Strange Fruit by Joel Christian Gill

After a year long hiatus on this blog, I am back to make an announcement:

I am a comic nerd.

I’m not sure how it happened. Sometimes, I attribute my love of graphic novels to my best friend in high school, sometimes my first big crush in middle school, sometimes my dad. Then, sometimes, I remember that I loved superheroes well before I met either of those boys, as I would often spend entire days during the hot Virginia summers crafting my own adventure stories for my superhero family, the Powers.

I completely forget that I created a graphic novel, in French, for my summer assignment between grades 9 and 10.

As a Black person, having a love for comics is a little uncomfortable. I’m stared at in comic shops, there are never enough brown faces amidst the pages for my liking, and then there’s the weird cultural stigma associated with comic book lovers- and I don’t fit it.

Now imagine my surprise when I stumble upon Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill.

As a French major, whose distinguished major thesis is on graphic novels that involve a better understanding of global France, I have a knack for finding graphic novels that feature POC. (Persepolis, L’Arabe du Future, and Aya, in case you were curious.) But very rarely have I come across a book like this, that depicts Blackness in America with such frankness.

Gill writes and illustrates the stories of Henry “Box” Brown, Harry “Bucky” Lew, Richard Potter, Theophilus Thompson, Marshall Taylor, Spottswood Rice and Bass Reeves, as well as stories about an island off the coast of Maine called “The Shame” and a school called The Noyes Academy. None of these names were familiar to me as I opened the novel but that in no way made them irrelevant. My first movement after scanning the table of contents was to grab my father’s arm to show him that Theophilus Thompson was a chess master. (I’ve lost every game of chess I have ever played with my father.) Normally, a fairly ambivalent person about books, even he asked to looked at it for minute or two.

As a person who studies the intersection between pictures and words, I found this volume exceptionally powerful. I would read one story, tell myself I was taking a break but allow myself to simply glance at the cover art of the next. But the art was too powerful; one look and I had to see the next, read the next part of the story, I had to know what happened. Spottswood Rice and Bass Reeves became like superheroes to me. I could just imagine my father doing everything he could to rescue me from servitude as Spottswood did for his daughter. Reading about how people claimed Bass left coins as calling cards made me smile because I remembered that Clark Kent burns the El family shield at the scene of incident in the CW television show Smallville when he fights crime as “The Blur.”

But these were better because they were Black.

It seems simplistic, to think of things in this way. But I can’t tell you how gratifying it is even to hear stories of Black people doing amazing things over the course of American history. With the overwhelming presence of slavery in our past, it’s difficult to remember that there were a few Black people who were not enslaved, who were doing well economically and academically. It’s difficult to remember that we have a history outside of slavery sometimes, because that is most of what you hear.

Gill’s work does depict some slave narratives, but it also does work to show us what else Black people have done in history. The story “The Noyes Academy” moved me as a future Black Academic because it shows that even in the face of adversity, we may still prevail. Knowledge is power and nobody, no Jim Crow, no law enforcement, may take that away from me.

Thank you, Mr. Gill, for giving me hope.

 

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