The Silence of Our Friends
US: 17 Jan 2012
Years before a now-infamous riot erupted on the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston, its students were already thoroughly vested in defying the community’s pervasive white racist power structure. “Whites only” cafeterias and water fountains inspired lunch counter sit-ins back in 1960, as activists tested whether or not local authorities would enforce recent Supreme Court rulings, such as 1956’s Browder v. Gayle, which ended bus segregation. Sit-ins and marches meant enormous physical risks for volunteer activist groups like the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that were challenging the status quo. The SNCC first organized at Shaw University in North Carolina, and partnered with the former outfit to take “freedom rides” across the deep southern region of the United States. The activists hoped to determine if said rulings were being enforced in notoriously racist areas of the country. When tensions rooted in a heavily segregated Houston of the era eventually exploded at Texas Southern in 1967, the SNCC found themselves at the center of the pot.
Writer Mark Long reconstructs childhood memories to depict Houston’s monumental and harrowing events in a black & white graphic novel called The Silence of Our Friends. Named for a line in a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Long’s semi-autobiographical account of unrest at TSU and race relations in the 1960s is partly based on the writer’s experiences, with some names and details slightly altered. With the help of co-author/organizer of Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon Jim Demonakos and Eisner Award-winning artist Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire), Long establishes the atmosphere of an unstable, racially charged period of Houston history in his 200-page book. The days are balmy in The Silence of Our Friends, and repellent prejudiced utterances aren’t relegated to backyard conversations with the neighbors. Dialogues of that sort do materialize out near the clothesline, but they’re also made painfully public too, and left to bake in the afternoon sun.
Mark Long’s father got a Houston-based job as a TV reporter in 1966. He moved his family east from San Antonio to cover race issues in the state’s largest city. Long discusses the move in an essay that adjourns The Silence of Our Friends. While the havoc of the TSU riot is conveyed with great energy in the novel, Long offers more context on that fateful May 1967 demonstration in the afterword than that which is showcased elsewhere. The author’s prose is very insightful here, but with respect to the pages that precede it, Long’s strongest suit lies in communicating to readers the very personal experience of his family’s relocating.
The composition is simple and rich in Nate Powell’s wordless scenes at the start of The Silence of Our Friends. Sets of the artist’s slim black vertical strokes darken the windows around the book’s characters as well as the space under countertops, while Jack and Patricia Long tidy up their kitchen after scolding their blind daughter Julie for using racist language. She’d picked it up from kids in the new neighborhood, and it’s the first her parents have heard of this from her. The Longs are frustrated with their recent move:
“Houston is more segregated than San Antonio. I never see any black people here,” says Patricia. “That’s because they all live in ‘the bottom,’” answers Jack.
Although it isn’t explored in detail in The Silence of Our Friends, this reference to the then-dismal condition of Houston’s Third Ward shouldn’t go overlooked. The Third Ward in 1966 was an area freshly indicative of the severe limitations that Jim Crow laws had imposed on black people, as well as the decline in commerce attributed to area highway construction and vast land value depreciation resulting from “white flight.” In The Silence…, the Longs are situated in Sharpstown, on a street so white that when a black family actually visited the author’s home as a child, “the entire block came out to gawk,” writes Long. For those of us who attended Catholic grade school out in the suburbs, America’s breeding ground for insular distrust of non-whites, the depiction of Sharpstown is stinging and familiar. I met few kids who weren’t white and Irish or Italian until high school, and I entered ninth grade with considerably sad and shameful ideas of those who looked differently than I did.
Long’s parents in the book are among the few people who don’t resort to bigotry seemingly common to their suburb. Jack tosses a drunken racist friend from his home who spouts slurs that seem to him as natural as talking football, and kids’ neighborhood games are rife with language as equally charged. In Houston History Magazine in 2010, editor Dr. Joe Pratt wrote of his youth in Texas, when adults “used racist language considered so vile today that people substitute such phrases as ‘the N-word’ for the historically-correct word that embodied Jim Crow attitudes and power relationships. Whites took this racially charged word as a common name for their black dogs, and they used it to refer to black people as regularly and as matter-of-factly as they said ‘Hello.’”
Houston in the 1960s didn’t cool much on the campus of Texas Southern University, which is seated inside of the Third Ward. It’s where Jack Long meets Larry Thompson, a black activist and editor of a local progressive newspaper. This friendship, the fruit of a bold move across Houston’s fiercely blatant color line, is conveyed beautifully in The Silence of Our Friends. Powell casts an awkward, affecting scene between the two families at the Long home with opaque facial expressions that soften as lyrics from a Sam & Dave record swirl over the page. During explosive exchanges at TSU, Powell is free to deftly bear out what The Comics Journal‘s Hayley Campbell calls the “palpable Southern humidity” that dampens the panels of his Swallow Me Whole.
Routinely biased media coverage and strong messaging from TSU officials helped cement an image of a violent and aggressive Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A “Friends of SNCC” chapter on school grounds was effectively dismantled in early 1967. University staff revoked the group’s privileges with respect to their using campus facilities for meetings, and SNCC faculty advisor/political science instructor Mack Jones was notified that he would soon be terminated. The Harvard Crimson‘s William Bryson reported that the TSU campus newspaper had been considerably critical of the college’s “approach to education” in the fall of 1966, and that the school’s student body had begun to call for “wide-ranging changes in the University’s standards and policies.” The conditions for a storm were ripening quickly.
When demonstrators rallied to protest TSU administration’s decisions relating to the SNCC, a large-scale riot ensued in May of 1967. A police officer was shot during the melee and after the officers fired blindly into a dormitory, nearly 500 students were forced out of their rooms. Some were in bath towels, beaten savagely by cops, and arrested. By Nate Powell’s hand, each tick of the riot unfolds at a jittery pace in The Silence of Our Friends, with the artist’s word balloons frequently taking the shape of buzzsaws and spiraling outside of the panels. In a visual nod to Jack Long’s profession, an occasional bubble-like “TV screen” perspective dots the narrative here, while a single, powerful interior scene shows students scrambling for cover, bullets surging through dorm hallways. This part of the story is told with great care, but the pages that follow are among the novel’s most resonant. Here, on courtroom steps and in dark, somber living rooms, we’re privy to devastation and fresh wounds that are unlikely to have ever really healed, regardless of how “far” along we’ve moved since the spring of 1967.
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