Black Lives That Mattered
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
A black GI stood by the door
(I never saw a black before)
He'll set me free before I die,
I thought, he must be the Messiah.
- Sonia Weitz, The Black Messiah
I went to grad school with Winston Grady-Willis who, in those intense grad-student arguments where the real learning takes place, pushed an idea that I always resisted: that a historian has a responsibility to be an activist. It’s not enough to curate the past, to keep it as a museum exhibit to be viewed as some strange artifact of forgotten lore. The past should be kept alive, to inform the present and shape the future.
I think I’ve finally come around to his way of thinking.
I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in telling stories in game format; in the case of game series like Panzer Grenadier, using the game scenarios as part of a larger narrative. It’s a way to bring the past more into focus than a museum exhibit or a monograph; the players take on the roles and play through the history.
Last winter I decided to publish Black Panthers as a special little expansion set for our Gold Club, the most dedicated of our fans. I’d long wanted to write the book, about the African-American soldiers of the segregated 761st Tank Battalion. Others have written books about the unit, very good ones, but this would be a different format than those, a game expansion where I could tell the story in a unique fashion.
And then he simply froze in place
The shock, the horror on his face,
He didn't weep, he didn't cry
But deep within his gentle eyes
...A flood of devastating pain,
his innocence forever slain.
- Sonia Weitz, The Black Messiah
It’s a good story. A great story, even. But it’s also a personal story. The Black American soldiers of the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion liberated the Gunskirchen concentration camp in early May, 1945. Inside were 17,000 Jewish slave laborers, including Sonia Weitz who wrote those lines up above, and 400 political prisoners. One of the latter was my grandfather.
As a writer, I was brought up to show, not tell. I don’t want to use “Black Lives Matter” as yet another tired marketing ploy for our little company, a cynical slogan to send out in a tweet and slap on the website like Kendall Jenner curing racism with a can of Pepsi. So we can signal our virtue and meet the litmus test of the angry online gamers.
We’re not going to go that way. “Black Lives Matter” isn’t something that I simply agree with: I feel it, I believe it. To see any American treated as less than any other is an affront to everything I was taught to believe about the United States and its great promise.
I’ve been on the streets, I’ve stood my ground in Kelly Ingram Park, where all this was supposedly put to rest in 1963. But that wasn’t enough. So I wrote a book, it’s a game book, but it’s a damned fine book all the same. It’s about Black lives - 676 of them, not counting replacements - that mattered. That mattered a whole lot to my grandfather then, that matter a whole lot to me almost exactly 75 years later. That matter to me every time I see a Black life extinguished for no good reason. And I see that happen far too often.
It’s just a little book, with some history and some game scenarios you can play, featuring the 761st Tank Battalion in action. You can’t play the game scenarios by themselves - you’ll need Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge, too. Originally, we were just going to give it to the Gold Club as a special sales incentive if you bought a whole lot of upcoming stuff, and not print any more of them.
I’m going to overturn that promise: we’re expanding Black Panthers into a full-sized expansion book, because I just have too much to say. Gold Club members will still receive it as a sales incentive (yes, the new, bigger version) or they can order it with their maximum discount. Others can order it now as well.
It’s a story that needs telling, and re-telling. Because Black Lives Matter.
You can order Black Panthers right here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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