Six Wars: A History of Exceptional Valor

I am not a historian or a student of military history yet, as I was writing my recent novel,  Provenance, I did a lot of research about America’s wars. Provenance takes place in the American South soon after the Civil War and, in Paris just before World War II. Throughout this research I kept finding example after example of the exceptional valor of African-Americans in the military.

When I went to school, the significant military contribution of African-Americans in defending the freedom of the United States was not part of the history we learned (I hope they teach it now). Through family, friends and community I learn about some of it but, as I did my research, I learned there was more than I could imagine. What a sad revelation to know that these heroes sacrificed so much for freedoms they would not attain, yet they fought non-the-less.

In light of the election results this week, Veteran’s Day provides an opportunity to remind or enlighten us about the contribution so many people of color have made in service to this country and the world. There is so much history to tell and much has been written – if you choose to find it. The following images, and links that take you to the stories behind them, are just a fraction of the rich and unsung history of exceptional valor. On this day let us honor, remember and respect the sacrifices veterans of all colors, and their families, made in the past and continue to make every day.

1. The Revolutionary War

Crispus Attucks from the19th-century lithograph by Paul Revere depicting the Boston Massacre
Crispus Attucks from the 19th-century lithograph by Paul Revere depicting the Boston Massacre

Crispus Attucks is believed to be the first person killed in the American Revolution at the Boston Massacre. Read more.

2. The Civil War

captain-william-matthews-1st-kansas-colored-volunteer-infantry-regiment-at-fort-scott
Captain William Mathews

Captain William Mathews –a free black, a businessman and station master on the Underground Railroad–recruited former slaves into the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Fort Scott. He lost his rank when the unit was federalized but later served as an artillery officer.  Read more

The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment Infantry 1863 – 1865.

Detail of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.
Detail of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.

The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry saw extensive service in the Union Army and was one of the first official African-American units in the United States during the Civil War. Read more.

3. The Spanish-American War

The Buffalo Soliders - 9th United States Colored Troops Calvary.
The Buffalo Soldiers – 9th United States Colored Troops Calvary.

Buffalo Soldiers fought during the Spanish-American War, including the Battle of San Juan Hill , the Philippine-American War (1899 – 1903 and the 1916 Mexican Expedition. Read more.

4. World War I

Harlem Hellfighters, the Black Rattlers and the Men of Bronze  

Harlem Hellfighters who won the Croiz de Guerre for gallentry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.
Harlem Hellfighters who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.

The U.S. gave the 369th Infantry Regiment military to the French during World War I rather than have white Americans fight along side them. The nickname “Hell Fighters” was given to them by the Germans due to their toughness and that they never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy. Read more.

Eugene Jacques Bullard

Eugene Bullard with American Flyers
Eugene Bullard with American Flyers

Eugene Jacques Bullard makes an appearance in my novel, Provenance. He was America’s first black military aviator – though he could not fly for his country. He flew for the Lafayette Flying Corps of the French Air Service and took part in 20 combat mission earning the nickname, “Black Swallow of Death.” Read more.

5. World War II

Admiral Nimitz awards Dorie Miller the Navy Cross
Admiral Nimitz awards Dorie Miller the Navy Cross

Doris “Dorie” Miller (October 12, 1919 – November 24, 1943) was a Mess-man Third Class that the United States Navy noted for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the third highest honor awarded by the U.S. Navy at the time, after the Medal of Honor and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Read more.

Tuskegee Airmen 332nd Fighter Group Pilots
Tuskegee Airmen 332nd Fighter Group Pilots

The Tuskegee Airmen, were the first African-American military pilots (fighter and bomber) in the then segregated United States military. They fought in Europe and North Africa during World War II.  Read more.

6. The Korean War

african-american-solider-in-the-korean-warThe 77th Engineer Combat Company, 25th Infantry, 8th US Army in Korea, UN Command committed to Korean War action 7-12-50, and inactivated 6-30-52, was the last black combat unit of the US Army ever to engage an enemy of the US and is said to be the most decorated American unit in the Korean War. Read more.

 

Shchukin & Withers: Paris Made Collectors

Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr
Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

The Arts & Leisure section of Sunday’s New York Times featured an article on Paris’ next landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” opening at the Louis Vuitton Foundation on October 22. The exhibition features 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector.

Shchukin, a textile heir and magnate, began buying art in the late 1890s, building a collection of 275 works before the start of World War I. He fled to Paris when his home and collection were seized by the state during Lenin’s purge of the bourgeois. The Russian government dismantled, nearly destroyed, but thankfully distributed his art to Russian Museums where the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity and the collector’s name was erased from their provenance. Now, though his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection are once again making art history.

