I mentioned several entries ago that my local comic store had a Black History Month table. One of the graphic novels on it was The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell. The blurb says it’s about a black family and a white one finding common ground in the civil rights movement. Seemed like an interesting historical piece. And it is, kind of. The problem is, it’s not a black history book at all and my expectation that it would be (combined with my earlier post about white people’s tendency to re-center others’ oppression on ourselves) made it hard for me to find things to like about it.
Instead I’m seeing a whole lot of bad decisions that probably came with good intentions. We all have to be careful of that. So I don’t mean to say here that the writers/artist are racist or bad people or whatever. I point out the things that bothered me because these mistakes are pretty common and need to be addressed because it’s so easy for our good intentions to get in the way of learning to change our bad behaviors. I don’t want to just gloss over them and pretend this was a good comic because I believe the creators are on the “right side” of things.
It’s worth noting that the book doesn’t describe itself as being about black history. I also don’t see that mentioned on the Amazon listing, it talks about the fight for civil rights. Fair enough, I guess. The problem was with whoever decided the book belonged on that table. But I still think that the focus is much more on white people and our difficulty in being good allies than the civil rights movement itself. And there are times and places to have that discussion. We need to be able to talk about that in our own spaces so that we can do better.
We definitely don’t need to have those discussions in the context of civil rights or social justice in general, because that takes the focus away from the actual issues of oppression and makes it once again about the people in power and our feelings about it. Not good. I would appreciate if this was more clearly described as being about the white author’s real-life experience (it’s a fictionalized account of part of his childhood) and the difficulty in building bridges between groups (and knowing when to cut ties with harmful people).
As I mentioned, this is (sort of) a true story, with some names and events changed a bit as tends to happen when history is retold as entertainment. All three members of the creative team are white men, which seems a bit irresponsible at the very least. Learning that it is actually just the author’s personal experience rather than an attempt at examining or teaching about the civil rights movement makes a bit of a difference, but I still think adding more diverse perspectives would have been beneficial. A more diverse team might have recognized the story’s heavy lean towards a white savior narrative, or questioned whether the n-word really needed to be used quite so much. I get that it’s historical and it was common and blah blah blah.
But I also feel like maybe it’s used a bit for shock value. Like the only way the reader is going to understand these people are so entrenched in racist views is to have them using this one word we don’t use over and over again. There’s a similar tendency among certain comic writers I can’t stand to use rape that way, like we have to know this character is a Very Bad Person and the easiest shorthand is to have them do this horrible thing. The problem in both cases is that it’s definitely more horrible to one group because it is a tool of their oppression.
And that group in both cases is not the intended audience and is also not represented as protagonists within the work. (Larry is a major character, but sort of in the way Angel’s a major character in Buffy. It’s Jack’s story, everyone else is there for their relationship to him.) Using rape as shorthand for bad sends a clear message about who is supposed to be reading a work. A male audience probably will just read it as one more bad thing, and one that isn’t particularly threatening to them. They are not likely to become victims of rape. (It happens, but not nearly as often and from what I understand they don’t learn to expect it from early in their teen years.) They can sit back and view this as an objective observer, comfortable in their power and relative safety.
I think the same thing is true here. That word is not going to be used against a white audience, never has been used against a white audience, doesn’t hold the same kind of pain or anger for us. We know it’s bad because we’re told it is, we may understand the history of it and know it has been used by hateful people in hateful ways, but never experienced it first-hand as something applied to us. People using the word openly aren’t generally a threat to us. So we can read it and see it as just a powerful historically-accurate reminder of how things used to be and how comfortable these people felt in their hate, without having to consider what it might feel like to be victimized by that hate and what it’s like to read that without the comfort of power and privilege.
There are other ways to get a Bad Person message across, and there are other ways to show how strong the current of racism was. The author’s mother in the story forbids the children from saying the word and voices distress that they’re being influenced this way – why not focus more on that and less on actually having the word used so frequently? Have the parents talking and discussing the fact that their own children have started using this kind of language and talking about how the environment affects all of them and how they can combat that tendency. When his alcoholic friend from awhile ago visits and is thrown out for racist statements and actions, do we really need to see him using the word four times in three pages (five times in five pages if I’m counting the whole incident) and doing a really offensive caricature? I feel like maybe at the most the parents could have heard the word from the kitchen once and still had the same argument when they went to check it out and we still would have gotten the message. It just feels so unnecessary. Doesn’t really get the point across any better and needlessly offensive.
I’d much rather see more time and effort devoted to how to react in those situations, and the resolution there was disappointing. In that whole five-page mess of drunken racist ranting, the protagonist’s big brave response is two lines. “I want you out of my house. Now. NOW!!” and in response to the question of whether he’s still a friend “No. Ok? No! I’m not anymore! I’m not.” Obviously cutting off relationships like this is difficult and a part of ally work that is worth discussing. I just feel like in comparison to the “hey look at this big bad racist person doing all these racist things depicted by a group of white guys” the actual conflict didn’t get much attention. We’re not actually discussing the difficulties of allyship in this sort of scenario, we’re talking about how bad those other white people are and patting ourselves on the back for not associating with them.
The two people at the center of the story are Jack (the white journalist) and Larry (a black professor and civil rights activist). Jack is the only white person Larry trusts and allows to film and talk to him about the movement. When there’s a peaceful protest and Jack’s there to film, the police threaten him and turn the situation violent. A police officer is shot, Larry is slammed to the ground and calls to Jack for help, but Jack’s frozen (he shows a tendency to hesitate and take some time taking action throughout the book). This convinces Larry he was wrong to trust a white man in the first place, so he at first attacks Jack at the trial to discredit his testimony.
At the end, when Jack’s testimony actually reveals the shot came from a police officer, Larry apologizes. To be fair, Jack apologizes too, but Larry brushes it off by saying if he had done anything to stop the violence he wouldn’t have seen the shot and wouldn’t have been as much help. As if he knew that and had totally noble reasons for standing there watching it all happen. It’s troubling, to say the least. Yes, rising to action is hard. I’m not saying I would have done any better. It just seems strange that he winds up being praised for it.
All in all it felt a bit too self-congratulatory to me. I have to remind myself that it’s more like a memoir than a real historical piece and that it makes sense for someone to remember their dad as a hero in childhood memories. As a personal story, someone just working through his memories and creating a narrative out of them, I suppose it works alright even if it’s not my style and I don’t like the choices I discussed here. But it needs to be understood that way and therefore the bias needs to be addressed if it’s being used for any sort of broader discussion on justice and racism. It does a good job portraying the difficulty of being on the edge, part of an oppressive group but knowing that oppression is wrong and struggling to know what to do about it, and I would have liked to see that explored more. I feel like that should have been the strength of the book and would have redeemed it, and instead that aspect of it was downplayed and never fully examined. Sad to see the potential wasted, but I could see it being used as a starting point for further discussion.