Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Black History Month

My favorite parts of history (as might be obvious from my choice of subject matter when making books) are the ones that fall into easily-categorized genres, genres with associated visual iconographies.  This is the sort of stuff I loved as a kid: pirates, knights, cowboys, explorers, romans and Egyptians and flying aces.  Stuff you could find featured in a bag of toys or a generic costume. 

For Black History Month, I thought I might visit some of these adventure-leaning periods and pick a few historic black people from those times to draw, just for fun. If you're doing a project or report in school this month, you could do worse than to tackle one of these toughies.

Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson was an explorer, the first man on record to reach the North Pole.  Growing up a sailor, he became friends with Commander Peary while they were exploring the jungles of Nicaragua.  The two joined forces for a series of arctic expeditions, during which time Peary became the only non-Inuit explorer to learn the language and knew how to train and drive sled dogs. 
When he, four Inuits, and Peary made their final push to the North Pole, Peary was unable to continue (he was ill, worn out, and had bad frostbite), and Henson struck out on his own.  Finding his way to the Pole, he planted the American flag, later returning for Peary and the Inuit sled team to escort them to the Pole (Peary was not able to get to it, being confined to the sled).


Amanirenas was the one-eyed queen of the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush.  To forestall the Roman Empire’s push into Africa, she led Kushite forces in an attack on the Roman colonies in Egypt, defeating Rome’s forces and holding the colonies for a year, which began a five-year war with Rome that ended with a treaty stipulating that the Romans evacuate their capital and that the Kushites did not have to pay the Emperor tribute (they did agree to permit a Roman frontier border occupation in their lands).  This began two centuries of peace between the Kingdom of Kush and the Roman Empire.

Colonel Tye
Colonel Tye escaped from slavery at age 21 during the American Revolution and joined the British, who promised slaves their freedom.  Tye fought in the “Ethiopian Regiment,” a black unit, at the Battle of Monmouth.  Quickly showcasing his skill for forage and guerrilla tactics, he was offered command of a group of 24 commandos, hand-picked from among the British’s black troops.  Sometimes teaming up with the Queen’s Raiders (another guerrilla unit, this one white), they struck along the land from New York to Virginia, taking rebel prisoners, killing rebel military commanders,  and capturing much needed food, fuel, and ammunition (contributing in no small part to New York’s survival during the siege of 1779), and freeing any slaves they encountered. 
I made a comic story with Tye in it called "The Black Brigade."  It can be found in the comic textbook "Reading with Pictures," and in Oni Press's Free Comic Book Day offering from 2013.  I'll try and post it up soon, I've been meaning to do so!

Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves was one of the most prolific and respected lawmen of the wild west.  Born a slave, he escaped as a young man into Indian Territory during the Civil War, where he learned to speak a number of Native American languages, living amongst the Seminoles, Creeks, and Cherokee.
After the Civil War, his knowledge of Indian country landed him a position as a deputy US Marshall, working for Judge Parker.  If you have read “True Grit” (the finest American novel ever written, I genuinely believe), or seen the film, Reeves basically had Rooster Cogburn’s job: riding out into lawless country to bring back dangerous fugitives (and for the same court).  
A crack shot, ace detective, and master of disguise, Reeves successfully apprehended more than three THOUSAND fugitives, many of them notorious outlaws, gun killers, and murderers.  He never received an injury, though over the course of his career he was in fourteen shootouts in which he killed fourteen men, all of whom drew first (Reeves would not draw his gun unless he felt he had to use it, feeling that it would increase the likelihood of a violent outcome). 

Queen Nanny

Queen Nanny was the leader of the Windward Maroons, a community of escaped slaves in the Caribbean in the early 1700s who were at war with the British.  Heavily outnumbered, Nanny built her capitol on a high mountain in Jamaica (from whence we get Blue Mountain coffee), and they were able to defend their towns against attacks from British soldiers on numerous occasions, and built a series of politically connected villages under the protection of a central government built on the Ashanti tribal model.  They grew crops, raised livestock, and traded with other islands.  They would make regular attacks against towns and plantations to free the slaves there. 
An excellent strategist, her troops became gifted in jungle disguise (which Nanny created from branches and leaves to serve as both camouflage and close-quarters armor) and often succeeded in ambushing the British troops when they would attempt an attack.
She reined for three decades, and freed more than eight hundred slaves, and in 1739 signed a peace treaty with the British which permitted the Maroons to keep their five towns and conditioned that they would fight alongside the British should they be attacked by foreign armies.

