Reading at the moment takes place in spurts – paragraphs interrupted by the demands of my granddaughters. Interruptions to which I am happy to cater, such is the treat of seeing them after two and half years.
I am in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a country reopened in mid July to returning nationals, and those non-citizens who are fully vaccinated, yet still under a State of Emergency (SOE) which has recently been extended until the end of November. Masks are mandated everywhere, even in the privacy of your own car, for everyone over the age of eight. And yet, and yet, the Delta variant has spread its tentacles. At the moment confined but we’ve been lulled into false security in other parts of the world.
Aside from the vagaries of COVID, my willingness to put down my book was severely tested whilst reading The Personal Librarian, brilliantly written by a new partnership of two authors, Maria Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. A book that tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, a young Black woman passing as white in the early 20th century. The woman who became personal librarian to J P Morgan, who travelled to Europe on manuscript buying trips and who controlled his library for over forty years. Belle rubbed shoulders with the rich and very rich whilst living a dual life. I can only imagine the sheer exhaustion invoked by having a public persona so different to that of her private one. It puts the much-touted travails of Megan, Duchess of Sussex, rather in perspective.
The lure of The Personal Librarian nudged me to pick the book up each time moments of grand-parenting respite loomed. My knowledge, I would not presume to say understanding or the emotional toll, of Black passing as white has increased a hundredfold.
The book reminded me of a recent headline on BBC.co.uk – “Josephine Baker to be first black woman to enter France’s Panthéon.” The mausoleum in Paris, where she will be inducted in November, is where those deemed French icons are honoured. Her neighbours will be luminaries like Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. A Black American woman who fled her segregated home country to be recognised for bravery as a spy and resistance worker during World War II in her adopted country, France. That’s quite a story for the baby born to a washerwoman in St Louis, Missouri, who helped support her siblings by cleaning houses from the age of eight before running away at thirteen to work as a waitress. As the French embraced American jazz, they embraced Josephine Baker – as ironically did fellow Americans, Ernest Hemingway and EE Cummings. As fame came to the girl born Freda Josephine McDonald, so did an insistence that every contract signed contain both a nondiscrimination clause and assurances her audiences be integrated.
Perhaps it is this heightened awareness of the inequities, along with slavery, that darken American history that prompted me to read more fully another snippet spotted in the news – “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act”. Who, I wondered are the Harlem Hellfighters? And why are they being recognised?
Again France plays a role.
Against the backdrop of Jim Crow’s America during the First World War many white servicemen would not bear arms with Black men and so the 2000 men who made up the 369th Infantry Regiment, 70% of whom came from Harlem, were assigned to the French Army. They wore the US army uniform but their weapons were French. As a fighting unit they spent longer than any other US military regiment in the field of combat during the War – 191 days, and were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine. At the Second Battle of Marne and Meuse-Argonne, the last major German offensive on the Western Front, the 369th Regiment suffered huge casualties, with 144 killed.
With the end of the War, and only a month after armistice, and in recognition of the Harlem Hellfighters pivotal role in Europe, 171 members of the regiment were awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, with a citation for the same award being presented to the entire unit. Two members, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were singled out for courage beyond the call of duty and were awarded the Croix de Guerre with “a special citation for extraordinary valour.”
It took the United States many years to recognize the tenacity and bravery of these two men in particular, finally posthumously awarding them the Purple Heart. In 2002 Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross which in 2015 was upgraded by President Obama to the Medal of Honor.
In August 2021 President Biden signed into law H.R. 3642, the “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act,” giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, a long overdue recognition of an incredible fighting force known variously as: Black Rattlers, due to the rattlesnake insignia; Men in Bronze, the name given them by their French comrades; Bloodthirsty Black Men which was how German soldiers saw them which morphed in the Hellfighters.
The Harlem Hellfighter motto, “Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go,” is perhaps also a fitting adage for Belle da Costa Greene and Josephine Baker. And in another touch of irony, it was the Harlem Hellfighters who introduced jazz to France.
As I read to my bi-racial grandchildren each evening, savouring the time I have with them, I hope the love of the written word will lead them, when they are older, to follow tidbits of news from which they can learn of the true heroics of people often overlooked, or looked down upon, by their own countries. To stir their curiosity to better understand that courage comes in all colours.