Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library, is “devoted to the preservation of materials on the global African and African diasporan experiences.” Originating with the personal collections of historian, scholar, and activist Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the center has been growing for 92 years.
As a part of our Brave Books exhibit at the Poetry Center, we have on display a wide array of selections from the Schomburg Shop's children's section. While all the books are very good (and you should come down and read them all!), I want to highlight a few standout examples of the often overlooked graphic novel genre.
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Book 1 in the series)
by Ta-Nehisi Coates, with illustrations by Brian Stelfreeze
Black Panther is not a character I’m all that familiar with, even though when I was a child, I was very into superheroes. DC Comics had a strong lineup of cartoons based on its characters—a few standouts were Static Shock, Justice League, and Batman: The Animated Series. Batman was Batman. Static Shock was about a Black 14-year-old named Virgil Hawkins with the power to control electricity. On Justice League you had John Stewart, who was a Black Marine Corps veteran and the current Green Lantern. While I didn’t think about race a whole lot prior to an incident in the 6th grade, as a child I found myself drawn to shows with characters that looked like my family and I.
While watching these shows, you got the sense that the writer was well meaning, but ultimately mostly aware of their character’s blackness within the context of someone else’s perception. There’s this fear that if you push too far into a character’s negative traits, you could have someone leave an episode with some misperception of the entire race based on a cartoon.
Virgil’s mother was killed in the crossfire of gun violence between gangs, and he’s spurred to action by said gang violence. John’s handling on the show was a bit better, but it still is always a little exhausting to watch the very special episodes where minority characters have to explain why they’re upset to the non-minorities. He was a lot like Denzel Washington’s character Dr. Philip Chandler on St. Elsewhere, where his interesting character flaw is really a non-flaw, like people are racist to him, but he’s the best doctor they have.
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet is Blackness on the terms of Black people. Race becomes secondary to the main character T’Challa’s identity, but it is not washed away. T’Challa takes pride in his heritage, but his heritage is more than his skin. Whenever I am forced into my own very special episodes while discussing race, I bring up an interview Lupita Nyong’o did with Vogue for its October 2015 issue:
"As Africans, we don’t grow up with a racial identity. We grow up with cultural and ethnic identity before racial identity. I never used the word black as a child. It was never a thing. When was I ever discussing black? Why?”
Ta-Nehisi Coates really draws from this idea of cultural and ethnic identity in his writing for the series. T’Challa is allowed to not know exactly what to do. He’s allowed to feel like the presence of his father’s legacy is overwhelming. Wakanda, the fictional country in which the story takes place, has a rich history of its own that hasn’t been filtered through a lens of well-meaning otherness. This is not to say the series or author are going for the “colorblind” angle either. Skin works like blood, or clothes, or the way one does their hair. It unites on a physical level, but it does not determine character, and it does not have to be explained to anyone present.
Aya: Life in Yop City
by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Picking up Aya: Life in Yop City was jarring, but in a good way, like happy news. Dead center on the cover was a girl who had the same nose as me, and the same braids I wore for seven years until I begged my mom to let me perm my hair. I sat in our Children’s Area sort of smiling at this book like lost family found. Eventually I got around to reading it.
Aya: Life in Yop City is a semi-autobiographical graphic novel which follows Aya, a 19-year-old student, and her life in Yopougon, a city on the Ivory Coast, during the 70s.
Africa is often depicted one of two ways in America: just lions, or Heart of Darkness. It's reduced to an impenetrable setting meant to make whoever is misfortunate enough to get stuck there feel off-balance, scared, alone, at their moral worst and far removed from a stable reality. Or it’s animals, and their animal families. Either way, the sense of culture is obliterated, and the land is a backdrop. I learn plenty about the main character in a book, but nothing of the place I’ve been pretending to be in for a hundred or so pages.
In writing Aya, Marguerite Abouet set out to show, "an Africa without the… war and famine, an Africa that endures despite everything because, as we say back home, life goes on.” I feel that she’s accomplished just that in the vibrancy of her characters and the relatable nature of their stories. The book pushes to demystify Africa to readers coming from outside its cities without losing its own sense of culture.
In Life in Yop City, some characters live in villages with chiefs, Aya and company regularly go to clubs blasting loud disco. They go shopping, and their parents work in factories and offices. Each side has its own rules and traditions, which are often at odds with one another. It’s a layered perspective, which we (assuming you’re an American, too) tend to not receive.
March (Book 1 in the series)
by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with illustrations by Nate Powell
Building further on the example of Dr. Phillip Chandler on St. Elsewhere and the character fault of being too competent, there’s a certain narrative built around big moments for Black people in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement of the mid-50s to late 60s is often taught as if it were just a simple push by all involved in one direction, with a few villains here and there. As nice a notion as it seems, this approach to history sterilizes things quite a bit. It takes the contributions of protesters for granted, strips them of their individual bravery and fear. I always felt this disconnect between myself and those who fought for my rights. They were heroes like I would watch on TV, with skin that could never be cut and the strength to pick up rooted oaks and get laws ratified and other impossible feats.
In Book 1 of March, there’s a scene where a young John Lewis encounters Thurgood Marshall. He’s excited, of course--Marshall had just argued (and won!) the Brown vs Board of Education case before the Supreme Court a year earlier. But his actual speech struck a nerve with Lewis. At this point, they’d been arrested during a sit in, and after refusing to post bail, the police were forced to let them go. This was a definite victory for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization of college students from the North and South which fought for racial equality), but Marshall felt they should have just posted bail and gone on with their lives, something which he made known during the speech. Both arguments make sense when set side by side. If you post bail, you’re monetarily supporting a government that has no intention of doing right by your people. If you don’t post bail, you may never get out to make the government do better in the first place.
March restores the human element to a story in which the individual is often overlooked. This narrative shows why their sacrifices were so extraordinary. They were scared, and unsure, and angry like any of us would be when put in their place. But they marched anyway.
As noted, these books are part of the Brave Books display at the UA Poetry Center. Other graphic novels in the collection include:
Aya: Love in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Books 2-4) by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrations by Brian Stelfreeze
Black Panther: World of Wakanda by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, illustrations by Alitha Martinez and Afua Richardson
March (Books 2 & 3) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrations by Nate Powell
A Biography of Malcolm X by Jessica Gunderson, illustrations by Seitu Hayden
Sasha Hawkins is a University of Arizona undergraduate studying Poetry, Film and Television. She interns for the Poetry Center's Education Program.