Saint Maurice of the Theban Legion

St. Maurice was a Roman Legionnaire and the leader of the sixty-six hundred soldiers that made up Theban Legion.  According to legend (which, like much in religious history, probably has some historical root but which has been distorted over the years to where it no longer jives directly with what we know of the time period and the politics at play), the Legion converted en masse to Christianity and was decimated (every tenth soldier killed) for refusing to obey orders (specifically, that they offer sacrifices to pagan gods on their route to Gaul).  Maurice was a very popular saint until the mid-1500s, when the African slave trade started up and Europeans started to feel like real jerks for asking the intercession of one African while denying the humanity of others, so they stopped using him as a central feature in art and architecture.
Though there is no historical evidence for Maurice from his lifetime, he is a good avenue through which to look at black Roman soldiers in the 3rd century, which one rarely sees in films.  Some of the most important Roman military finds were in York, England (where I was lucky to live for a while as a young man), where large burial grounds of soldiers have been unearthed over the past half-century.  The soldiers buried at York were part of the group stationed near Hadrian’s Wall, which separated “civilized” Rome from the wild barbarians of the north.  Seen Game of Thrones?  These guys were the Night’s Watch. 
Forensic anthropology from multiple sites there has shown that the soldiers buried were roughly 60% white, 13% North African, and 25% sub-Saharan African, so black soldiers were more than likely not an unusual novelty in the 3rd century Roman army, they were about a quarter of it, at least in their colonial holdings (Rome of course "recruited" from the populations of any areas that the Empire conquered).

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was a world-famous entertainer and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture.  She was also a spy for the French Resistance when France was occupied by the Nazis during WWII.
A renowned dancer on Broadway, she was known for her hilarious comic timing and technical proficiency.  On moving to France, she became a popular (and controversial, due to the erotic-tinged nature of her dances) performer.
During WWII, she used her clout to find visas for resitance fighters and refugees, and used her show travels as an excuse for espionage.  She would perform mostly in heavily-occupied or strategically important places, gathering information for the resistance and transporting it pinned inside her underwear, banking on her fame and reputation to keep her from being strip-searched at checkpoints.  
She refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, wouldn’t take racist bunk from anybody. She was actively involved in the Civil Rights movement in the US, and after Martin Luther King’s assassination, she was asked by Coretta Scott King and others in the movement to take his place as its leader.  She labored over the decision for more than a week, and declined.  She had adopted twelve children and did not want to risk their lives or leave them without a mother, something that the murders (some of them house bombings) of  other civil rights leaders at the time portended.  
For her service to Free France, Baker was awarded the Croix de guerre and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.

I drew her with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who would sometimes get bored with Baker's act and jump into the orchestra pit, sending the musicians scurrying.

Black Caesar

Black Caesar was a pirate who scourged the Caribbean shipping lanes off the Florida Keys for ten years.
A chief in West Africa, he was captured when a ship with which his village was trading cast off with him aboard, the crew intending to sell him into slavery.  When the ship hit a hurricane, he and a crewman with whom he’d become friends took the ship’s provision and survived by taking a longboat to shore as the ship was destroyed. 
He and the other man used the longboat to begin a pirating enterprise that continued for years, grew larger, and amassed each considerable treasure, until the two fought a duel over a woman which Caesar one.  
He amassed a crew and created a kind of Batcave-like hideout in Biscayne Bay that included a system of elaborate pulleys that would serve as elevators, trap doors, and ship-hiders (tipping the ships over on their side to hide their masts from the view of Naval patrols). 
He eventually teamed up with Blackbeard, and was one of the last men in the crew of the Queen Anne’s Revenge still fighting after Blackbeard died (reportedly from more than twenty sword wounds and five gunshots).  When it was seen that he would not escape the battle alive, Caesar attempted to blow up the ship’s gunpowder but was eventually subdued by the combined might of the Navy’s sailors.  He was convicted of piracy and executed.


