Book Club Discussion Questions for A More Unbending Battle
1. World War 1, a war nearly forgotten today, changed the geo-political landscape of the world more than any war before or since. Discuss how the world changed, during and after the war.
2. World War 1 was the first major post-technological war, commencing after the invention of electricity, air travel, motorized vehicles and trans-Atlantic communication. Discuss how technology changed modern warfare, and how the war changed modern technology.
3. Prior to World War 1, African-Americans and white Americans lived in parallel societies, kept apart by Jim Crow laws and by the principle of separate but equal. What would have happened, had African-American soldiers not participated in the war effort?
4. Discuss both sides of the argument --- African-Americans in 1914 had good reasons to fight for their country, and good reasons not to. What would you have done?
5. The Army decided the problem of racial hostilities between white and black troops was insurmountable. Why couldn’t the military address the problem head on, and what might have happened if they did?
6. Discuss the differences between the “Old Negro” and the “New Negro” who emerged after the war.
7. Why was the French attitude towards blacks so different from the American attitude?
8. How does war change a man?
For reasons that were simultaneously well within and slightly beyond my control, the acknowledgements were omitted from the hardcover version of this book. Well within because I should have noticed they weren’t in the galleys, and I should have said something --- somehow I had the impression they were forthcoming and would appear in the final version. Beyond my control in the sense that in the back and forth between me and my wonderful editors on this book, we exchanged only electronic copies with edits and queries denoted electronically, involving tracking and accept or rejecting changes --- this instead of the old fashioned editing method where the author receives a paper copy of the text, all marked up, and he or she marks it up with a different colored pen, then returns the hard copy. The new way of editing is, in theory, faster and more efficient, but I’m afraid I got a bit lost.
I am therefore posting the acknowledgements here, with my deep and sincere apologies for the people who helped me research and producer this book, and who might have been upset to pick up a copy and not find their contributions listed and properly accredited.
My interest in the Harlem Hellfighters was sparked when I came across a brief mention of them online, shortly after President Bill Clinton moved his post-presidency offices to Harlem. The article I found led me to a number of other places and resources. It led me, first, to a memoir by Arthur Little entitled From Harlem to the Rhine, published in 1936, the author a captain and then a major with the regiment whose book remains the only full length primary source. It led me to the Journals of Horace Pippin, transcribed from microfilm obtained from the Smithsonian, and in the microfilmed images, one can see the smudges and smears on the pages and read, in words that are simply and grammatically incorrect of often misspelled, in passages rarely dated or specifically located, a sincere first hand account y a grunt soldier who on several occasions covered himself in glory and afterwards wanted nothing more than a cigarette and something to eat, and maybe a dry place to sleep, though Pippin knew that was asking too much.
My research led me to Albany and the New York State archives, where I donned white cotton gloves and shuffled through the correspondence of former New York Congressman Hamilton Fish, who served as a captain in the 15th. I also found, in Albany, a man named John Howe who had dedicated his life to the history of the Harlem Hellfighters and who had made it his personal quest to make sure Henry Johnson was never forgotten. John Howe let me into his house and together we poured over the boxes of memorabilia he’d collected, medals and ribbons, articles and books and maps and photographs, and we talked about the project at length. John Howe died before this project could be completed, but it was continued in his spirit. My research led me to the Schomburg Museum, where we discovered the unpublished typed manuscript pages of the Memoirs of Lt. Jim Europe, which were, despite the title, written by his friend, Noble Sissle. Sissles account provides further first-person insight into the experiences of the 369th.
I hope I’ve brought the story of the Hellfighters forward, front and center, so that my readers might think of them, one more time, and recognize the sacrifices they made, real sacrifices of life and limb, but for an abstraction they had to only imagine.
I would like to express my gratitude for the help received from a number of public institutions, including Michael Aikey, NY State Military History Museum; retired Maj. General Nat James of the Albany Historical Society; Lee Kennett, University of Georgia; the Legacy Project, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard Univ., Washington, DC, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the W.E.B. Dubois Library at the University of Massachuestts, the Northampton Public Library, the South Salem, NY York Library; the Ridgefield, Connecticut Public Library; Howard University Archives, Jonathan Casey at the Research Center for Delmarva Pennisula History and Culture, Salisbury, MD; the National World War One Museum Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, MO; The NY Military Heritage Institute; Oscar Schmidt of the Argonnewald Society; Dr. Maurice Thornton, SUNY Albany Africana Studies; NY State Military Historian Col. Robert Von Hasselen; A.J. Myers Williams, professor of African-American history at SUNY, New Paltz; and Fred Bassett of the New York State Library Archives. Thanks to Herman Johnson, Florence Frazier, Richard Robertson, Leon Ramsey and George Gifford for talking to me about their fathers. I would like to give special thanks, posthumously, to historian John Howe who took me into his home in Albany and let me sift through the boxes of material he’d collected over the years; thanks to Geoffrey Little, grandson of Arthur Little, who gave me his time on the telephone, and thanks to Reid Badger, whose great book A Life In Ragtime gives the full and best account of the life of James Reese Europe.
I would not have been able to collect or complete the research required of this book without the long hours put in by my interns from Smith College, including Anna Dengler, Amber Tucker, Erin Donahue and Melina Moore, and particular thanks to Anna Dengler for giving me her summer when she surely could have spent it in more enjoyable ways. Thanks in France to Tom McClung, Suzy Gershman, and extra thanks to Aviva Kakar, who spent time trying to track down materials in a French library system that doesn’t make it easy. Thanks also to Tom Reney for answering my questions about jazz history, and to Jack Brehm for giving me the word “atelectasis,” and to his daughter Elizabeth for giving me the correct spelling.
Penultimate thanks to editors Chris Greenburg and Brandon Proia and Mary McCue at Basic Books, and to my agent Lane Zachary whose faith in me kept me going and whose persistence in the overcoming of numerous obstacles made this book a reality.
Final thanks to my wife Jennifer, whose support in every way I could not live without, and to my son Jack for being so patient while daddy was working on his book.
A More Unbending Battle