Okay, this is a first in UNN history.
I’ve done movie reviews, and clearly I review culture, or rather participate in cultural criticism, but I’ve never done a book review, so bear with me.
I’ve never read a graphic novel along the lines of a 30 Days of Night or Sin City. In fact a third party would have to inform that particular genre, that as far as I’m concerned, “He’s just not that in to you.” So when I was asked to read this book, I wasn’t quite sure how I would receive it. For some reason, the whole picture/comic thing was a distraction to me. I was never a comic book kid, not even remotely. When I discovered that art was not necessarily a strong point of mine, I was really done with graphics by about 14.
But, these were black artists, and black comics have always intrigued me–think Aaron McGruder. I grew up avidly reading the syndicated comic strips from Robb Armstrong’s “Jumpstart” and Ray Billingsley’s “Curtis,” but yet again, it was evident that black comics were few and far between. Aaron McGruder’s “Boondocks” was carried by the Chicago Tribune and my mother was an avid Sun-Times reader because the Trib was too big for her to read on the kitchen table. That aside, blacks comics always mildly intrigued me.
So, when I opened the book Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans by Roland and Taneishai Nash Laird and illustrated by Elihu “Adolfo” Bey, I wasn’t quite sure just how easily I was going to be able to jump into it. It opened with an older lady and older gentlemen setting the stage as narrators for this journey in the Americas. These two people portrayed either a brother-sister relationship (perhaps what a functional Madea to her brother Charles on the oxygen tank would be) or, an older married couple in lieu of the fact that this book was authored by a married couple.
What made this book different aside from it being a graphic novel was the dramatization of the historical facts in addition to the running color commentary from this unnamed couple throughout the entire book. This book had a clear slant in favor of African Americans as victorious victims in the face of adversities imposed upon them by conniving and calculated Europeans who took up residence here in North America. For example when the historical period of the U.S. Constitution and the 3/5ths compromise arose, the older lady had her own box and opined “Three-fifths of a man, but five-thirds of the work.” Or their was the running commentary of her saying “A few white folks benefitted from the actions of those Buffalo Soldiers [in reference to the Spanish-American War of 1898], but blacks didn’t get diddly squat.”
Also, the authors clearly had an agenda as far as pushing certain particulars about Black History and it was one that I was appreciative of: economic independence. Even growing up, when black history was mentioned, the idea of economic independence was never at all entertained. It wasn’t until my senior year of college did I hear the stories about blacks who were engaged in marketable trades such as blacksmiths, shipbuilders, cooks and seamstresses as opposed to placing all slaves on numerous great big plantations. And this was before the American Revolution.
Along the same vein, the authors made sure to tell the stories of various unnamed individuals in their own quest for freedom and equality such as Alvin Coffey who accompanied his master to California during the Gold Rush of 1849 and eventually purchased his own freedom; a black female from California named Biddy Mason who was granted her freedom by the state courts in 1855 just to name two. Throughout the entire book was the unwritten undercurrent that ultimate black stability lies within our own economic independence.
What I also appreciated was the fact that I didn’t get the impression that the authors sugar-coated much of the historical facts. But this does nothing more than buttress this book as a scholarly publication not some random machination as a result of “black man who read a book” syndrome. This is evidenced by a bibliography with heavy-hitters such as Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower, Vincent Harding’s There is a River, John Hope Franklin’s seminal publication From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans and other books that speak to the specific areas of expertise that were needed to give this book it’s intellectual teeth.
This is the second publishing of the book as evidenced by the page 204, 205 demarcation. Originally published in 1997, this country had not experience Hurricane Katrina, the Bush policies of the last eight years nor had we seen the meteoric rise of our current President Barack Obama. It was in this last portion of the book that I felt that running commentary of the older couple finally made sense. Through the ante-bellum years this book highlighted the various conflicts that arose with the Anti-Slavery Society and it’s members versus Frederick Douglass, of course the controversy of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois or even the differences between Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King, Jr., so it was a bit refreshing to see this older couple bicker over the inner city violence that still occurred following the Million Man March such as Biggie and Tupac’s murders in stark contrast to Mark Dean, a computer engineer inducted to the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. For the first time I thought they were going to get off script and duke it out.
By this time, the book had read like a TvOne Black History Month special hosted by Black America’s favorite couple Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance or perhaps some Iconoclast inspired pairing like Will Smith and Maya Angelou. Whatever the case, it worked for what seemed to be the aim of the book. I put my full recommendation behind this book, and I am proud to place it on my shelf amongst my collection of African American Studies.
To purchase the book from the Amazon, click here.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL