by Sharon Kane
Many powerful history lessons are packed into Carole Boston Weatherford’s collection of verses, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (2016, Simon & Schuster). The poems give numerous examples of the courage and skills of the African American pilots as well as the challenges they faced due to racism at all levels of American society. Credit is given to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, flew in a plane piloted by an African American, and then convinced her husband Franklin Roosevelt to order the army to “give black pilots a shot” (p. 6). We learn of breakthroughs by various individuals: Dorie Miller, the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross; Joe Lewis, who in 1938 took advantage of his chance “to knock out Nazism and to hand Hitler an upset” (p. 29); and James G. Thompson, who began a “Double V” campaign, calling on African Americans “to support the war on foreign soil and to push for justice at home” (p. 37).
In the Author’s Note, Weatherford gives further information about the Tuskegee Airmen and the respect they earned as a fighter squadron, paving the way for President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the U.S. armed forces in 1948. A time line that starts with the abolishing of slavery in 1865 ends with 2007, when “Tuskegee Airmen are presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol” and 2009, when “Tuskegee Airmen are invited guests at the inauguration of Barack Obama” (p. 76). Scratchboard illustrations throughout are provided by Jeffery Boston Weatherford, who based his work on archival photographs.
In my classes, I plan to pair this with Steve Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 (2014), a nonfiction account of another group of African Americans in the armed forces who faced discrimination and injustice during their service in World War II. These two stories—one from the east coast and one from the west—will help us understand the enormity of the injustices that African Americans faced in the military as they risked and gave their lives for their country.
Appropriate for middle school and high school