‘The Ballard of Pvt Burbanks’ a pivotal chapter in ‘Passing Place’ tells what you could call the ‘origin’ story of Sonny Burbanks, the doorman at the very strange bar of the title. ‘Very strange’ is perhaps an understatement when describing the Esqwiths Passing Place, and the relative nature of its local, but I am not mentioning this here in order to sell books. The reason I bring it up is more prosaic, a little on the sad side, and because of events in Charlotteville Virginia at the weekend. Also, I mention it now because it’s a hundred years since the USA entered the first world war and a hundred years since the 15th New York Infantry, which was to become the 369th infantry regiment, was formed.
I came across the story of the 369th while looking around for background for Sonny’s story. research is a blessing to a writer I find, even if what you are writing is a sci-fi/fantasy tale. Not so much because it is good to have a little real history in the mix, but because while doing the research you can find whole new stories hiding in plain sight. Which was the case with the 369th, or as they called they were christened due to their exploits in WW1 by the French, the ‘Harlem Hellfighters.’
At the time I was doing a little research into black American soldiers in WW1. As one of a couple of ideas I was playing with for Sonny’s background, and at the time it was just background, I had no real intention of writing ‘the Ballard’ that became the fourth chapter of the novel. I just wanted ground for the character to stand on, a place to set his feet. It’s something I like to do with any major character, though I seldom write these down, nor do they necessarily end up in the finished story. Just because I need to know who they are as a person, does not imply I need to explain these details to a reader. Though a passing reference here and there doesn’t harm. However, with the 369th I hit pay dirt, it was not just character background, it was a story begging to be told. One all the stronger because it is at its heart a real. It gave Sonny a tale to tell about his life which strengthened the character in my own mind, in the novel and for the readers as well. The latter is the most pleasing aspect as the writer because I have been repeatable told by readers how much they like the character. Simply put I got him right, which I could not have done without the 369th I suspect, or at the very least he would have been a weaker character without them.
The history of the 369th is the history of an unwanted black regiment, (unwanted by the general staff that is.) Back in 1917, the view of the general staff was that mix regiments were a bad idea, white soldiers should not have to fight alongside blacks. Such were the unfortunate US social politics of the day. Interestingly no one ever asked black soldiers if they had any issue fighting alongside white ones, but then no one actually asked the black soldiers anything. Even in the killing fields of France, the black regiment of Harlem’s finest were kept separate from their fellow warriors, indeed to the extent they were held behind the lines, doing menial work, because the general staff did not want blacks in the trenches alongside whites. It was not until the French asked for support on their section of the line that the 369th saw action. Even the reason that the 369th was sent to support the French had its roots in the social politics of the time. The US Constitution disavows any US serviceman fighting under the direct command of a foreign power. Indeed this was the reason that Eisenhower, not Monty was in overall command of the D-day landings in WW2. But back in WW1, the general staff decided that there was a loophole when it came to that troublesome black regiment they could not decide what to do with. A black regiment was not covered by the Constitution as they didn’t exist when the founding fathers wrote it… So if the French wanted a regiment under their command, then they could take the 369th, presumably as they were not real US servicemen…
The French, a nation who had no problem with ‘coloured troops’ were happy to take them. They care nothing for the colour of a soldier’s skin, they cared only that a man was willing to shed blood for the cause. Blood is red no matter who sheds it after all. Under the French, the Hellfighters spent more time on the line than any other unit. The French awarded 170 Croix de Guerre, their highest award for any foreign soldier to members of the regiment. Just think about that for a moment. A regiment of black Americas, unwanted by their own commanders, spend more time on the front lines than any other unit allied or axis and are awarded more medals than any other unit by the French. While their own nation treated them like a second class soldiers, they shed blood for the cause, and it took the French to pin medals on them for it… Not that America did not recognise the regiment’s bravery, George Seanor Robb, a white lieutenant with the regiment, was one of only 44 Americans to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in WW1. Henry Johnson, a black pvt on watch in the Argonne Forest on May 14, 1918, he fought off a German raid in hand-to-hand combat, killing multiple German soldiers and rescuing a fellow soldier while experiencing 21 wounds, was also award the CMoH, it just took 98 for it to be award to him post-humorously by President Obama.
The 369th also caused the French love affair with Jazz, and numbers several notable jazz musicians and composers who would later become famous in their ranks. While many 369th soldiers went on to excel elsewhere. The 369th itself went on to give Americans their first African-American general in world war 2. Its history is rich, full of valour and honour, and blood being shed for the USA. Blood the same colour as anyone else’s, as the French would tell you.
Black Americans make up 12% of the total population, yet around 17% of servicemen in the US forces. Soldiers who put their lives on the line for their country. The army has long been seen as a way out of the poverty trap for the less fortunate members of society, in the US and likewise around the world. Yet it says something that the three walks of life that black Americans are over-represented in, when compared to the percentage of them in the population, is the services, sports and the guests of correctional facilities. What it says is rather unfortunate, and to be clear a gross generalisation, but the life path of too many young black males in America is to be good at sports, join the army or unfortunately end up behind bars one way or another. And yes that is a gross generalisation, it just happens to be one backed up by the statistics is all.
The flip side of Sonny Burbank’s life, both before and after the army was the racially segregated southern states. Which also involves a fair bit of research on my part. It became the story of a black soldier coming back from the war to life in a nation which did not care much for him. Back to low paying jobs on the edge of criminality, working the doors of jazz clubs and bars and moving on when the resentments he carried with him built up too much and he stepped over the line. Until the line stepped over him and… Well, that’s a story I have already written, and not really why I am writing this post, save that having read a lot about the Harlem Hellfighters when I was researching for Sonny character, I believe these is a story that needs telling and remembering.
The reason for the post is the abhorrent events in Charlotteville. Racism is, it has to be said, always something I find abhorrent. The re-emergence of the far-right as a political movement I find frankly horrifying. I am sure that they are a minority, but it is a powerful and growing minority all the same. To see Nazi salutes and flags on the streets of a small American town, whose motto btw is ‘A great place to live for all of our citizens’, is chilling, and I am sure is no reflection of the people who actually live in the town. That there was a death through an act that can only be described as terrorism, saddens me greatly.
All the while, just as in WW1, WW2 and every other war of the last century American soldiers both black and white have shed blood for freedom and democracy. The same colour blood, just as it was when the 369th did so in France.
I am no fan of America and Britain’s recent wars or war in general. I believe that they are in part responsible for where we find ourselves in the world today. The war on terror, led to the war on Isis, by creating the political vacuum in which Isis was born. But I will always support the British troops who follow the politician’s orders. Just as I would expect any American to support their boys and girls in uniform no matter what they thought of the wars those troops were being sent to fight and die in. And I sure as hell don’t care a damn about the colour of their skin, I only ever see the uniform.
The 369th Harlem Hellfighters fought in two wars before it was disbanded, the latter of these to rid the world of the Nazi’s and their fascist ideals. Red blood was shed, just like the red blood of every other allied soldier. Britain and America are free nations because of the sacrifice of these men. But Nazi’s are a snake in the grass, and they never really went away. As Charlotteville sadly shows us. But they did not win in the 1940’s and they ain’t going to win now. Least ways that is my hope and my belief that the vast majority of Americans find the events at Charlotteville as abhorrent as I do, it’s important to remember that I feel… But then, to steal a line from old Sonny himself, who has on occasion a philosophical turn of mind…
“What do I I know, I’m just the doorman…”