Tag Archives: Black Lives Matter

On Black Cartoonists and Black Humor: Rethinking the Racist Narrative

A Charles Johnson self-portrait. If you know who R. Crumb is, then you really need to know who Charles Johnson is!

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall

Chicago is one of the great cities for comics with a rich history dating back to the dawn of the comic strip supported by world-class newspapers. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago honors this tradition with Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now (June 19-October 3, 2021), curated by  Dan Nadel. In the process, Nadel also edited a book that focuses on Black cartoonists entitled, It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940 – 1980, published by New York Review Comics. The title of the book comes from a gag panel cartoon by the cartoonist, and National Book Award-winning novelist, Charles Johnson. And the actual cartoon dates back to a collection of Charles Johnson cartoons, Black Humor, published in 1970, when Johnson was only 22 years-old. The two books document where Black cartoonists have been and point to a persistent struggle to rise upward. Discussion of the facts can only help to chart a course for the future—and it’s essential to look at all sides.

Black Humor cover, 1970.

The key narrative in It’s Life As I See It, is Black cartoonists reacting to being excluded from mainstream media, the white magazines and newspapers of the time. Dan Nadel asserts: “…neither Black cartoonists nor The Chicago Defender had a reach comparable to Chester Gould and the Chicago Tribune. Moreover, the Tribune and other primarily white outlets were notoriously uninterested in either Black cartoonists or Black subject matter.” And Johnson asserts: “…in The New Yorker, which at the time had a notorious history of not using the work of black cartoonists. In 1996, The New Yorker published a special “Black in America” double issue, which featured the work of thirteen “gag artists,” only one of whom was black; eight black people who submitted work were rejected, and the magazine’s cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz, admitted that The New Yorker‘s stable of cartoonists at the time was still entirely white.” However, when I spoke with former New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, he had a generous history lesson to provide that can’t be overlooked.

From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson

First of all, it is very difficult to get a cartoon published in The New Yorker to begin with. Bob Mankoff explains: “Historically it’s been very hard for anyone, regardless of race, gender or anything else to get published in The New Yorker. I submitted 2,000 cartoons to the magazine before I sold one. Even after I became a regular in the magazine, I sometimes went for many weeks at a time having all my cartoons rejected. To break into The New Yorker was an arduous process and basically anonymous. You just mailed in your batch of cartoons in a self-addressed stamped envelope and then got back a rejection slip or if you were lucky, eventually a sale. The Cartoon Editor, at that time, Lee Lorenz would not have known if you were black or white or really anything else about you. In looking over a thousand cartoons a week what was important to Lee, who I knew quite well, was the cartoon itself.”

1934 New Yorker cartoon by E. Simms Campbell. Archival sample.

Mankoff goes on to provide some historical perspective: “The reason there were traditionally few black cartoonists published in The New Yorker and relatively few women cartoonists compared to white male cartoonists, is primarily due to the fact that historically there were many more white male cartoonists in the field and submitting to The New Yorker than either black cartoonists or women cartoonists. That said, there were a number of women cartoonists, many more than black cartoonists of which, I believe there were only two, E. Simms Campbell and Robert Minter. E. Simms Campbell had quite a few cartoons published in The New Yorker in the ’30s before he moved to Esquire later in that decade to do Playboy-styled cartoons before there was Playboy.”

Esquire mascot, Esky, created by E. Simms Campbell

It was E. Simms Campbell, a Black man, who created Esky, the dandy with a top hat mascot for Esquire back in 1934. Esky is a whimsical character, albeit a rich white man too. In 1939, Campbell became the first African American to have his work syndicated nationwide. King Features published his comic strip, Cuties, a humorous series featuring pin-up girls, in more than 140 newspapers around the country. The Society of Illustrators includes in its Campbell profile: “E. Simms Campbell worked at the time racial segregation was the norm in the United States. Because his work was primarily about the life of wealth and pleasure enjoyed by white people, and it appeared in mainstream publications, most of his admirers were unaware that Campbell was African American. Economic reality was the most likely motivation for the absence of African Americans in his art, until after the Civil Rights Movement, most American publications were not willing to feature non-stereotypical minority characters regularly.”

1971 New Yorker cartoon by Robert Minter. Archival sample.

What’s really interesting in the case of the other known Black cartoonist at The New Yorker, Robert Minter, is that he was active right at the time that Charles Johnson’s Black Humor was published in 1970. You can do an internet search and see that Robert Minter was a regular contributor from 1968 to 1979. His gags are elegant, succinct, and definitely funny.

 

Moving right along to more recent times, Mankoff goes on: “When I became Cartoon Editor in 1997, I originally operated under the same criteria that Lee Lorenz employed. My focus was on the cartoon and on the cartoonist only to the extent that they could continue, week after week, year after year, to produce good original work based on the evolving tradition of The New Yorker cartoon in which the jokes are benign, and when not outright gags, a kind of comedy of manners gently tweaking the foibles and pretensions of the demographic of people who read the magazine, not punching up or punching down but elbowing to the side.

 

When David Remnick became editor-in-chief he realized that we needed to add diversity to our criteria. As a first step, the most obvious thing was not to make the default cartoon character white. If you look through any issue of the magazine nowadays you see people of color in all the situations and positions (doctors, lawyers, etc.,) that previously were occupied by white men. And there has been an effort to seek out more women cartoonists and people of color which has led to about half the published cartoons now being done by women. More diversity has been added by cartoonists with an Asian-American background such as Amy Hwang, Jeremy Nguyen, and Hartley Lin but for the most part, their cartoons do not playoff whatever has been unique about that background. In terms of black cartoonists, the outreach has been less promising. I did reach out to both Rob Armstrong and Darrin Bell and both had a few cartoons published but frankly, as they were both already successful, the rejection to acceptance ratio combined with not all that much money for a cartoon wasn’t worth the effort.

 

Since I left The New Yorker in 2017, many new cartoonists have appeared and I believe the effort for more diversity has been more concerted and urgent and is having more success with some black cartoonists such as E.S. Glenn, who I know, appearing in the magazine.”

Excerpt from Black Humor

So, theoretically, a cartoonist of the caliber of Charles Johnson could have continued submitting work to The New Yorker and have ultimately been accepted. However, it would not have been from the pages in Black Humor from 1970. As a young college student, Johnson was enthralled by a talk given by the Black activist poet Amiri Baraka where he urged Black people to give back to their community. Again, quoting from the same introduction, Johnson states: “I remember walking back to my dormitory in the rain from Baraka’s reading, dazed by what he’d said. I sat down before my drawing board, my inkwell, my pens. I started to sketch. I worked furiously for a solid week, cutting my classes. The more I drew and took notes for gag lines, the faster the ideas came. After seven intense days of creative outpouring, I had a book, Black Humor.” In less than a year, that book was published by Johnson Publishing Company, Chicago publisher of Ebony and Jet. The fact is that this kind of pointed humor, whether Black or not, is not part of The New Yorker sensibility. It would not have fit into what The New Yorker published then or publishes today.

From Black Humor, 1970, by Charles Johnson.

And so, if you’re a young Black cartoonist, circa 1970, fueled by hearty rebellion, what sort of cartoons are you going to create? The answer to that in Black Humor is a collection of biting satire pushing everything as far to the limits as possible. However, what may surprise some, is that the jokes that Johnson lets fly don’t take sides, often poking fun at Black protestors and poseurs alike as when a Black couple contemplate a date for the next riot. And perhaps only a Black cartoonist could strike the right chord when it came to lampooning white supremacy, often depicted in full Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. One joke has a mixed-race couple confronting a visit from mother, donning a hood and looking quite perturbed. Are these jokes unfair in their crassness? During an interview I conducted with Johnson, he pointed out that all’s fair when it comes to satire. And, while some of the cartoons may come off as utterly surreal, it is that very incongruity that makes them most effective. One example is when a Black man adamantly complains that, without discrimination, there won’t be anything left to complain about. Overall, these are cartoons by an accomplished young cartoonist eager to make some unflinching observations. And it’s no overstatement to say that Johnson, at an early age, was already an accomplished cartoonist having won more awards and produced more work than some professionals.

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

Looking back at the early work of Charles Johnson is rewarding on many levels, especially when you consider where his creative pursuits would take him. Johnson would develop into a highly insightful writer of Black America, racism and slavery. To look back at some of Johnson’s cartoons is to view prescient fragments of the novels that were to come. Perhaps the most striking cartoon of that era is a Johnson cartoon from a 1976 collection of cartoons for Player (a Black version of Playboy), a joke that depicts the sexual fantasy of a Klansman as he gazes upon an attractive young Black woman. In the thought balloon, the Klansman’s deepest desire is for the woman to be stripped and lynched. This is a cartoon so dark, and outrageous, as to court its own deletion from history. But it is this very image, in its sophisticated morbidity, that needs to be seen. It is so distinctive that it could easily be a featured piece all to itself at any museum. Show it enough times, and it would grow to the strength of an iconic image. Keep it hidden, and it remains obscure. In contrast to Johnson, controversial work by R. Crumb has gained iconic status from repeated exposure over the years. Arguments continue to be made that R. Crumb’s blatantly racist comics, at the height of the underground comix movement of the sixties, are actually telling us something about the American psyche. However, Crumb has never adequately, if at all, explained his intent. In comparison to Crumb, Johnson’s work is clear, and, while sometimes blunt, retains its integrity without question.

