Visual Storytelling of Black Life in America

The Visual Storytelling of Black Life in America

Graphic novels The Souls of Black Folk, Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story and Six Days in Cincinnati suggest the visual storytelling of black life is almost as vast as black life itself.

What does black history look like?

We may think it looks like grainy black-and-white photographs of people screaming, striving, and surviving. Or maybe it looks like old black-and-white newsreel footage from some untold vintage, perhaps digitally restored for the modern age. No matter the source, we may think it’s supposed to be steeped in reverence, of such stately presence that it requires we bow and remove our hats before regarding it.

But what if it looked like art? What if it looked urgent and contemporary, even as it reached back to those historic events? What if it recalled that history, but welcomed us into it in a language we’re accustomed to speaking? What if it looked like now? Those are questions three recent and otherwise totally dissimilar works ask us, in their use of visual elements to recall bygone times.

We begin with a work no American should need any visual compliment to approach: The Souls of Black Folk, which remains in my humble estimation the first book anyone seeking to understand black American life ought to read, and a basic requirement of civic literacy, 114 years after the fact. The richness of W.E.B. Dubois’ prose, scholarship and memoir needs no amplification from me, nor does its sadly continuing relevance. His estimation that the most vexing American problem of the 20th century would be the color line has extended into the 21st century, with no resolution any closer at hand.

Aside from Vann R. Newkirk II’s of-the-moment introduction (“The demands of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rejection of respectability politics in much of current black art and cultural criticism are animated by the understanding that double-consciousness is a traumatic psychic burden”), what sets the current volume apart are the illustrations between DuBois’ essays by Steve Prince. The stark detail of his black-and-white linoleum cuts highlight the universal aspects of DuBois’ assertions, and further connect what is essentially a collection of 14 disparate essays held together initially by DuBois’ references to black spirituals.

A two-page illustration in front of the chapter “Of the Dawn of Freedom” provides a stark introduction to DuBois’ examination of Reconstruction, when post-Civil War hopes for actual black freedom lived briefly before being brutally dashed. A black man holding the sign “CONTRABAND” is being marched along, flanked by someone marked as Warden and another scowling man marked as Massa. Above the action, two white hands separate the panel, searing apart silhouettes of black figures looking and reaching into the future.

Elsewhere, Prince’s renderings hint at both the roots and branches of black musing, and the weight of responsibility and task a young black scholar faces. The final drawing, introducing the essay “Of the Sorrow Songs”, all but sings those songs on its own. A chorus of upraised voices, some in sorrow and some in plaintive plea, is restrained by a bowed figure seemingly trying to hold them back. But there seem to be too many of them, and they are singing too fervently, and they are too many in number, for such efforts to last forever. That’s a wonderfully appropriate metaphor for DuBois’ location of the hope inside black spirituals: “They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”

Where DuBois’ tone and subject matter might be a bit esoteric for readers not familiar with 19th century American history, Newkirk’s introduction makes the connections clear, and Prince’s art makes them palpable. If there’s a young reader or student who’s yet to encounter this seminal text, start them off with this new, vital version.

At a different point in the spectrum of vitality lies Fire!!, Peter Bagge’s colorful comic biography of the irrepressible Zora Neale Hurston. Bagge hits the sweet spot of any comic biography, a growing genre he’s helping to define: Fire!! is both informative to read and fun to look at and enjoy.

Granted, he had good material to work with: Hurston (1891-1960) packed an awful lot of living into her life and work. Born in the black settlement of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston became enamored with storytelling — both hearing stories, and relating her own spins on them — at an early age. She ran with the Harlem Renaissance crowd in the ‘20s, but was a little too earthy for many of their tastes. Her collegiate studies in sociology, funded by wealthy white benefactors, laid the groundwork for her research into the lives of rural blacks, much of which was supported by Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. It was also during this time when she wrote her beloved novel about that milieu, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1934). Its success established Hurston as a literary star, but there would be much more to her life than that.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is another one of those books every American ought to read, even with Bagge’s quoting from it and much of Hurston’s subsequent fiction, fieldwork and journalism. But Fire!! is a worthy and entertaining effort on its own, as it captures every facet of Hurston’s life, from her lovers (such as they were) to her lonely death to her eventual rediscovery, spearheaded by Alice Walker in the ‘70s. He draws extensively from Valerie Boyd’s extensive Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston and other bios in laying out the who-what-when of her life. But his drawings reveal the “how” — settling on yellow as her signature color, rendering both her curiosity and feistiness in vivid humor and loving respect. Fire!! is a good deal more vivacious than his Margaret Sanger comic bio, Woman Rebel, but that may simply be because Hurston’s life was vivacious in the first place.

As a comic bio, Fire!! provides entrée into Hurston’s world in a manner that the deeply researched bios don’t. While this approach might not work for every seminal black artist, it’s a great match here, especially for younger readers who aren’t up for scholarly works.

While comic bios aren’t exactly new, comic journalism is growing in use and stature. Six Days in Cincinnati, Dan Mendez Moore’s account of 2003’s racial unrest in the Queen City, shows how this burgeoning genre can lend a sense of immediacy to journalism-as-history’s-first-draft. This zine-like volume, originally published in 2012 with a far less direct title (a reference to a Mark Twain joke about Cincinnati’s backwardness), reminds us of an incident that happened years before Black Lives Matter — and also that the issues Black Lives Matter raises didn’t just start a couple of years ago.

On 7 April 2001, Cincinnati police attempted to arrest 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, who had racked up a string of traffic offenses. Thomas ran, but was eventually shot by a patrolman in pursuit. Thomas was unarmed. He wasn’t the first black man to suffer such a fate there in recent times. This time, though, was different.

Protests arose in the working-class Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, and spread throughout the city. For the next week, Cincinnati was in the national spotlight, as the protests brought attention to issues that had long been festering. The rhythm of events we’ve seen play out in more recent years — police misconduct, citizen outrage, high-profile investigations, and officers on trial — happened here, at a time when the inequalities that came to the fore weren’t a topic of national discussion.

Moore, a participant in the protests, understands the city, and his after-the-fact reporting captures the mood of the streets that week, including asides from key players like Rev. Damon Lynch and not-so-key players like a looter named Frost. While the riots were major news then, they escaped reference in the litany of post-Ferguson incidents. Six Days in Cincinnati isn’t the most skillfully drawn piece of comics journalism, but it’s immediate and thorough enough to help contextualize the long history of black reaction to police violence.

Neither Fire!! nor Six Days in Cinncinati rise to the level of the masterful John Lewis trilogy March, but few pieces of graphic history and biography have to date. Their presence, though, indicates that there’s more than one way to tell a story, and also that there are many stories out there that could stand a fresh telling. As the new version of The Souls of Black Folk suggests, the potential for the visual storytelling of black life is almost as vast as black life itself.