Sergei Schukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)
Sergei Shchukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)

Shchukin’s story, through real, is the stuff of fiction. I couldn’t help but see the similarities between this real art lover-collector and, Lance Henry Withers, a fictional character in my recent novel, Provenance. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers used art to heal the loss of home and loved ones. By collecting, they experienced Paris and life through the arts. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they learned how to find beauty and meaning in Impressionism, post-Impressionism and Modern art—what they first perceived as canvases of colorful chaos.

The disposition of Lance Henry Withers’ collection is a primary theme in Promise, the second volume my Provenance series, due out in early 2017. Promise continues Withers’ story with the fate of his fictional and fabulous collection informed by research on collectors J. Paul Getty, Arthur Barnes, Walter Chrysler,  Joseph Hirshhorn, The Steins, The Rockefellers and others. Perhaps Sergei Shchukin should be on that list. Sounds like a great reason to do research in Paris this fall.

You can see the New York Times article about the Paris exhibition of the Shchukin collection here and, you can read about Lance Henry Withers’ collection in my novel, Provenance. You can find more information about the “Icons of Modern Art” exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation here.

 

PROVENANCE is a 2016 Wheatley Book Award Finalist

Phillis Wheatley (Library of Congress)
Phillis Wheatley (Library of Congress)

I’m so excited that The Harlem Book Fair chose my novel, Provenance, as a First Fiction Finalist for the 2016 Wheatley Book Awards. The Harlem Book Fair is the largest African American book fair in the United States and the Wheatley Awards are named in honor of American Poet Phillis Wheatley (1752 – 1784), the first published African-American female writer. The mission of the annual competition is to recognize literary work and advocacy that transcends culture, country and perception.

While Provenance did not win, I was in great company and I am very honored to have my work recognized by this renowned national competition. Thank you, Harlem Book Fair!

For more information on the winners and other finalists see the Phillis Wheatley Book Award Winning Books feature on the aalbc.com website. More information about Phillis Wheatley is available here.

Great Experience at the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival

First, I must thank my wonderful family and great friends, as well as the book-lovers and dedicated volunteers who, despite the relentless rain, were there to support the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival. A very special thanks to my friend, Maryetta, who braved I-95 and drove down from New Jersey for the event. Thank you, thank you, thank you one and all!

This was my first time as a featured author at the Festival and I had a great time connecting with readers and other authors. As a fiction writer I spend a lot of time alone making up people and their stories so, it’s exceptional when you have the opportunity to get out and experience how your writing resonates with real people. I met a woman whose daughter sent her a copy of Provenance. This woman flew in from the Midwest to meet me at the Festival so that I could sign her copy of my book. She told me that she thought the book was important, that she had learned about passing, a part of the African American experience that she knew nothing about. She thanked me for writing such a beautiful book; that was pretty special, so I thanked her too.

I think writers, by nature, are not all that comfortable talking about themselves or their books, I know that’s true for me. I also know that meeting and interacting with readers is a vital part of being of being published and I’m working on getting more comfortable with that aspect of being an author. I’m hard at work on the next book in the Provenance series so the interest and enthusiasm I experienced that day will help me stay the course with Promise. If my experience at Gaithersburg Book Festival is an example what’s to come, I think I’m going to like this author thing!

If you weren’t able to make it to this year’s Festival, I’ve posted a brief video from my presentation (if you listen closely you can hear the raindrops cascading on the tent). The rain didn’t stop us for a second! Check out the moisture defying smiles and styles in photos on the Gaithersburg Book Festival Facebook page.

 

Why Do You Write?

cropped-cropped-iStock_000009439591Large.jpgI asked a wonderfully cerebral friend of my daughter’s if he was planning to attend my reading at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on the 21st of May. Afraid of facing empty chairs at my event, I am unapologetically asking EVERYONE that question in these days leading up to the Festival. My young friend told me that he’d be there and that he was ready with questions that he planned to ask me.

“Like what? Give me an example,” I asked, confident that I was prepared to field any question about my book.

“I’d like to know why you write.”  His question stopped me cold.

No one had ever asked me that before. I’ve been asked what I write about, how I write, when, where and how long but never, why?

Words on paper have always been my preferred method of communication. I was the shy child in an outgoing family and found refuge in reading and eventually courage and encouragement when I expressed myself in writing. When I write I have every sentiment and delivery skill at my disposal—tools I find harder to access in verbal communication. There are rarely, “Wish I’d said that, or hadn’t said that,” moments in a manuscript. Omniscience can be obtained through research and experience. Thoughtful beginnings, middles and ends can be crafted in stories carefully plotted and executed. I can make story arcs and characters curve in the direction I choose. Loose ends are tied, what’s lost can be found and, love and happiness can blossom with a few keystrokes. And, there is always the opportunity for revision. This is what I like about writing—it is not why I write.