If you know R. Crumb comics, then consider a Charles Johnson cartoon taking it to the edge.

The following cartoon is part of this paperback collection and no need to have it lost to history.

Cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an essay in The Comics Journal in 2010 discussing Johnson’s early work. In that essay, he opens with a description of the Klansman cartoon in Player. Kreider cites the work of anthropologist Eli Sagan, his 1974 book, Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form which “discusses at length the deep human ambivalence between affection and aggression evident in many cultures: the eating of deceased family members or honored warriors, the psychic power imputed to human trophies like bones and heads; the reverence displayed toward the victims of ritual sacrifice. (And lynching is, among other things, a form of ritual sacrifice.) Johnson’s thesis is borne out by three centuries’ history of the rape of slaves by their owners.” Of course, what stands out most today about the work in Black Humor is how direct it is, not pulling any punches. Kreider observes that the more blunt and honest humor was a product of its times, circa 1970, a time when Don Rickles could get away with jokes about “The blacks, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans—mostly the blacks.” But this kind of humor isn’t all from some bygone era. All you need to do is look at Dave Chappelle, circa 2003, and even today! It is a figure like Chappelle who demonstrates how issues about race don’t fit neatly into little boxes. Yes, Dave Chappelle is alive and well, continuing to make outrageous comedy, and yet he can seem to be hiding in plain sight when certain segments of the public won’t acknowledge him.

Krazy Kat comic strip, 1941.

Another prominent Black figure hiding in plain sight was the pioneering comic strip artist George Herriman (1880-1944). It wasn’t until 1971 that a birth certificate revealed that Herriman was Black. During his career, he chose to “pass for white,” a choice many Blacks made not only to hopefully advance in life but maybe even to save their lives. Herriman’s comic strip, Krazy Kat, (1913-1944) is known for its many coded passages. I asked Johnson if he thought some Blacks had figured out that Herriman was Black by reading between the lines of the comic strip. He thought that was possible. I then asked him if he’d ever read of Krazy Kat lamenting over being Black and wondering about being white. To that, Johnson wasn’t ready to accept those comics existed. I had to check back but these comics are documented in Michael Tisserand’s 2016 biography, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. In fact, I can cite for you here an example, circa 1925, “as when Krazy Kat showers in a bottle of bleach, saying, ‘This smex of a change among the kimplexion of things.’ That strip ends with Krazy turning completely white except for a black tail.” I checked in with Michael Tisserand and he responded with some samples and a reply: “There are many strips that deal with color and Krazy turning white. This “study in black and white” strip from 1931 is a pretty famous one and I’m sure I mentioned it in the book. There are also some beauty parlor gags in which Krazy turns white, one from 1941.”

Excerpt from Your Black Friend, 2016, by Ben Passmore.

In another comic strip from around 1925, Krazy describes this particular anxiety as one about an “inferiority complexion.” It’s a struggle that still haunts some Black cartoonists to this very day. If you take a look at Ben Passmore’s 2016 comic, Your Black Friend, there is a passage that depicts the cartoonist as a young boy smoothing out his curly hair and sucking in his lips to make them look thin like Leonardo Dicaprio. “The TV taught your black friend what beautiful was and it didn’t look anything like him.” On that same page, in another panel, Passmore glorifies hurting an innocent person. “One day your black friend heard about some cops killing a young black boy. That night your black friend threw a brick at a cop’s face.” This comic, which presents itself as a Black guidebook for white people, went on to be named on NPR’s Top 100 Comics list along with various comics industry accolades like, ironically enough, winning an Ignatz Award, which is basically a brick. Passmore takes a very obvious militant stance. Some people will find his work can be toxic while others will celebrate it without question.

You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. From Integration Is a Bitch!  by Tom Floyd.

And so that brings us back to 2021 and to the book, It’s Life As I See It, part of a bigger show focusing on Chicago cartoonists. One question worth asking is, How useful is it to set apart one segment of the cartoonist community? In this case, some questions would never get a chance to be asked otherwise and some aspects of history would remain in the shadows. Issues of self-worth are very complex and hard to resolve so, for that reason alone, a book focusing on Black cartoonists is valuable. But it’s all that history needing to be presented within context that pretty much steals the show. If not for this book, so many readers would probably never have become acquainted with such significant trailblazing cartoonists as Tom Floyd and his 1969 cartoon collection, Integration Is a Bitch! This is Floyd’s hilarious account of entering, and exiting, the white-collar workforce. A typical cartoon features two white executives looking over The Civil Rights Act of 1964. One declares to the other, “Hire some Negroes…Quick!” To have such a document of the times available was downright revolutionary. Such a book, along with Black Humor, was great motivation when it was clear there would be no easy wins and many battles ahead. Black cartoonists would need to rely upon themselves, create their own media for their own community, and keep fighting.

From Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, 1965.

Black cartoonists found homes for their work in Black media, like The Chicago Defender. As Dan Nadel noted in his introduction to It’s Life As I See It: “The great tradition of Chicago comics as it’s most often taught—that of Frank King, Chester Gould, and Harold Gray—is brilliant, but it was never the full story. More than any other city in the country, Chicago had a vibrant yet utterly separate Black publishing industry that encompassed multiple comic strip genres in the Defender newspaper and a raft of panel cartoons about Black life in the locally published magazines, including Jet and Negro Digest.” It was this yin yang of responding to exclusion and aspiring to inclusion that reverberated throughout the Black creative process. There was room for wonderfully satirical comic strips like Jay Jackson’s Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, a science fiction parody where the white race is subservient, published in the 1940s in The Chicago Defender. And there was also room for Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, a comic strip that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz encouraged Turner to create. Dinky Fellas was launched in the Defender in 1964 as a Black version of Peanuts. It would later be renamed Wee Pals and be syndicated in five newspapers. But it was after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, with newspapers urgently seeking new Black voices, that Wee Pals was picked up by scores of papers and continued up to its creator’s death in 2014. A comic strip that came to life as a segregated version of the mainstream had managed to break through and to flourish.

Black anger, or is it simply human anger at injustice?

Charles Johnson was a young man, pounding the pavement in Manhattan in hopes of a big break from the great establishment media of the day—and never got it. All the answers as to why not are now painful to acknowledge. However you look at it, it was a long process. As a final aside, Johnson noted to me in an email that it wasn’t until The New York Times ran a review of It’s Life As I See It that a Charles Johnson cartoon was finally published in the pages of the great establishment media. A little late to say the least; but published nonetheless.

Quote from MIDDLE PASSAGE by Charles Johnson

Oh, one last thing, are you wondering what the cartoon alter ego for Charles Johnson is typing in the opening cartoon? Well, it’s not just mock type. Nope. In fact, it’s a quote from his National Book Award winning novel, Middle Passage. Just a nice FYI. There’s part of the quote right above.

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Filed under Black cartoonists, Comics, Essays, The New Yorker

Review: SAVE IT FOR LATER by Nate Powell

SAVE IT FOR LATER

Save it for Later. by Nate Powell. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2021. 160pp. $24.99

Nate Powell provides a series of what I call “visual essays” for his latest book, Save it for Later. Powell, whether he intended to or not, is working in the tradition of essays going back to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne was a philosopher who, in spite of or because of his erudition, knew how to write plainly and memorably. The sign of any good writing is that it sticks with you, akin to an absorbing conversation with an intimate friend. Essays are not meant to be perfect, although they do best if they ultimately have something meaningful to say, and achieve a clarity of purpose. Powell’s book is not perfect–and I’m glad it’s not. Powell manages to retain a certain level of rawness that adds authenticity. This is a real person who is just trying to figure things out, what’s best for him, his family, and his community.

A parent’s passion.

It’s a messy and complicated world–sometimes ugly (maybe more now than in recent memory). We live for only a pocket of time: perhaps we’re more aware of the ever-shifting present than ever before and mindful of the relatively recent past and future. In the big picture, we’re all here just for a blink of an eye’s time. And then we’re gone. Dust. No more. You’d think that would humble us. We’re too ready to pass judgement and condescend–somehow oblivious to the fact than none of us are going to leave this earth alive. Pretty heavy stuff. And then you throw in the role a parent plays in guiding a child, navigating a child through all the grown-up stuff going on. Let’s not forget there is plenty of joy to go around. You don’t have to be “privileged” to enjoy so much that life has to offer. But sometimes a parent feels a heavy burden to get it all right. One thing is clear in this book, Powell feels the burden and he takes it almost to the breaking point.

A child’s choice.

