- Graphic Memories of the Civil Rights Movement: Reframing History in Comics by Jorge J. Santos, Jr.
Graphic memoirs and novels offer scholars and students access to many usable, often controversial, and always captivating pasts. As a teacher of history, I relish opportunities to consider assigning recent publications in the graphic history genre for my students because of their readability and accessibility, as well as the ways they address the contingent nuances of historical interpretation. In particular, I have taught from Jonathan Hennessey's The United States Constitution (2008) and Chester Brown's Louis Riel (2003) and plan to assign recently published works like David F. Walker's The Life of Frederick Douglass (2019) and the Graphic History Collective's excellent 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike (2019) among others. Each of these works addresses a range of key documents, figures, and events in [End Page 322] the modern history of the United States and Canada and demonstrates how the graphic history genre has opened-up exciting new possibilities for teaching and learning about diverse North American pasts.
This review agrees with Jorge J. Santos Jr.'s assertion in his recent Graphic Memories of the Civil Rights Movement: Reframing History in Comics (2019) that the 'graphic narrative' medium" offers the ability "to cultivate new practices of mainstream, alternate, or counter-histories". (9) Building on the work of scholars like Paul Buhle and many others, Graphic Memories offers a critical study of recent graphic histories of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. In this study, Santos makes a point of indicating how the graphic medium or genre helps to challenge "consensus" memories of civil rights pasts. In particular, Santos' revealing study looks at Canadian graphic novel author Ho Che Anderson's King: A Comics Biography (1993); congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis' graphic memoir March (2015) trilogy which highlights the roles local people played in movement activism; Lila Quintero Weaver's black/white racial-binary-challenging Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White (2012) based on her upbringing as the daughter of Argentinian immigrants in 1960s Alabama; Mark Long's The Silence of Our Friends (2012), about an underreported civil rights protest in late 1960s Houston; and Howard Cruses' Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), a partly fictional graphic novel that treats the intersections of civil rights and lgbtq protest in late 20th Century America as well as the complex deployment of imagery surrounding the violence of racial lynching.
Santos notes at the outset of his well-researched literary and cultural study of these recent but varied graphic novels and memoirs of civil rights movement America that the movement itself is one of the "most documented, photographed, and televised political phenomenon in U.S. history." (2) This is certainly no revelation for any scholar of civil rights history, let alone anyone with a passing understanding of America's modern pasts. Yet the graphic adaptations Santos analyzes in Graphic Memories do more than simply regurgitate commonly understood narratives of civil rights historiography. As Santos notes, "at stake in all these narratives is a revelation of the process by which history is told, retold, produced and reproduced, and narrativized and renarrativized before becoming enshrined in our memories and disseminated for sociopolitical purposes." (3) These "civil rights graphic memories" as Santos, Jr. calls them, "foster in their readers a metracritical awareness of history as an editorial and curative process, simultaneously calling them to question what evidentiary forms, like the photograph or the film reel, we accept as truth." (3) In particular, the visual analysis Santos offers of each work he studies presents some compelling commentary for how comic-book genres deal with the veracity of temporal realities and the complexities and limitations of human memory and lived experience of trauma.
Graphic Memories is book-ended by an extensive first chapter analysis of Ho Che Anderson's now classic, King: A Comic Biography (1993), as well as a revealing and helpful interview with Anderson about comic book history genres in an instructive Appendix at the end of...