I’m not sure I have a profound answer to my young friend’s insightful question. The closest I can come is to say that like the color of my eyes, the sound of my voice, being part of my family—it is something I was born with. Ideas and images compel their way through me to become what I write. Why I write is the same reason I breathe—because I have to.

What compels you to do the creative thing you do? Leave me a note in the comments section, I’d love to hear why you do what you do.

Revered Places That Matter

Slave_graveIn my novel Provenance I call attention to people and places that have been excised and excluded from American history. A place that plays a pivotal role in Provenance is Evergreen Cemetery in  Richmond, Virginia. Throughout its 59 acres, renowned as well as unknown African-Americans were finally laid to rest. These are the graves we know about – there are many more that have been lost to time and indifference.

In the Sunday, April 3, 2016 issue of the New York Times, Sandra A. Arnold, founder of the Periwinkle Initiative and the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americas wrote an opinion piece, Why Slaves’ Graves Matter. She talks about the effort to preserve the public memory of enslave Americans.

“Their overlooked lives are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country—and not simply because they were the ‘beneficiaries of the 13th Amendment.’ We should remember enslaved Americans for the same reasons we remember anyone; because they were fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents who made a great contribution to our nation.”

Arnold’s article mentions the recent discovery of a burial ground founded by enslaved Americans in Queens, New York where I grew up. In school we were taught the history and taken to historical sites that celebrated the Quaker and Anglo-Dutch history of our community but no mention was ever made of the contribution of or even the existence of African-Americans in Queens. Organizations like the Corona-East Elmhurst Historical Preservation Society (www.ceehps.org) are now working to educate the public by sharing the inclusive history that previous generations were robbed of.

Arnold’s piece is well worth your time to read. It reminds us that before and throughout their lives, slaves were first people with hearts and souls. Their graves, even lost in history, deserve the respect that they may not have had in life. Here’s a link.

An Anarchist, A Junkie and A Habitual Liar—Similarities and Differences at the Virginia Festival of the Book

Le Fiction en France panel: Michael Keenan Gutierrez, Bonnie MacBird and Donna Drew Sawyer
Le Fiction en France panel: Michael Keenan Gutierrez, Bonnie MacBird and Donna Drew Sawyer (Photo by Pat Cuadros)

Despite this post’s headline, I recently spent a few days at the Virginia Festival of the Book in great company. I was honored to be a presenting author on a panel, Le Fiction en France: France in Fiction, sponsored by Alliance Française Charlottesville (AfC). Also on the panel was Michael Keenan Gutierrez (The Trench Angel), who teaches writing at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Bonnie MacBird (Art in the Blood), an EMMY award-winning screenwriter/actor/author from LA. The panel was expertly orchestrated and moderated by AfC director, Emily Martin.

Emily Martin, director, Alliance Française Charlottesville
Emily Martin, director, Alliance Française Charlottesville

This was my first author’s appearance at the Festival so we met briefly the day prior to our panel. Emily suggested Marie-Bette, the best little French bakery-cafe in Charlottesville and over coffee and pastry we found that even though we’ve moved in different spheres professionally, shared experiences made it easy to establish rapport. I know a little about Michael’s world because my daughter earned her Masters’ from UNC and Chapel Hill was on our regular itinerary. In addition to Bonnie’s impressive literary accomplishments, she wrote the story for the classic sci-fi movie, TRON. For my husband, Granville, that fact made Bonnie beyond cool. Emily’s broad knowledge of France touched on the experiences each of us had with the country and the language. We were comfortable with each other as people and authors however, would our characters and our books be as compatible?

The characters and stories in our books are unique—as authors we shared the common thread of Paris as the creative backdrop during distinctive periods in the city’s history. Bonnie set Art in the Blood in the year 1888 and writes in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about famous fictional private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Critical scenes in Michael’s, The Trench Angel, unfold in Paris during the 1920s after the Great War and, the characters in my novel, Provenance, are part of the frenzied art scene in Paris between 1931 and 1938 as the prospect of World War II looms large in the City of Light.

All of our protagonists are male, all are broken men in some manner, fighting inner demons that threaten to destroy them. Holmes is hopelessly addicted to cocaine, mystery and mayhem; Neal Stephens’ secret marriage and anarchist father connect him to murder; and in my novel, a father’s secret reveals a devastating legacy of lies that threatens to destroy his family. The differences in our three books were obvious but the similarities, like gems, were harder to find but delightful to discover. Our protagonists—a junkie, an anarchist and a liar— facilitated an organic, interesting and successful panel during the Festival.

For more than 22,000 book lovers, across 250 programs featuring more than 400 authors, there was discovery and exploration of surprisingly common elements in literature and people who seem to share no DNA. However, like our panel, if done right—as the Virginia Festival of the Book was— authors and readers have the opportunity to get to the heart of what makes books and book festivals so wonderful—they celebrate the diversity as well as the shared experiences of us all.