Yasuke was the first non-Japanese person to become a Samurai.  He arrived in Japan in 1579, a tall young man from Mozambique working as a servant for Jesuit Missionaries.  His appearance caused a sensation to the isolated Japanese, and by 1581 word of his presence reached ears of Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful warlords in the country.  Nobunaga met Yasuke (insisting that his chest be scrubbed to make sure that his dark skin wasn’t a trick), and was impressed by his size, strength, and grasp of the language, and brought him into his service.  Over the next year, Yasake received martial training and was made a samurai.
Nobunaga was killed by the army of a rival the following year, and Yasuke went to protect Nobunaga’s heir.  He and the heir fought for some time when ambushed between castles, but were beaten.  The heir was forced to commit seppuku, and Yasuke was sent to Kyoto, where he disappears from the records.

Le Chevalier de St-Georges
Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint George was the colonel commanding the first black regiment in Europe, the Legion de Saint-Georges, fighting for the French Republic before Napoleon staged his coup.
As a teenager, he became widely known as one of the best swordsmen in Europe, his celebrity rising when he besting a champion fencing master at 17 in a very public duel.  He was also considered to be one of the best-looking men in Paris, a fine wit, and an exceptional dancer.  In his mid-twenties he became a renowned violinist and began performing his own compositions (which you can easily find), before turning his attention to opera.  Here’s a link to a long grouping of some of his violin concertos:

Juan Garrido

Juan Garrido was a Spanish Conquistador, part of the small group of combatants responsible for the European victory over the Aztecs and the conquering of Mexico.  There were quite a few African freemen on the expedition, but Garrido was the highest African-born soldier in rank. 
Among his non-military accomplishments were the building of a chapel in honor of the Spanish dead, the cultivation of wheat in the Americas, and “discovering” (mapping) nearby islands. 

Zapatista Soldaderas

The Mexican Revolution, which sprang up in response to the corrupt dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, had any number of Revolutionary factions, and while some leaders (like Pancho Villa) disdained the use of women soldiers (though Villa himself had a few whose skills made it worth discounting his gender principles for their service), Emiliano Zapata had a substantial number of female combatants in his army.  A number of these women were Afro-Mexicans, probably descendants of the estimated four thousand former slaves who escaped to anti-slavery Mexico between 1829 and 1865 or the black migrants in the 1890s.  Most of the names of the roughly two hundred fighting soldaderas are lost to time, and with the exception of two (a Dutch-Mexican woman and an Afro-Mexican transgender man) I could not find any reputable citations linking the specific women of note with the many anonymous photos of the soldaderas (Euro, Indigenous, and Afro), so I’m not sure who was black and who wasn’t, hence the composite character.

Giovanni Moro was a knight, the commander of the castle in Lucera, Italy, where he was the governor, which had a large Moorish immigrant population.  Giovanni was the treasurer of the kingdom of Sicily and a considerable landholder.  When the Pope attempted to have Manfred (the future king of Sicily, a famous knight who had often championed the rights of the immigrant Moors) assassinated, he came to Giovanni for aid.  Giovanni and his soldiers joined Manfred in 1253 to fight against the army of Rome, winning a number of victories.  Giovanni ended up being killed amidst everyone’s nonstop political intrigues, including his own (like Manfred, he was making secret secret negotiations with the Pope; unlike Manfred, he was killed by some of his own soldiers).   

Eugene Bullard

Eugene Bullard was an American who went to Europe at a young age, became a prizefighter, joined the French Foreign Legion, was seriously wounded in the Battle of Verdun, volunteered to join the newly created French Air Service, joined the Lafayette Flying Corps (American pilots who fought with France, since America hadn’t entered the war), and was promoted to Corporal.  When America entered the war, the United States Army Air Service invited him to join based on his record, but when they discovered that he was black they rescinded the invitation, because America, at the time, sucked.  He continued to fight with France. 
He later married the daughter of a Countess, owned a fashionable nightclub, became friends with Louis Armstrong and Ernest Hemingway, was a spy against the Nazis in the lead-up to WWII, and fought defending Orleans from the invading German army.  He was injured, and when Orleans fell, he escaped to Spain, and then to New York.  Among the fifteen medals he received, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military honor.
Oh, and he always took to the skies with his faithful companion Jimmy the Rhesus Monkey.


  1. I love this! I wish I had had it when I was tutoring. My kids would have loved it, too.

  2. These are awesome! I am pretty up on my History and you found some really cool people I have never heard of, now off to read up on them!

  3. Your artwork is awesome and it's so great to hear these true stories for Black History Month.

  4. Fantastic work keep it up.. visit- Youtube Support