We cartoonists are born explainers. There’s something about us that compels us to jump upon the stage of life. We’re part artist, writer, journalist, and actor. This need to perform, act out, and explain is genuine and natural. I can clearly see that Powell is driven to make his time count: make the most of his talents, make a difference. That heart-felt desire is undeniable. It is that kind of energy that fueled what he was able to accomplish with March, the trilogy exploring the civil rights movement with Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. In fact, March figures prominently in Powell’s new book. It is ever-present, not only guiding Powell but influencing the lives of his two children. How does the cartoonist who was a part of such a consequential work address questions of race? How do we feel confident that he’s conveying an honest picture of himself? It’s not easy! I think what really helps, and to Powell’s credit, is the use of what I call “the counter-narrative.” Right alongside Powell’s main narrative, he has moments that depict another viewpoint like when his older daughter, at age seven, admits she sometimes goes to protest rallies because she thinks that is what her father wants her to do.

Two generations co-existing.

Let me share with you how the issue of race was addressed in my family when I was child. Basically, in the 1970s, in my household, it was never explicitly and formally addressed the way it is now in vogue to do. Certainly, race came up as a subject to talk about but it happened very organically: randomly and without pretense. That had something to do, maybe everything to do, with my coming from a biracial background: my mom was Mexican; my dad was Anglo. Both are now deceased. And, if they were both alive and cognizant, I imagine they’d have a well-earned laugh over some of what they’d find to be an excess of sensitivity on display today. Where were all the well-wishers when we needed them? It’s an interesting question. For Powell, he is focusing on his being white and the burden he believes he has. Powell believes that white children should not be afforded an extended time of innocence since non-white children never had such a privilege. There’s plenty to unpack there and fodder for much needed discussion.

In the shadow of a giant.

As a child, I also know for a fact that I became political all on my own, and after a relatively extended time of relative innocence (kids are less innocent than adults generally care to admit). I know that I was certainly curious about the news by age ten and picked it up in earnest by age thirteen. Looking back on it, I see no harm, no foul on that count. I don’t blame my parents for any apathy or neutrality over issues of the day. I think my mother suffered enough, as I did by extension and in my own right, from countless forms of racism. And I don’t think I would have benefited from any critical race theory workshop. That said, we need to be willing to talk it all out and think it all out as much as possible. We often seem to forget how important it is to make our actions count. After all, we’re only here for a small pocket of time.

Make some “good trouble.”

So, how does the cartoonist who was a part of such a consequential work as March address questions of race? It’s one step at time! How does one move in the shadow of such a giant as John Lewis? With purpose! Nate Powell, without a doubt, has created a work of honesty and bravery with his latest book. Yes, bravery because amid all the coded language and distraction, there remains that veiled, and not-so-veiled, threat of violence. It’s like you are being dared to be true to yourself and stand up to the current batch of hate crime bullies. These are bullies that John Lewis understood very well in his time. Sadly, his pocket of time is now over. The baton has been passed on to another generation. We may collectively stumble along the way but, as John Lewis would say when you see something that is not fair: “Find a way to get in the way.” Powell has learned from the best.

Save it for Later is available as of April 6, 2021. For more information, visit Abrams ComicArts.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Graphic Novel Reviews, Race

Brown v. Board of Education: Legislation Provides a Closer Look

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, is known by many as essentially banning school segregation. The intent was to ban it altogether since it was ruled as unconstitutional. But first, there was resistance to overcome right from the very start. Today, we can look back at this process in many ways. One such path to understanding is legislation that secures the very places where history was made, the sites involved in the 1954 court case. It was not only a high school in Topeka, Kansas. The Brown v. Board case involved six different schools. In partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, these sites are now part of the National Park Service thanks to legislation sponsored by Rep. James Clyburn and Sen. Chris Coons.

George E.C. Hayes, left, Thurgood Marshall, center, and James M. Nabrit, the lawyers who led the fight before the U.S. Supreme Court for abolition of segregation in public schools, descend the court steps in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 1954. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation is unconstitutional. (AP Photo)

Today, September 17, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) held a virtual press conference to announce their new legislation to honor and commemorate the historic sites that contributed to the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

The purpose of this legislation is to expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, to include historic sites in South Carolina and designate National Park Service (NPS) Affiliated Areas in other states. It would recognize the importance of the additional sites that catalyzed litigation in Delaware, South Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Washington, DC, and expand the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. The legislation was crafted in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The sites involved are in Farmville, VA; Summerton, SC; Hockessin, DE; Claymont, DE; Wilmington, DE; and Washington, DC. This new legislation makes these schools part of the National Park Service and brings them to the forefront as teaching and learning sites. It dramatically increases the visibility of these sites. 50,000 people each year plan their vacations including National Parks. The legislation also secures curriculum for teachers as well as stabilization and preservation of these sites.

illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Altogether, this is a great opportunity for understanding and learning from history. This definitely opens a window to education and inclusion. As Rep. Clyburn pointed out, only 2 percent of Black Americans visit National Parks. Why is that? Is it because, historically, African Americans have not been fully included? As Sen Coons pointed out, it is only when you can see yourself as part of the discussion that you will feel compelled to join.

