Graphic novelist Nate Powell, alongside his March co-authors John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, will be speaking in Bloomington next month. I’m excited about the talk.
I first learned about Powell’s work by reading The Silence of Our Friends about the civil rights movement in Texas. That book was especially meaningful for me because I’m generally non-confrontational, preferring to quietly do the right thing rather than make a fuss. It’s important for me to remember that silence in itself can cause harm — silence can be interpreted as assent — and there are times when it’s necessary to instead advocate for change. My little family is always a bit over-scheduled these days, but we try to make time to act upon & advocate for our beliefs … and both K & I turned down careers in academia in order to work toward changing the world for the better more effectively.
Yesterday, in preparation for Powell’s talk, I read the first volume of March. Hopefully I can read the second volume during naptime today. It’s a nice book, does a great job of mixing contemporary and historical scenes to depict the long arc of the moral universe. And the pages showing the students’ preparation for the sit-ins were amazing — in those, the reader sees students spitting on, assaulting, & verbally denigrating their friends as practice, to be certain that they wouldn’t lose control and strike back during the protests. A beautiful panel shows a serious young man bowing out, apologetically announcing that he would not be able to remain non-violent, that he would act to defend himself and his allies.
Even though he is an unnamed character in a graphic novel, it hurt seeing that young man leave, unable to participate in the protests because he felt too strongly about their cause.
This is something that might not have made such a deep impression on me had I not recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (which you should read — it’s short, fast, and enlightening. But if you’re worried that it’ll be a while before you can make it to a library or a bookstore, click here to read the condensed version he prepared for The Atlantic. A lot of the key pieces of his book are included and with the time you save you can read his “Case for Reparations,” which I’ll try to put together an essay about sometime in the next few weeks).
Here’s what Coates wrote about his experience being taught the history of the civil rights movement in school:
Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the civil-rights movement. Our teachers urged us toward the examples of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?
I’d never thought about the psychological ramifications of depicting exclusively non-violent protest for the civil rights movement, of history classes full of pictures & video clips of black protestors being beaten, bitten by dogs, sprayed with hoses… and never fighting back. Because it takes power away from those advocating for change. Not that those protestors weren’t powerful. They were. I liked that March showed what steely resolve was necessary to maintain non-violence in those circumstances. But, still, the civil rights protests depicted in U.S. history classes required change to come from the horrible white people. The protests waited on those white people to stop being violent, to stop opposing, to stop yelling, to stop murdering men & women & children.
Yes, for anyone watching that footage it’s blatantly obvious that that the brutalized black protesters are heroes and that the white aggressors are villains. But power is still shown to be on the side of those who were acting, i.e. the villains, and the change comes from their having stopped acting.
I’d never thought about what it must have been like for Coates, or any other brown-skinned student, to be shown so much footage with the implicit message if you’d like to be treated as a human being you have to submit cheerfully to abuse and perhaps your abusers will realize that they are in the wrong.
This isn’t the way we celebrate other victories in history class. (Look at that last sentence I pulled from Coates again: Why were only our heroes nonviolent?) We show the dramatic action of the Boston tea party. We show Americans killing the British in the revolutionary war. We celebrate violent conquest. For World War II, our “good war,” we celebrate violent reprisal against those Germans who were oppressing and murdering their Jewish population.
But violent reprisal against the arguably more horrific treatment of blacks in the United States is rarely shown. Even though his rebellion failed, if Nat Turner had been an escapee from the German concentration camps his story would’ve been long celebrated as a glorious tragedy, at least they killed some 60 Nazis before they died! They went out with honor!
(Although someone is making a film to celebrate this uprising… a mere 180 years later. Should come out sometime next year.)
(And, yes, it’s troubling that they killed children. The enemy nation they were at war with also killed children, though, and tortured children, and enslaved them. Plus, given the paucity of their armaments, Turner’s army needed the element of surprise to succeed — survivors would alert the enemy nation.)
Or there’s Charles Deslondes’ revolt. Until the bicentennial, I’d never even heard of it.
And, look, I dislike violence. I don’t watch violent movies, I’ve read as little about war as possible (I think it’s necessary to learn the underlying causes of armed conflict, but I hope never to read anything celebrating the tactics employed in the Civil War or WWII), I think the Sanskrit ahimsa is one of the world’s most beautiful words. I think those who employed satygraha in India & those who practiced nonviolence in the U.S. should indeed be celebrated as heros.
It’s just that, before reading Coates’ book, I’d never considered the message being sent to black students by showing only protestors being harmed. As though we’re trying to convey the message that only by suffering might you receive fair treatment. So thank you, Coates, for helping put my own racist education into perspective.