Readers may remember that when EA Digital Solutions CE (DICE) unveiled this boxart, Battlefield “fans” made known their disapproval. One Redditor claimed that this image was “black washing,” whining that “an” African American graces the cover of a video game set during WWI; millions of Europeans died over the course of four years, while Americans were involved for only six months. The accusation in this instance–and many others that I do not wish to revisit–is that EA DICE’s marketing intended to appeal to American SJW audiences for sales.
I only reexamine the details around Battlefield 1‘s marketing cycle to highlight how I encountered the story of the Harlem Hellfighters for the first time. It is possible that DICE, a Swedish developer, might have been inspired by the 369th Infantry Regiment thanks to the Obama administration. On May 15, 1915, the White House announced that William Henry Johnson would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty”:
Private Johnson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a member of Company C, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces, during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France on May 15, 1918. Private Johnson and another soldier were on sentry duty at a forward outpost when they received a surprise attack from a German raiding party consisting of at least 12 soldiers. While under intense enemy fire and despite receiving significant wounds, Private Johnson mounted a brave retaliation, resulting in several enemy casualties. When his fellow soldier was badly wounded, Private Johnson prevented him from being taken prisoner by German forces. Private Johnson exposed himself to grave danger by advancing from his position to engage an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Wielding only a knife and gravely wounded himself, Private Johnson continued fighting and took his Bolo knife and stabbed it through an enemy soldier’s head. Displaying great courage, Private Johnson held back the enemy force until they retreated. Private Johnson’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.
Thanks, Obama! (and real slick of you to slyly correct that wrong on your way out of office!)
I cannot imagine how any modern American could learn about Private Johnson and not swell with pride. I actually encountered his story for the first time at the Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington DC in 2019. I do not have a single jingoistic bone in my body, but my favorite exhibit awaits on the third floor. It hosts a plaque every black recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the time of my visit, I took photos of the soldiers who survived their feats, though I did not recognize Private Johnson as a Harlem Hellfighter, because I had yet to learn about his company, the 369th. Besides, the Army Center of Military History did not officially recognize the 369th Sustainment Brigade soldiers as the Harlem Hellfighters until September 21, 2020–after Pvt. Johnson was conferred the Medal of Honor, and after the African American Museum’s erection. In other words, the museum’s plaque needs updating.
Encouraged by learning about black military history, including the Buffalo Soldiers, I returned home to seek further reading. I obtained a copy of Max Brooks’ graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters, from my local library and proceeded to familiarize myself. The book revealed that the story of the 369th was too much like practically every other story of black soldiering throughout American history: black men desiring to be recognized as such hope to endanger their lives for the sake of a country that hates them. Despite their performance exceeding expectations, Jim Crow reminds the Hellfighters that they are not heroes to whites at home, but n***ers masquerading as heroes in military regalia. Only generations later would they be adequately recognized for their accomplishments.
Mind, I excavated the “controversy” concerning Battlefield 1 amidst the whitelash against black characters in Amazon’s take on LotR, and Disney unveiling Halle Bailey as Ariel from Reddit. Again, conversations among non-blacks concerning black contributions to human civilization affairs often understate, if not outright undermine. Brooks writes and Caanan White illustrates black people as always already present in the trenches.
As the UK recently lays Queen Elizabeth II to rest, her former subjects remind us that her country was once recognized as an empire. Allied nations like England and France ravaged their colonies, inflicting irreparable damage to countries like Zambia, Uganda, Botswana, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Madagascar, and Côte d’Ivoire. We are familiar with the tolls thanks to post-colonial studies, tallied by monetary resources; after Britain abolished slavery in 1883, few would think that they conscripted soldiers from their colonies. Brooks reminds us that they did, and they were in the trenches before the Harlem Hellfighters, dismissing the accusation that people of African descent played minimal roles during WWI. In reality, the 369th spent all of the six months that Americans were deployed in combat, longer than any other American regiment, and suffered 1,500 casualties.
Caanan White’s artwork in Harlem Hellfighters is some of the best I have seen in black and white. I love his aesthetic decisions, such as widened noses, or adding shadows to facial features a la Charles Schwartz’s Franklin in Peanuts to distinguish black from white soldiers. White painstakingly depicts the gory chaos of trench warfare, from landmines to air raids to chloride gas, as well as the emotions conveyed in response to the absurdity of Jim Crow hounding African Americans at home and thousands of miles abroad. I will have to check out Son of Shaolin Ogn (2017) and Uber (2014) to support the brotha. And now I realize that Harlem Hellfighters was also published in 2014? Dude is a beast!
Yeah, this one is beyond late. I promised this one a long time ago. My bad.