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own voices

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

Author and illustrator Joel Christian Gill shares nine short stories of blacks from American history that you are probably not aware of. His title refers to the song made famous by Billie Holiday about blacks being lynched and hanging from trees, so the title immediately signifies the seriousness of the narrative. Gill’s opening message “For all those who freed themselves by cutting the rope” further amplifies this message.

Out of the Box Thinking: Henry “Box” Brown- Slave Henry Brown was desperate to escape slavery, so with help, he hid in a box and was shipped to freedom in a daring and unique way in 1849.

Harry “Bucky” Lew: Orginal Baller- Was the first black man to integrate professional basketball in 1902.

Richard Potter’s Great Illusion- Potter was a famous magician, who toured worldwide, but only revealed on his deathbed his origins.

Theophilus Thompson: From Slave to Chess Master- Thompson proved that blacks are intelligent as whites when he became a master of chess and won many championships. That he disappeared at the peak of his career points to the theory that he was killed by those who felt threatened by what he represented.

The Shame- In the late 1800s a small modest seaside village was established on Malaga Island by a mixed-race community that had been founded by a freed slave years ago. But in 1912 the nearby white community decided that the Malaga village had to go and swept in and destroyed the village, sending many of the inhabitants to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. The judgments that the whites passed on the community were shameful and is a stain on Maine history.

The Noyes Academy- An elderly black gentleman shares his story of studying to be a minister as a young man at the Noyes Academy in New Hampshire. But in 1835 the academy was destroyed by whites who opposed that the school was racially integrated.

Marshall “Major” Taylor: The Black Cyclone- Taylor was an amazing athlete, especially known for his cycling triumphs. Unfortunately, as he aged he lost his money and died in obscurity.

Two Letters, As Written by Spottswood Rice- Rice was an escaped slave who fought for the North, and was determined to free his daughter from his former master. The juxtaposition of the two letters poignantly showed his deep love for his child, and his determination to be reunited with her.

Bass Reeves: Lawman- Reeves was a former slave who had moved west after the Civil War. He later became a respected lawman who was known for his shooting skills and morality in bringing in fugitives from justice.

Gill’s illustrations are very cartoony, which I felt did not mesh with the seriousness of the stories. He used an earthen color palette and a standard panel layout, with an attempt to recreate the era of each story.  His tone and storytelling began to improve with the later tales, and he used large black birds effectively to symbolize Jim Crow in the last few stories. Despite my not being a fan of the illustration style, I did find the stories interesting for they certainly highlighted individuals that most people will not have heard of before. I think this book could be effectively used in classrooms with middle school and high school students. I was pleased to read this story for this month’s book selection from I Read Comic Books and I will check out volume two that came out a few years after this graphic novel. I feel it is important to know more about black history than the little that is found in history books and who whites feel are deemed worthy.

-Nancy

Superman Smashes the Klan

Superman Smashes the Klan is a wonderful graphic novel geared for young adults, yet will appeal to all ages. Author Gene Luen Yang deftly combines the mythology of Superman with timely topics of immigration and battling prejudice.

When you hear the word Klan, you will automatically think of the hate group that seems to targets blacks the most. But instead, Yang sets the story in 1946 and centers on the Lee family who are Chinese-Americans who have recently moved to Metropolis for their father’s new job as a scientist. Brother and sister Tommy and Roberta begin to assimilate into their new community after leaving Chinatown, but Roberta struggles more than her brother who is soon befriended by boys in the neighborhood when he shows a gift for pitching.

But soon the family is targeted by the Klan of the Fiery Kross, which is obviously a stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan. The chants they use and their justification of their actions are sadly a commentary on what is going on in America right now. Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen befriend the Lee’s but Roberta picks up on clues about Superman’s abilities and helps him confront his own issues regarding his own assimilation. This story is set early into Superman’s career, and he is shown as not able to fly, as he is suppressing his alien powers. This runs parallel to the Lee’s journey of embracing who they are and not being ashamed of their background. This narrative not only makes Superman more relatable to younger new readers, who might only view him as a demi-god, not a young boy who even in later years as an adult struggles with his identity.

The artwork by Gurihiru (actually a Japanese illustration team, consisting of Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano) is a fun throwback to the 90s style of comic animation. The illustrations are deceptively simple and will appeal to readers of all ages. The story flowed beautifully from panel to panel, with some outstanding one and two-page spreads. The colors are bold, with the primary colors of red, blue and yellow taking center stage. That these colors are found in Superman’s costume is a natural tie-in.

I was very impressed with this story. Yang wrote a nuanced story about the struggles of fighting adversity, calling out hate, maintaining cultural traditions while balancing fitting into a new home and battling back against preconceived notions.  An afterword by the author clarifies his message in which he shares how racism against any race is unacceptable and shares his story along with his personal connection to the iconic Superman. This strong story may very well inspire readers to take stands against hate and racism they run across, and should be a welcome beacon for all Superman fans.

-Nancy

They Called Us Enemy

I have been a fan of George Takei for years, as his character of Lieutenant Commander (later Captain) Hikaru Sulu of Star Trek was one of my favorite TOS crew members. I have admired his civil and LGBTQ+ rights advocacy and have followed his popular Oh Myyy Facebook site for years. So it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick up his debut graphic novel, and it was a bonus that it was this month’s selection for Goodread’s I Read Comic Books.

In the same vein of the March trilogy by John Lewis, this book takes a long hard look at America’s shameful secret of forcing Japenese Americans into internment camps during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was mass hysteria that people of Japenese ancestry would be loyal to Imperial Japan and attack our mainland. President Franklin Roosevelt forced the relocation and incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific Coast. George Takei and his family were one of these families.

George was a young boy when he, his parents and a younger brother and sister were forced from their Los Angeles home and sent to the first of two camps that they would spend three years in. They lost their house and dry cleaning business and endured humiliation after humiliation. That Takei and his siblings were so young, they did not fully understand the ramifications of their relocation, whereas his parents were the ones who had to deal with the daily legalized racism of these camps. In fact, Takei found some pleasure during those years as his parents worked hard to shelter their children and normalize their upbringing as best as they could. But these years also helped shape him into the leader he is today, for he learned about courage, leadership and activism from both his parents who made hard decisions in that time period.

Although this memoir concentrates on a retelling of his family’s time in the camps, Takei does take time to give a larger picture of what was happening in the world before, during and after his incarceration. He names some key political figures who pushed for these camps, but also extends grace to those that helped fight the injustice. It is a great irony that President Roosevelt, who helped the country out of the Great Depression and has many other laurels to stand on, was the one who signed orders for thousands of American citizens and/or residents to be sent to these internment camps. No wonder there was little mention of them in my history books growing up, for while we can condemn other countries for gross injustices, our country had taken away the liberty, finances and dignity of a segment of our population just because they were of a certain nationality.  And this story sadly has a parallel today, as President Trump had set up camps for families trying to immigrate from Mexico, and has been blatant about his prejudices against people he does not deem American enough.

Harmony Becker was a perfect choice to illustrate this graphic novel, for her evocative black and white drawings were historically accurate, and brought to life daily camp realities, showing both the good and bad from a child’s perspective. In fact, some of her drawings slid into an anime-style when George and his siblings were experiencing joy. This not only was a great way to show their emotions, but it is also a nod towards Japanese culture. That Becker is #ownvoices elevates the story, for her talent and cultural sensitivity go hand in hand. I also wish to mention co-writers Steven Scott and Justin Eisinger, who helped shape the narrative into a strong lesson for us all. Takei and his team deserve major kudos for shining a light on issues from the past so that way we learn from them today.

-Nancy

Surviving the City

This is a short but powerful graphic novel about two young First Nations women in Canada that face the perils of being Indigenous in the city together.

Best friends at school, Miikwan is Anishinaabe, while Dez is Inninew.  The two high schoolers bond is so tight that they completed a berry fast together, which is a rite of womanhood in their tribes. Despite their close friendship, they have each faced great trauma in their lives. Miikwan’s mother is missing and presumed dead, while Dez lives with her elderly grandmother who is facing health problems, and social services is planning on moving her into foster care.

