When I need a brain break, I read a nonfiction graphic novel. It’s refreshing to read something factual while also looking at illustrations. My latest graphic novel choice was Now Let Me Fly: A Portrait of Eugene Bullard written by Ronald Wimberly with art by Brahm Revel. This is a gorgeously written story following the life of Eugene Ballard from rural Georgia to the streets of Paris.
Eugene Bullard was the only African-American pilot in World War I and is considered the first African-American military pilot to fly in combat. Funny part? He never flew for the United States. He flew for France. He was decorated fifteen times by the French government for his service.
Before he flew planes, Bullard lived in Columbus, Georgia with his father and many siblings. Jim Crow South was dangerous. Determined to live somewhere where he would be treated as a human being, Bullard ran away from home. He traveled all over the United States and eventually made his way across the ocean as a stowaway. He ended up in Aberdeen, Scotland. Bullard then made his way to London where he worked in vaudeville as a slapstick performer with Belle Davis. He also started boxing at that time. A boxing match led him to Paris in 1913 where he decided to stay until he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in 1914. He found in many battles, but was seriously wounded in the Battle of Verdun. Bullard was sent to Lyon to recuperate where his flying story began. He bet a friend $2000 that he could enlist in the French flying service despite his color and become a pilot! He flew many operations with his rhesus monkey named Jimmy tucked in his coat.
This graphic novel was a riveting read. Its candid and sensitive portrayal of Bullard’s life is treated with empathy, especially since Bullard himself is the one recollecting the story to a gentleman with whom he is stuck in the elevator. After he flew, Bullard became involved in espionage activities, fought in another war, and eventually made it back to the United States, but that’s a story for a different time. Bullard made history as the world’s first African American fighter pilot, but after the war he eventually ended up as an elevator operator in the building where NBC’s Today Show was produced. He came on the show as a guest in 1959, showing all 15 of his war medals. Now Let Me Fly works to educate the world about Eugene Bullard’s personal life amongst the great historical events he participated in.