer in the world, while also reminding the reader of the sacrifices he made and the example he set for others. All three graphic books would be appropriate for adolescents and older.
Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner follows Turner’s own description of the rebellion as reported in “The Confessions of Nat Turner”. Turner made this confession to Thomas Gray after he was captured, just before he was to be hanged. Part of the confession is reprinted in the back of this book, and full copies of the confession are available online. Baker uses little dialog in his account, relying instead on striking shadowy black/white/gray drawings to tell the story. He opens in Africa, depicting a thriving village torn apart by raiding slavers, hundreds then crammed into ships for the horrifying and deadly middle passage to the US. In a few short pages, Baker conveys the brutality of this trade, which segues into the violence and brutality of slave life in America, where Black children are treated no better than pigs and knowing how to read is a crime for a slave. White slave owners were free to treat any and all infractions with barbaric violence: cutting off hands for playing native drums, whippings and rubbing salt into wounds, and death by hanging. Nat Turner, however, was an unusual and precocious child, and many recognized it. He was able to learn to read and keep his talent secret, and even as a child, he impressed older kids and adults with his wisdom and maturity. In the confession, Nat reveals his spiritual inclinations, his life of prayer and focus on God, and he describes visions he had while working the fields. He believed that he had been called by God to lead others in the fight of good versus evil, and thus the plan for an uprising of the enslaved against their white masters was born. He worked with a few trusted associates and awaited signs that the time was right before taking action on August 21, 1831. For two days, Turner and his supporters methodically attacked households, killing all the men, women and children they encountered and adding more men to their army as they moved on. In the Confession, Turner relates who they killed and how it was done in a methodical way, and the images in Baker’s book are true to the violence of the revolt. Baker’s images also show the reader that not all slaves joined the rebellion; some tried to save the white families, some ran to warn them, and eventually, the rebellion was suppressed. Turner hid in the woods for some time before being found.
Thomas Gray was appalled by Turner and by the calm way in which Turner related the events of August 21 and 22. When he asked Turner if, in retrospect, he considers himself mistaken in believing that God called him to do this thing, Turner responds, “Was not Christ crucified?” The final images in Nat Turner are quite powerful: Turner being hanged in front of a crowd of rejoicing white people, Gray taking his manuscript to the printers, and a Black child sneaking a copy of that book away and reading it in secret. Included in this book are a teacher’s guide and classroom questions and activities. Nat Turner is sure to generate some important discussions about our history and the violence of slavery. Perhaps the most important question would be why don’t we celebrate Nat Turner? We celebrate the rebellion of colonists versus the British, why not slaves versus slave owners?
A mere 86 years after Nat Turner’s rebellion, The Harlem Hellfighters fought US racism and Germans in WWI. Writer Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, provides a fascinating history lesson in this graphic novel based on real people and events. The Harlem Hellfighters, so dubbed by Germans on the front lines who suffered their ferocity, were a segregated unit in WWI, and the fact that their heroics are not covered in texts or celebrated in public monuments is a travesty.
Brooks starts with Black men volunteering for the war in New York City. We learn that these men have a variety of reasons for volunteering, some feeling a duty as well as an opportunity to show their mettle, some looking forward to killing white men. From the outset, it is clear that this regiment, the 369th, will be set up for failure. Unlike white recruits, they are not given uniforms or real guns for training, and they receive less training than their white counterparts. We also learn that Black units have been subject to taunting and violence at the hands of white civilians, particularly in the South. When the men of the 369th are shipped to Spartanburg, SC, they are told that they must not ever respond to the harassment of white people. If they do, they will be accused of starting trouble and could be executed, as happened to a Black unit in Houston. Of course, the whites of Spartanburg do verbally and physically abuse the men of the 369th, and although white soldiers come to the aid of their Black counterparts in one instance, it is just as likely that they will ignore or join in the violence. When the 369th gets ready to deploy, they note that they get no farewell parade as white soldiers do and that the ship taking them across the ocean is subpar; moreover, when they arrive in France, rather than be sent to fight, they are put to work as manual laborers in support of the army.
