Black Cotton Star: A Graphic Novel of World War II

Written by Yves Sente
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

This graphic novel tells the story of Angela, an African-American assistant to Betsy Ross. In 1776, she conceals a black star under a white one in a flag commissioned by George Washington, symbolizing her people’s part in the struggle for freedom. During World War II, one of Angela’s descendants learns of the black star. When the “Betsy Ross Flag” is reported stolen by Nazis, African-American soldiers in Germany are released from their menial tasks to undertake a suicidal mission to recover the flag. Despite their heroism, the mission fails.

Black Cotton Star’s visuals are gripping, taking readers from abuses suffered by freedmen and women in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia to the segregated South of the 1940s, and then to Germany in 1942, where African-American soldiers are prey to a fundamentally racist U.S. military hierarchy and thrown against vastly larger, well-armed Nazi forces.

Neither the publisher’s letter to editors and critics nor the book itself acknowledges the wholly fictional basis of this novel. There is no reputable evidence that Betsy Ross either designed or created the iconic stars and stripes flag in 1776. In fact, Congress didn’t discuss a national flag until 1777, and there were multiple versions of the stars and stripes theme. There was no Nazi theft of “the Betsy Ross Flag.”

The interwoven narratives in Black Cotton Star do powerfully visualize the long history of institutionalized racism in the United States from the 1700s to civilian and military cultures in 20th-century America. However, a version of the standard disclaimer for historical fiction would be helpful for readers of any age.