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The Silence of Our Friends, a Graphic Novel Takes On Civil Rights

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You know how it seems like once you’ve heard about something — a new word, a film, an author — it starts to pop up everywhere? When I picked up The Silence of Our Friends, the graphic novel written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos and illustrated by Nate Powell, I had the same feeling. I’d just seen ‘Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975,’ the documentary about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and found that without the background the film provided, I wouldn’t have appreciated the book nearly as much. I should note that prior information about these historical events is not at all necessary but knowing about them will make the story more familiar.

Set in 1960s Houston and based on Mark’s childhood, The Silence  of Our Friends is a snapshot of Long’s life in the notoriously racist town. The story focuses on his father, Jim, the local television station’s “race reporter” who may have also been the town’s only white person with sympathy for the black community’s struggle for equality. One of the first scenes, the one that makes more sense having seen the documentary, takes place on the campus of Texas Southern University, one of the nation’s largest Historically Black Universities. The dean of the school has just denied approval for the Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to form a committee on campus. About this time, Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the organization, having lost patience with lack of progress, was moving the group away from its nonviolent roots in favor of the Black Power ideology.

Alex’s father, camera in hand, the only white person on campus, was there to film the reaction of the students. With tension and distrust in the air, especially for the media (“He’s just another liar with a camera”), the students attempt to chase him off campus. However, to Jim’s good fortune, Larry, one of the respected organizers at the school, having met Jim through a mutual friend, stopped the crowd and escorted him to his car (“He got a God damn white car too!,” noted one of the students).

The story doesn’t lock itself into a retelling of the historical facts of the day, instead it pivots around the personal experiences of both men living in the same town, trying to raise children and provide for their family, under very different circumstances. Larry is refused service in restaurants and his daughter is thrown from her bicycle by a bunch of white thugs in a pickup truck; Jim is threatened at the station by his superior in an attempt to get him to skew the reports in favor of the status quo. In one scene he’s forced to throw an old army buddy out of his house after the down-on-his-luck friend unleashes a stream of racial epitaphs in front of the kids.

The racial conflict comes to a head in The Silence of Our Friends with a student-organized protest that turns chaotic when the police start to shoot. Jim is on the scene and witnesses a cop’s bullet ricochet off a wall. One officer is killed and another wounded. In an attempt to frame the the black students, five men are arrested and put on trial for manslaughter, a charge that carries the death penalty. Their fate hinges on Jim’s testimony but for some reason, he wavers on the stand, much to the frustration of the reader who’s rooting for his heroism.

There are moments of humor to break up the dark reality of this story. When the two families get together in Jim’s home — a radical and potentially dangerous move at the time — their children, all of whom are around the same age, express a mutual interest in the texture of each others hair. Before rolling your eyes, this scene, which could have been trite at best and offensive at worst, is actually quite sweet — probably because, as the book is a partial autobiography, it rings true to Long’s own experience and therefore feels sincere. Meanwhile, as the parents sit around in the living room thinking of what to say next, Jim’s wife puts on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and Larry asks, “is this for us?”

Nate Powell’s artwork truly makes this graphic novel come to life. Nate, whose 2008 graphic novel Swallow Me Whole won both the Eisner and Ignatz awards, uses his intricate drawings to bring the story places where words aren’t enough. In a near wordless scene, Larry and his son head out on a fishing trip. First they stop for food at a kitchen counter where Larry is told by the white owner to go elsewhere. Unknowingly, the son, having waited in the car, asks for his lunch. The powerful exchange between the two — Larry, filled with shame, loses his temper and hauls off and smacks the kid — is heartbreaking. The intensity of the moment is pulled off by the close cropping of the father’s face as he realizes what he’s done: the loosening of the facial muscles and pensive furrowing of the brow. Ultimately, the two come together, reconciled by soda and an embrace. The mutual pain and confusion is made palpable often as it is in real life, without the need for speech.

Sometimes it takes looking back on the horrors of yesterday to make one want to be a better person today. The Silence of Our Friends is a needed reminder of where this country once was and where it still needs to go.

Buy The Silence of Our Friends at IndieBound or find it at a store near you
Nate Powell’s website


Written by Gabrielle

January 31, 2012 at 7:14 am

One Response

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  1. “Sometimes it takes looking back on the horrors of yesterday to make one want to be a better person today.” – so true, sooooo true!

    Axel Pliopas

    January 31, 2012 at 8:33 am

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