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Book Review: Eugene Bullard - Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age ParisBook Review by Tim King Salem-News.com
The story of the only black fighter pilot in WWI.
(SALEM) - The plight of World War One’s only African American pilot has a lesson for every living soul. Eugene Bullard, the son of a slave, made his dreams take flight long before the first time he soloed in a biplane, and no amount of interference or meddling was ever enough to bring him down.
Author Craig Lloyd has brought this great aviator and hero of France back to life, where his legacy is finally allowed an opportunity to shine in all of its greatness, against all of the adversity that was his.
Comprehending the racial fury of the American post Civil War Deep South literally takes something away from a person. It didn’t end with the abolishment of slavery by any means, and even though Columbus, Georgia wasn’t the worst in terms of racial violence, the city and state maintained plenty of policies that were designed to keep black people downtrodden and poor, hungry and undereducated.
Lloyd’s book emerges you into this culture, where Bullard’s parents maintained their own segregation program initially, barring Eugene from playing with neighboring white children for the first few years. As school began, so did the racial taunts that the white youngsters were taught in their homes.
But the first years would prove to be insulating, because ignorance can truly be bliss, and perhaps they are what gave him the strength to go into the world and carve out a place that is one of the most unique among American military heroes. For his first few years, Eugene Bullard had not the slightest idea he was different from anyone else.
Bullard’s father was one fourth Native American, and he worked hard to feed his children and care for them. He knew and had connections with white people in Georgia who lived above the fray; people who perhaps played the racist game just enough to survive, while making life better for African Americans.
Two things that his father, William Bullard, found important were a love of education, and affection for Europe and particularly, France. He told Eugene that people in France were not prejudice, that blacks were respected and that national laws were not created to allow prejudice. In the United States, the depraved policies of utter and extreme national racism haunted Eugene Bullard. As a boy, he ran away from home and eventually left for France to escape those injustices, found success, and then suffered again when the United States entered the war.
Even though the United States never allowed him to serve, all who knew him in his adopted country of France knew who Bullard was. He was the American who associated with the world’s top boxers, people like Jack Johnson who had their titles removed because they were black. Craig Lloyd introduces his readers to numerous African Americans who lived in France in the early 1900’s. Their struggles were minimized when they crossed the Atlantic.
After working as an entertainer and boxer in Europe, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion at the onset of WW1 in 1914. His physical prowess, knowledge of multiple languages, and courage would power Eugene through the first years of the war. He was a trench soldier, dealing with some of the most deadly battles of the war like Verdun in 1916. Bullard was awarded many of France’s highest honors before receiving severe injuries in combat that would require six months of convalescent leave.
Later, Bullard requested pilot training and eventually became a member of the infamous Lafayette Escadrille squadron of American flyers for France. Bullard would find the highest disservice yet, when the Americans entered the war and barred him from serving.
Sadly, it is a man known for many great acts that pursued Bullard ruthlessly. Dr. Henry Gros was the founder of the Lafayette Escadrille and the American Ambulance Crops. Despite his accomplishments that helped bring France eventual victory, he was a wanton racist who went to great lengths to deny Eugene Bullard what he had earned.
France for the record never had slavery. Servitude was banned in its colonies in 1848, and African Americans lived as respected people as far back in France as the 19th Century.
While Craig Lloyd’s book is about Eugene Bullard, it is for me a tool that allows a much broader understanding of relations between France and the United States. The French General Marquis De Lafayette was an abolitionist. American press while quick in recent years to judge France for not joining the U.S. invasion of Iraq, fails to reference why there is a United States at all.
The reason Americans rushed to fight for France in 1917 is because the exact same thing happened in 1776, when French troops came here to help us defeat the British. But American policy in World War One was literally wrapped around prejudice, and the length that American officers went to in order to find fault in the black soldiers who served with dignity and devotion is extraordinary.
Bullard talked about entering a restaurant in Paris and seeing the resentment in white officers who immediately got up. He then looked toward a table of French officers who nodded and asked him to join them. Bullard was a corporal, but he was a French Chasse Pilot, and everyone respected him, except his own, on most occasions.
French resentment toward Americans today, is largely based on our country’s attempts to force a racist policy on their nation from 1917 to 1919. Paris is where most of it happened. And while all of this was going on, black Americans gave birth to the entire jazz movement in France. A jazz band from the 15th New York Infantry had what it took to bring an entire style of music and dance to France, and it stuck like glue.
It seems natural that Eugene Bullard, the runaway, the entertainer, the boxer, the decorated hero and pilot, would learn to play music. The years following WW1 were his best, and Eugene Bullard became a jazz club owner and friends with people like Louis Armstrong, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and the Prince of Whales Edward Windsor.
But the Nazi invasion spelled an end for Bullard's jazz years in France. Wounded while fighting with the French Underground, Bullard was evacuated and sent back to the United States where he eventually recovered from the injuries suffered at hands of the Germans.
His death in the early 1960’s in New York was something that most of America never noticed. But the French military sent it’s highest order overseas to provide their national hero an officer’s burial of the highest order. They never forgot this man who did so much for his love of his own nation, and his adopted country.
I strongly suggest picking up a copy of Lloyd’s book. It is a intriguing look at the Jazz-Age from a different perspective, and a compelling lesson in the history of the Paris music scene.
Eugene Bullard- Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris is full of fascinating encounters with people of great fame and diversity, the heroism it documents is astounding and rare, and the inspiration and knowledge of many things that play a role in today’s world are crucial toward a complete understanding of an African/American quest for freedom and equality.
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor.
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