Dig deeper and you discover so many facts. One of the sad backlashes to desegregation was that it became more difficult for Blacks to qualify to become teachers. Pushing back on that, as Rep. Clyburn mentioned, are such initiatives as a program advocating for Black teachers, Call Me Mister. As you look closer, you find the road blocks, for every step forward, two steps back. Another such sad case sprouts directly from Brown v. Board. In reaction to the Supreme Court decision, Virginia closed down its schools. It wasn’t until 1959 that schools in Virginia reopened and began to desegregate–and not until the early ’70s that the state completely accepted desegregation.

This new legislation follows in the spirit and values of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to rely upon “the power of places to teach.” For more information on the work being done at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visit right here.

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Filed under Black Lives Matter, Culture, History

Bitch Media Needs Your Help: At Halfway Point to Reach Goal by Sep 25

Bitch magazine

BITCH MEDIA celebrates over 20 years of award-winning, nonprofit, feminist response to pop culture. Due to COVID-19 and the economic downturn, Bitch Media is in danger of ceasing operation. Help Bitch Media keep up the good fight with a donation by joining its campaign that closes on September 25, 2020. Donate, join, or subscribe today.

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GOOD TROUBLE. John Lewis (1940-2020)

MARCH

Michelle Goldberg, in the NYT podcast, The Argument, said something that put the first five months of this year into stark perspective. She said that 2020 started off like 1974 (an impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (a pandemic), turned into 1929 (economic crash), and is now 1968 (massive urban unrest).” What next? Protest will continue. We all can look to John Lewis on how to cause some “good trouble.”

The death of John Lewis reverberates and can’t help but provide guidance. Here is John Lewis in his own words: “I learned from Rosa Parks and from Martin Luther King Jr. I found a way to get in the way. To cause good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

Here is a review I did back on August 28, 2013  of the first installment of MARCH, the graphic novel that John Lewis created with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell:

Review: MARCH: BOOK ONE by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March-Top-Shelf-Productions-2013

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is today, August 28, 2013. It is one of the most inspiring moments in American history and all of history. It will only grow in stature and significance as time continues its own march. The United States of America was desperately lagging behind in full self-awareness as a nation when it received an opportunity for collective clarity. It was a beautiful, gentle, and energetic plea for understanding. There were marches before and after this distinguished one. Progress would still take time. His words would still be dismissed by some. But, on that day, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a nation. He gave a speech. He spoke of a dream.

MLK-March-on-Washington-28-August-1963

We continue to remember that moment, and that movement, in new ways. One shining example is “March,” the new graphic novel, published by Top Shelf Productions, written by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and drawn by Nate Powell. “March: Book One,” the first part of a trilogy, has already gained critical and popular acclaim. It has made it to the number one spot on The New York Times bestsellers list for Graphic Books. The creation of this book is inspiring in itself. Congressman John Lewis is a perfect guide. He was an active participant in the civil rights movement right from the start. He is the last surviving dignitary who gave a speech during the March on Washington. And he’s a wealth of knowledge and goodwill. The “March” trilogy gives us a front row seat to the civil rights movement in America through the eyes of Mr. Lewis. The story is framed all in one day, January 20, 2009, the day of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. It’s an ambitious project that reads quite smoothly, just as if Mr. Lewis was there to tell you the story in person.

March-Book-One-2013

The script seems to embrace a cinematic pace. The main character is recalling his life all in a short span of time with each recollection triggering an extended flashback. It is left to Nate Powell’s storytelling ability as a cartoonist to bring out aspects that gel with the comics medium. You see this in the various ways that Powell plays with text and composition like when he has a favorite passage from the Bible run across a silhouette of young John Lewis: “Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” And, of course, the distinctive drawing style of Nate Powell takes over. We easily become immersed in the intelligent and caring ways of this boy who is compelled to preach to the chickens on the family farm. In due time, the young man’s compassion becomes refined and focuses on the social gospel, the idea that church principles can guide social justice.

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published by F.O.R. in 1955

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published by F.O.R. in 1956

March-Book-One-Top-Shelf-Productions

March-Book-One-Lewis-Aydin-Powell-2013

It is a dangerous world that young Lewis must navigate. There is constant humiliation and intimidation. You could easily be killed, just like 14-year-old Emmett Till. But a violent reaction would not be the answer. The key was passive resistance and keeping faith. There were various techniques to learn in order to outwit one’s attackers with the prevailing goal being to draw out your enemy’s humanity. We find an actual comic book pamphlet of the time laying out the Montgomery Method that worked so well for Dr. King and his followers. It is a satisfying comics reference within a comic. It was an inspiration for the young John Lewis. And it’s a compelling link to the past to this contemporary look back.

