As an undergrad, I had researched some ideas for paintings based on lynching photographs. Now, I felt was the time to follow through. I listened to the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, based on the poem by Abel Meeropol, and I decided to call my paintings “Strange Fruit Harvested: He Cut the Rope,” showing me with a noose around my neck, holding the frayed end. I was trying to say that I was in some ways freed from the fear that had plagued my father and grandfather. However, I also wanted to convey that because the rope was still there, we still had a ways to go.
What does this have to do with black history, you might ask?… I wanted to tell stories – sometimes great and sometimes tragic – of other people who were also able to “cut the rope.” So, I began to research and draw comics about obscure black history. I looked for stories of people who were not in mainstream history books. I wanted to tell stories that people had not heard.
I’ve just recently gotten over the major stick-up-my-butt about graphic novels thanks to Matt Madden’s One Story #182 selection, “Drawn Onward”, a wonderful piece that introduced me to the heretofore unknown (to me) grammar of comix. So when I saw a post on Brain Pickings for Gill’s collection of nine lesser-known black history biographies presented in comic-style, I had to check it out. I’m so glad I did.
In How To Be Black, one of Baratunde Thurston’s riffs starts with the notion that Black History Month recycles the same five or six historical biographies of African Americans, and that’s about the extent of it. That’s what I love about this book: these aren’t people anyone’s likely to know. They lived before television, certainly, but they also lived before anyone in the mainstream thought ordinary people, let alone ordinary black people, could possibly live lives worth celebrating. Yet their lives have been preserved and celebrated, and now, Gill recelebrates them with all the nuance and significance of a Great American Novel. Because this, though denied for centuries, this is the Great American Novel. Maybe not the one we expected. But it’s the one that shows us, all of us, for who we are. Heroes are everywhere, especially when mere survival requires a level of personal heroism most of us never approach.
My favorite of the biographies – if “favorite” is the right word; perhaps I should say, the one that struck the hardest, since it happened here in Maine – is “The Shame”, Gill’s casting of the story of Malaga Island, and the wholesale institutionalization, criminalization, and in some cases, sterilization of members a law-abiding, hard-working, but mixed-race community. For those who keep insisting slavery was a long time ago, the eviction of these people occurred in the 20th century; an official apology to the descendents was issued in 2010.
Gill’s own favorite is “Two Letters” featuring, as the only text, two letters written by escaped slave and Union army soldier Spottswood Rice. The first letter he wrote to his children, still enslaved, to assure them he would be back for them, and that, though their owner at the time claimed that would be stealing property, he believed God would give precedence to the relationship between father and child over that of child and slaveowner. The second letter was to the slaveowner, to inform her in no uncertain terms that he and an army of black men would be coming to get his children. Gill’s artistic interpretation uses a unique grammar of comix, one I’m delighted to learn about –speech bubbles devoid of words, with the intensifying colors signifying escalating anger and fear; images instead of words; and, of course, the use of the letters as the only text.
This is great work, and makes innovative and powerful use of the combinations of words and images. Gill’s website includes more information about the construction of the book (happily, Volume 2 is in the works). I again must apologize for my years of dissing this art form.
But, more importantly, the timing of this book reminds me we are living now – last weekend, this week, as we watched Americans line up to yell at and threaten frightened children, this past year, in which voting rights are being etched away day by day, these past two years in which teenagers can be shot with impunity as long as someone believes black skin is itself a danger – in a moment for which we will again be apologizing for a long, long time, if we don’t destroy ourselves first.