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.
Tag Archives: Black Lives Matter
On Black Cartoonists and Black Humor: Rethinking the Racist Narrative
Filed under Black cartoonists, Comics, Essays, The New Yorker
Review: SAVE IT FOR LATER by Nate Powell
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Graphic Novel Reviews, Race
Brown v. Board of Education: Legislation Provides a Closer Look
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.
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.
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.
Filed under Black Lives Matter, Culture, History
GOOD TROUBLE. John Lewis (1940-2020)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, March on Washington
Confederate Statues Are Being Removed–But Then What? A 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.
Filed under Art, Black Lives Matter, Protest
Book Review: ‘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.
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.
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.
Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Books, Emmett Till, Race, Race Relations, Racism