It will be great to see the whole trilogy. It’s so important for new generations to have something contemporary in order to help them hook into history. The civil rights movement is really relatively recent history depending on how you look at it! This book and “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” make a big difference. The United States of America has a lot of wounds that are still healing and we still have a lot to learn and relearn. It’s this book and that movie that provide essential hooks for young people, give them proper context, help them appreciate when they hear on the news that our voting rights as a people are, even today, being compromised. You can’t put enough value on a book like “March” and more power to Top Shelf Productions for publishing it.

“March: Book One” is a beautiful book. It is a new way to honor and understand what has come before us and be inspired for what lies ahead. It is a 128-page trade paperback and is available for $14.95 (US) print and $9.95 (US) digital. Visit our friends at Top Shelf Productions here.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, March on Washington

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: An Astute Cartoonist’s Prediction

Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921

UPDATE: The Trump rally in Tulsa is now scheduled for June 20. However, especially during this pandemic, the correct action would be not to hold a rally.

With Trump set for his rally in Tulsa on June 19, Juneteenth, he and his henchmen continue to stoke the fires of racism. Juneteenth memorializes June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Trump’s response to CNN on his rally coinciding with this date, well-known as a date to commemorate emancipation from slavery: “Uh, no, but I know exactly what you’re going to say. … Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump said, adding, “Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.” Add to this the fact that Tulsa was the site for the infamous race massacre of 1921.

Daisy Scott

 

Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921

Daisy Scott in the Tulsa Star. Caption: “Isn’t it time to start cleaning your own mess?

Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

Writer Michael Tisserand remembers Daisy Scott, a cartoonist who predicted the troubles ahead for Tulsa in 1921. This is from a social media post today:

“Among the many things that history has ignored about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is that the first regularly published Black female cartoonist was working at the Tulsa Star at the time, and she saw what was coming.

The Tulsa Star would be destroyed in the fires. Daisy Scott never worked as a cartoonist again. Yet she remained in Tulsa with her husband, Jack Scott, a boxer, and they would raise a family together.

During the fires, Jack Scott had risked his life to help stop a lynching. He, like others, would be baselessly indicted for murder; that charge would not be officially dropped until 2007.”

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Confederate Statues Are Being Removed–But Then What? A Proposal For Infamous Statues

Proposal For Infamous Statues

Confederate statues are being removed, including that infamous Robert E. Lee statue, the one at the center of the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017. What is essential to know is that these Confederate leader statues were not erected immediately after the Civil War in 1865 but were installed years later, during the era of Jim Crow. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research, the biggest spike was between 1900 and the 1920s. Lost in the shuffle is the question of what happens to these statues once they’re “removed.” One Lee statue in Dallas was removed in 2019 only to be sold to an unknown party. In 2017, New Orleans removed a total of four Confederate statues including one of Lee. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that the monuments represent a “sanitized” view of the Confederacy. Landrieu added that they were erected years after the Civil War ended by people who wanted to show that white supremacy still held sway in the city. The cost of removal was over 2.1 millions dollars. Some of the factors in that huge price tag involved public safety and security but that still seems to be a steep price to pay. And, again, what exactly should be the end result to all of these statues? That’s a very good question.

Artist rebel Banksy offers an option byway of a recent removal of a statue across the pond, that of Edward Colston in Bristol. Colston was a 17th-century slave trader that was responsible for having transported over 80,000 enslaved individuals between 1672 and 1689. This past Sunday, protestors took down the statue of Colston from its pedestal, located in the center of Bristol, and sank it to the bottom of the Avon River. Banksy proposes to keep the infamous statue but repurpose it. As Banksy states on Instagram:

“What should we do with the empty plinth in the middle of Bristol?

Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t.
We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”

Sounds like a very good answer. Of course, taking a sledgehammer to these statues is another option. New Orleans Mayor Landrieu led the way with the removal of his city’s four statues. Other cities followed, including Baltimore, Austin, and Durham, North Carolina. But where did these statues end up? The New Orleans statues are kept, to this very day, in some old shed in an undisclosed location.

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George Floyd Will Never Be Forgotten

George Floyd Will Never Be Forgotten

As Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said at today’s funeral, “George Floyd was on a mission.” His purpose shines on as his memory moves progress forward. There’s no turning back. Rosa Parks. Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin. George Floyd. Some of us are on such a mission. Their memory sparks change. George Floyd Will Never Be Forgotten.

