Some of the characters in The Harlem Hellfighters were real people, like James Reese Europe. But others, like the narrator, Mark, are amalgams, correct?
I am beholden to the memory of these real people, so I have to tread very carefully. That’s actually why I made my core platoon, my core squad of guys, I made them mostly fictional, because I didn’t want to offend the families of these people. Like Henry Johnson, he’s a real guy. So I sort of made his character a little blander than say, Edge. Edge I made up. And because Edge is fictional he can say, “Wow! White people paying me to kill white people? Glory halleluiah!”
The character Edge is fictional, but you named him after a professor of yours in college.
Wayne Edge was an amazing professor. He told me that the greatest crime white people ever committed against black people was erasing their history. That stuck with me. It’s hard to face your future when you don’t have the confidence of your past.
You use pop culture from the period as crucial plot elements, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a blatantly racist film that reflected attitudes of the time — so much so that Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House.
I had seen Birth of a Nation in college, and it just blew me away. The movie itself didn’t blow me away; it was the reaction to it. Like you said about Wilson, people loved that movie — white people. That was the Star Wars of its day.