Dez briefly runs away as Miikwan gets involved in a protest to bring attention to the crisis of stolen sisters. What makes this story especially poignant was the effective use of showing dead Native women as spirits surrounding their loved ones, and dark alien type creatures besides men that wish these woman harm. While the girls could not see these unearthly creatures, the readers could, and it ramped up the tension as you desperately hoped the girls would avoid the evil that seemed to be near them often on the city streets.

The artwork was well done, showcasing the diversity of Indigenous tribes, and spotlighting that not all tribe members live on reservations. The color palate was in warn earthen tones, and the panels flowed well on the pages, with some lovely imagery. As a stated above, the unseen presences surrounding the girls elevated the story, and drew you into their world. It also clearly showed the pride and connection they each felt about their cultural heritage, which was a direct message from the author and illustrator, who both have Native ancestry.

An afterward explained some information about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and gave some excellent statistics and further reading suggestions. I do wish this afterward had included even more information. While I have some knowledge of berry fasts and two-spirit people, I really don’t think many people outside the Indigenous community will be familiar with these terms. Some explanation within the preceding narrative text, or in the afterwards should have been added. For two other well done graphic novels about other aspects of modern Indigenous life, read The Outside Circle and Roughneck.

I applaud this book for the awareness it brings to the plight of Indigenous women and the families they leave behind. Please do further research on the crisis they face, for this situation is also present in the United States, and needs to be acknowledged.

-Nancy

Puerto Rico Strong

Puerto Rico Strong is a comics anthology that explores what it means to be Puerto Rican and the diversity that exists within that concept, from today’s most exciting Puerto Rican comics creators.” The proceeds from this book sale will go to UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program to Support after the back to back hurricanes that devastated the island in 2017.

As with any anthology, this collection was uneven. Pair that with a graphic novel format, and there are some illustration styles that will not appeal to everyone, but the art as a whole is well done. Written with the best of intentions, these one-shot stories that are only a few pages, vary in tone and authenticity. Also included were one-page splash pages, which I thought were a lead-in to a story, but indeed were only that page- which proved off-putting. Some of the comics were powerful and made me tear up, or even better, made me think about the issues beyond that page. Others were trite and lacked depth.

I appreciated learning more about Puerto Rico and the history that has shaped this US territory. Several stories spotlighted their Taíno heritage, who were the first inhabitants before Columbus and Spanish conquistadors destroyed their culture.  Paired with their early history, was modern-day history and how misguided US involvement has caused financial, ecological and cultural disasters. In addition, a few of the stories dealt with the eugenics that women endured as pharmaceutical companies preyed on those they felt that they could manipulate.

Favorites:

Thanks for Nothing by Tom Beland-  I was surprised that there wasn’t more anger directed specifically at Trump, only Beland’s righteous barbs referred directly to Trumps’ epic mismanagement of disaster relief.

La Casita of American Heroes by Anthony Otero & Charles Ugas- Lovely story of a woman soldier coming home with her child to the island to check on her parent’s safety. She teaches her daughter about all the soldiers on both sides of her family who have fought for America, but often are not considered American.

The Dragon of Bayamon by Jeff Gomez, Fabian Nicieza & Adriana Melo- An 11-year heads to Puerto Rico to stay with his abusive father for the summer and has to deal with not speaking Spanish fluently and his father’s moods. I liked this story, but it needed fleshing out.

Reality Check by Tony Bedard & John R Holmes- This story rubbed me the wrong way on the first page but the father’s explanation of the conquistador’s role on the island in relation to the Taíno was shocking, but he juxtaposed it to other nation’s helping now after the hurricanes. Still not on board with his reasoning, but it truly was thought-provoking.

I have to applaud this book, for these artists did not just sit back and send their best – no, they did their best and donated their time and talent to help a hurting community. The stories open lines of communication, and I love how authors and illustrators who were Puerto Rican added their #ownvoices to the dialogue. While often too sentimental, the right intent is there, and purchases of this book will benefit those in need.

-Nancy

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