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Book Review: ‘The Blood of Emmett Till’ by Timothy Tyson

"The Blood of Emmett Till" by Timothy Tyson

“The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy Tyson

April 28, 1955
Emmett Till was tortured and murdered by white men in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them.

Facts are very stubborn things. You can try to avoid them or even provide alternates but they will come back, and with a vengeance. That is certainly the case with historian Timothy Tyson’s new book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” published by Simon & Schuster.

In 2007, Tyson interviewed Carolyn Bryant, who was at the center of a tragedy that helped to propel the American Civil Rights Movement. It was on a hot summer night in 1955 that 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, bludgeoned, and lynched. All this fury came down upon this young African American for supposedly having flirted with a white woman. That woman was Carolyn Bryant. The interview, where Bryant recanted most of her testimony at the murder trial, was the first step towards the creation of this book, a book that helps us get a fuller picture as to what led to this pivotal moment in history.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

We may think we know what happened but Tyson brings in a rich tapestry that pieces together a more detailed story. The combination of his firsthand interview with Carolyn Bryant and his measured presentation guide the reader through the dynamics running throughout. With a level of sensitivity, Tyson gives us a balanced depiction as we see events from various perspectives. What comes through are real people and real facts. We get to know the young Emmett Till, a loyal baseball fan, partial to the Brooklyn Dodgers. And we get to know his killers, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant, men full of pride and used to getting their way. We see what kind of world, with its limitations and dangers, that each existed in.

The quick takeaway fact in this book is that Carolyn Bryant confesses to historian Timothy Tyson that she made up the story of being manhandled and threatened by Emmett Till. That never happened. And that is the hook upon which to proceed. A history unfolds: we discover Emmett Till, a child full of life but who also suffered from a lisp and was gentle and vulnerable; and we discover the many layers of Southern culture to unravel. Tyson guides you along, provides side trips as needed, and has the real life goblins show themselves: the Citizens’ Councils, formed in response to school integration and the NAACP, responsible for keeping African Americans away from the polls at any cost; Sherriff H.C. Strider, who was responsible for suppressing evidence in the Till murder trial by hiding key witnesses.

Mamie Till

Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley (Nov 23, 1921 – Jan 6, 2003) was the mother of Emmett Till, whose murder mobilized the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi on August 28, 1955, at the age of 14, after being accused of acting inappropriately with a white woman. Photo: Mamie Till-Mobley (L) speaking to anti-lynching rally after acquittal of men accused of killing her son, Emmett Till. Photographer: Grey Villet for LIFE magazine.

It was the reputation that Timothy Tyson had built with 2005’s “Blood Done Sign My Name,” his own recollections of a murder similar to the Till case that inspired Carolyn Bryant to come forward. Tyson’s goal is to document and ferret out the truth as best as possible. That means bringing out the whole picture. Part of that picture is that Carolyn Bryant tells Tyson that she had a close African American friend when she was a child and her heart went out to Till’s mother.

It was the decision by Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to bring her son’s body in Mississippi back to Chicago for an open-casket funeral that set in motion a global outcry. This was not lost on Carolyn Bryant. However, with the fear of having her husband go to prison for murdering Emmett Till and leaving her with two boys to raise alone, she took the stand and lied. Mamie did what she had to do. Carolyn did what she had to do.

Tyson presents the facts and continues along his way to provide context and insight. One key distinction he makes is that Emmett Till was not only murdered, he was lynched. With the 20th century charging its way through, some things from the past had to change, like large crowds gathered for a public hanging of an African American. By the 1950s, the process had been updated. The threat of killing an African American was still very much alive and, from time to time, a person could suddenly go missing and later on his body could turn up dumped in a river just like Emmett Till. The community would know who the killers were; that did not need to be a secret since there were no consequences for lynching someone. The deed was done and the message delivered.

White supremacy was not to be undermined.

That we still have a long journey ahead is clear. Tyson does not mince words about that. He offers hope too. As long as we have an understanding of the causes of racism, there is hope. As long as we remember Emmett Till, there is hope. Tyson would be the first person to encourage you to not only read his book but also read other books on Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement: “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson; “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” by Devery S. Anderson; and “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” by John Edgar Wideman, named a finalist for a 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award. It is Tyson’s book that belongs among these notable titles.

“The Blood of Emmett Till” is a 304-page hardcover, published by Simon & Schuster. For more information, and how to purchase, visit Simon & Schuster right here.

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Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Books, Emmett Till, Race, Race Relations, Racism