When the 369th finally gets its opportunity to fight at the front, Brooks shows the reader the horrors of WWI and trench warfare. They can smell the stench of the front before they see it. Trenches are overrun with rats and lice, men suffer from shell shock, there’s not much movement, and bombardments are terrifying. The men of the 369th understand that they are being set up to fail, that no one expects them to succeed in their missions. And yet here are the historical facts:
- The first American soldier to ever receive a French Croix de Guerre was Henry Johnson of the 369th. He received US Army’s Distinguished Service Cross posthumously in 2003 and has never received a Medal of Honor for his courageous and valiant actions, which are described in this book.
- The 369th were the first allied soldiers to reach the Rhine River.
- They spent 191 days in combat, the longest of any American unit.
- They never lost a trench to the enemy.
- They never lost a man to capture.
- They were one of the most decorated units of the American Expeditionary Forces.
- Their actions prevented the German army from taking Paris and drove them back.
The French treated Black American soldiers as equals, something that never happened in the US. While on leave, they were able to eat, drink and relax in a racially integrated environment, and even have relations with white women. This was distressing to the US command, which wanted to maintain its usual segregation and suppression of Black soldiers. When the men of the 369th returned from war, they did finally get their NYC parade, but they returned in 1919 to the Red Summer, a time of racial violence and unrest that led to lynchings and burnings in cities all across the US. No one cared about or remembered the heroism of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters. They would make excellent replacements for the Confederate traitors whose monuments are coming down.
Within 50 years of the 369th’s return from war, a Black man would rise up in America who refused to be unseen and unheard — Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer and one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. This graphic biography gives a short history of Ali’s life, from his birth in Louisville, KY, in 1942 until his death in 2016. Of course, the book covers the major milestones of his career: Olympic gold in 1960, his first heavyweight crown against Sonny Liston in 1964, subsequent matches and titles against Patterson, Frazier, Foreman and others. Those who are boxing fans will most likely enjoy the detail Titeux provides about these matches, the hype leading up to them, Ali’s ability to not only physically overpower opponents but also to play them psychologically with his banter and taunting. The artwork in this book is outstanding, with artist Ameziane perfectly capturing the likenesses of many known athletes, celebrities and historical figures.
There is much more to Ali’s story though than boxing. Titeux shows the turbulent world in which Ali, born Cassius Clay, lived and fought (not just in the ring). Despite his success in the Olympics, young Ali was still treated as a second class citizen in his hometown due to the color of his skin. His frustration and anger were so great that he threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River. In the early 1960s, he became friends with Malcolm X and converted to Islam, taking the new name Muhammad Ali. If belonging to the Nation of Islam and befriending Malcolm X weren’t enough to turn public opinion against Ali, then his refusal to submit to the Vietnam draft certainly did the trick. His boxing license was rescinded, his heavyweight title taken away, and he spent years as an outcast from the boxing world he had dominated. After three years the Supreme Court allowed Ali to return to the ring, and in his first match against Joe Frazier, Ali experienced his first loss. What comes through in this book is Ali’s confidence and drive. He believed in himself and expected to win again and he said so. His professions of his own greatness and beauty are the stuff of legend, and I remember as a kid singing this song along with the radio (and I was a little white girl who didn’t follow boxing). Ali was a confident Black man who loved himself and was unafraid to say what he thought, even if everyone else disagreed, even if what he said might offend. His racial taunts against fellow black boxers were harsh and got under the skin of the targets. We know that Ali went on to defeat Frazier in a rematch as well as take on and defeat George Foreman, among others. These matches were often brutal slugfests, and they took a toll on Ali, who retired in 1980 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984.
Reading about Ali reminded me that there were plenty of people who hated him — for his political views, for his religion, for his “arrogance.” How dare a Black man love himself like that? Proclaim his own greatness? Not back down from criticism? Fight back and win? Reading this biography right after Nat Turner and The Harlem Hellfighters gives me a greater appreciation for how explosive Ali was not just as an athlete but as a Black Muslim who demanded to be heard, seen and respected, and then was.
These three graphic books were incredibly informative, and I think kids would happily pick these up to read alongside a dry, uninformative textbook. They are worth checking out no matter your age.