As a lover of literature, art and Blackness, few things make me happier than Black art; specifically, graphic novels about Black history. It brings together all of my favorite things: intentional word, poignant images and the unadulterated truth of the Black experience in America.
During one of my habitual adventures in my local Barnes and Noble, I found a small display of Black History Month books. The bold title of “March” immediately caught my eye, and as I took in the cover, I realized with growing excitement that it was a graphic novel.
At the time, I was enrolled in a Black Power class and I bought the book without a moment’s hesitation, excited to show my professor my find. The book was a visual history of one of the supporting characters in many of the BP narratives we were reading, John Lewis.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about John Lewis. I knew that I was supposed to widen my eyes in awe when he was mentioned and be overjoyed at the chance to perhaps hear him speak. I knew my friend had met him and Julian Bond on a Civil Rights tour that she had taken for a class. In typical UVA fashion, I tried to hide my ignorance. If I don’t know something that I feel I should know, I feign understanding until I get a chance to look it up on the internet later on.
For once, though, I think not knowing his story made the journey of reading March that much more valuable. I got to fully immerse myself in a world that I have learned about, written about, read about, and follow a narrative that I had not yet uncovered. Typically, when I’m exploring the 1960s, I’m usually looking through the lens of Martin or Malcolm, sometimes Stokely. The greater martyrs of the revolution are sometimes untouchable to me….Though they were the champions of the people, I can’t relate. I can’t relate because of what time and culture have done to the image and message of these people. They are mythic…and so, it felt comforting to read about young Bob with preaching to his chickens.
At 22 years old, facing my own set of social problems, it’s so comforting to read the narrative of a young man during a trying time and to see how his small choices lead to big choices, which turned small waves into big ones. The narratives were wonderfully poignant, told with reverence for that which he cherished in his youth, but not neglecting to critique that which he didn’t understand at that age.
As always, I love graphic novels because images enhance words, and words enhance images. Reading about the Civil Rights Movement in some ways creates some distance from the actuality of the events. Your imagination is free to interpret the words on the page however you want, and if there is not enough detail, you’re free to water down the images of tear gas or verbal and physical abuse. With graphic novels, there is nothing left to imagine. You can see the races of the people in the background, their facial expressions, the individual thoughts of many at once, rather than focusing on the two characters exchanging words in a narrative.
I will never cease to appreciate the beauty that is Black visual histories. It is horrible, yet necessary to see, to read, to hear. I thank John Lewis for his graphic biographic, which gave me a new way to understand a pivotal era in American, and my personal, history.