when racism and war collide… Black and Native Americans in WWII

Today I have just a few titles, each powerfully portraying the discrimination faced and the valor demonstrated by African American and Native American servicemen.

you can fly cover imageYou Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford
published in 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Weatherford continues to gift us with her powerful free-verse, lifting, carrying us into the African-American experience. This slim volume opens a window onto the discrimination faced by African American pilots and the determined, skillful, brave Tuskegee Airmen who pioneered the way during WWII.

As she leads us along the path from dreaming to training to combat, Weatherford weaves in characters from Eleanor Roosevelt to Joe Louis, peppers us with tidbits of flight instruction and the responsibilities of ground crews and flight crews, and always, always elevates our spirits with the dignity and love of freedom exhibited by these heroes.

you can fly illustration by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

Weatherford’s son has illustrated the book with strong, scratchboard pieces full of character and grit. It’s a fascinating, uplifting read for ages 9 and up.

courage-has-no-color-cover-imageCourage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers, by Tanya Lee Stone
published in 2013 by Candlewick
115 pages

“What is courage? What is strength?” asks author Tanya Lee Stone. For the Triple Nickles, courage included “being ready to fight for your nation even when your nation isn’t ready to fight for you.”

Racism in the army circa 1943 meant only white men could be paratroopers. First Sergeant Walter Morris’s company of black soldiers was assigned only to guard the parachute school. Although they longed to do their part in the fight, they were considered inferior, incapable of the courage, fortitude, and intelligence required in the army.


In 1944, rules began to change and the 555th, a unit of all black soldiers, began training as paratroopers. Their story, their aggravating, heartbreaking, triumphant story, is one of a devoted, long-suffering, courageous, and dignified group of men who behaved with honor under intense pressure and grievous treatment. It’s painful to read, but immensely important.

With beautifully laid-out pages dominated by high quality black-and-white photos, this is an inviting and engrossing read for ages 12 to adult.

the-port-chicago-50-cover-imageThe Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, by Steve Sheinkin
published in 2014 by Roaring Brook Press

As in the Army, racism was rampant in the U.S. Navy including at Port Chicago, located in San Francisco Bay, where black sailors – only black sailors — were assigned the task of loading bombs and ammunition into ships. The officers in charge were all white. 

One day, a massive explosion in the port killed 320 servicemen, injuring hundreds of others. Despite this, and despite earnest protestations from the black sailors of numerous unsafe working conditions, a deplorable lack of training, and reckless protocols, the men were ordered to return to work. Over 200 of them refused. 50 were charged with mutiny.

The Port Chicago 50

Award-winning author Steve Sheinkin walks us through this case with the finesse and feel of NPR’s Serial podcast. Meet the men, listen to the varying accounts, size up the evidence against them and against their superiors, in this dramatic, unsettling account. Troubling and fascinating, for ages 14 to adult.

the-navajo-code-talkers-cover-imageThe Navajo Code Talkers, written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Gary Kelley
published in 2016 by Creative Editions

Despite their gross mistreatment by the U.S. Government, including the merciless Long Walk and the forced enrollment of children in harsh boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their mother tongue, the Navajo people suddenly became an important asset to our military during World War II.

The very language the government had sought to stamp out —  the beautiful, complex, enormously difficult Navajo language — appeared to be our nation’s best hope in developing an uncrackable code for use in the Pacific theater.


This stunning book briefly narrates this irony. A dash of history, a fascinating glimpse of the language itself, the brilliant code created by the Navajo speakers, and some snapshots of several key Pacific battles, are all accompanied by Kelly’s magnificent artwork. Immensely strong, compelling figures and scenes dominate these pages. Really gorgeous. 


I learned via the Endnotes that a number of code talkers from other Native nations also served in WWII. I have previously  only heard of the Navajo in this regard.  I would be interested in learning more about that. Though the text is minimal, its challenging vocabulary and concepts make it best suited to ages 8 and up.