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Posts Tagged ‘african american history

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

What to Watch: The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975

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In the early 2000s, Swedish film director Göran Hugo Olsson was working on the documentary “Am I Black Enough for You” about 70s soul musician Billy Paul. While researching he found an archive of 16 mm tapes in the building of Swedish Television, the country’s broadcasting company. The footage had been shot by a group of Swedish television journalists sympathetic to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US. In 1967 they’d traveled to America to document the lives of both ordinary black Americans as well as those politically involved in the struggle for equal rights.

This footage, nearly 85 hours of it, sat in a basement for 30 years. In the 70s, Olsson was a student in Sweden. It was a time when his generation developed an interest in the Vietnam War and America’s role in it. This was the time of author Stieg Larsson’s political activism, when he was a photo journalist working with revolutionary groups in the Horn of Africa. There was something in the air and the group of filmmakers had caught it. Years later, Olsson was, once again, inspired by it, which led him to create The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975.

Deciding “to riff on the popular ‘70s ‘mixtape’ format,” Olsson was careful not to cut the footage into pieces. Instead he kept the interviews at length and assembled them in chronological order.

The first public figure we see is Stokely Carmichael, someone I’d never heard of before this film. Carmichael could be considered a bridge between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers. He started out as a leader of a nonviolent student organization, taking part in the 1961 Freedom Rides, a group that originally relied on civil disobedience. Soon, he’d lost patience with MLK’s message and found a new role model in Frantz Fanon. After reading Fanon’s seminal text, Wretched of the Earth, Carmichael took the organization in a radical direction, adopting instead, Black Power ideology.

Co-producer Danny Glover, whose production company helped secure funding for the film, when he saw the footage, was taken with how clearly it showed the link between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Highlighting this connections, and following the flow of history, the film moves naturally from Stokely’s words to those of the Black Panthers’.

There are echoes of Stokely in the footage that follows. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Information, gives a speech about the presidential nominees in San Francisco in 1968, Bobby Seale, the Chairman, explains the all-encompassing nature of the organization, and Huey P. Newton, the Minister of Defense, in 1971, released on bail after his arrest on allegations of manslaughter, discusses the “abusive” and “oppressive” treatment he experienced while in jail.

For anyone familiar with Europe’s views of the American criminal justice system, it will come as no surprise that the Attica prison riot, fueled in part by the prisoners’ desire for better living conditions, and the murder trial involving Angela Davis, whose ancillary role as owner of guns used in a hostage situation, put her in the precarious position of defending her life.

Adding a contemporary component to the film is commentary from black thinkers today. Those featured in voice-overs are musicians Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, and Questlove of The Roots. Throughout the film they, along with poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole and academic Robin Kelley discuss their memories of and experiences with the figures and moments in the archival footage.

The Black Power Mixtape takes an often-unquestioning and sympathetic view of its subject. However, this fact is stated in the opening of the film with text on the screen: “It [The Black Power Mixtape] does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” While it shouldn’t be taken as a sole account of this time period, the film is both a fascinating and educational contribution to the documentation of American history. For anyone looking for a place to start — but not a place to end — The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 is a fantastic primer.

Official Website
Watch Instant on Netflix (available for streaming at the time of this posting)
Stokely Carmichael’s essay “What We Want” (PDF)
Okay Player Interview with Film Director Goran Olsson

::[Dig Deeper]::
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements by Malcolm X
“These are the major speeches made by Malcolm X during the last tumultuous eight months of his life. In this short period of time, his vision for abolishing racial inequality in the United States underwent a vast transformation. Breaking from the Black Muslims, he moved away from the black militarism prevalent in his earlier years only to be shot down by an assassin’s bullet.” [via IndieBound]

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
“By turns shocking and lyrical, unblinking and raw, the searingly honest memoirs of Eldridge Cleaver are a testament to his unique place in American history. Cleaver writes in Soul on Ice, “I’m perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist, and that I have a Higher Uneducation.” What Cleaver shows us, on the pages of this now classic autobiography, is how much he was a man.” [via IndieBound]

Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
“Eloquently tracing the birth of a revolutionary, Huey P. Newton’s famous and oft-quoted autobiography is as much a manifesto as a portrait of the inner circle of America’s Black Panther Party. From Newton’s impoverished childhood on the streets of Oakland to his adolescence and struggles with the system, from his role in the Black Panthers to his solitary confinement in the Alameda County Jail, Revolutionary Suicide is smart, unrepentant, and thought-provoking in its portrayal of inspired radicalism.” [via IndieBound]

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
“With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly,the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.” [via IndieBound”

The Black Panthers Speak edited by Philip S. Foner
“For over three decades, The Black Panthers Speak has represented the most important single source of original material on the Black Panther Party. With cartoons, flyers, and articles by Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, this collection endures as an essential part of civil-rights history.” [via IndieBound]

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
“The Wretched of the Earth (published 1961) is Frantz Fanon’s most famous work, written during and regarding the Algerian struggle for independence from colonial rule. As a psychiatrist, Fanon explored the psychological effect of colonization on the psyche of a nation as well as its broader implications for building a movement for decolonization.” [via Wikipedia] Jean Paul-Sartre’s preface.

Quality by Talib Kweli (2002)
“Talib’s elation here strikes as sophisticated, distinguishing itself from the materialistic acquisitions, drug binges and sexual conquests that pass for contentment on many hip-hop albums, with a spiritual center attained through an on-record intellectual honesty and emotional transparency that’s still rare in a culture that feeds off inflated stereotypes of machismo posturing and stands on the political platform of fatalism and resignation. In fact, Kweli’s unabashed positivity and emotional vulnerability feel almost transgressive to these ears. Even when he confronts the ills of society, as he does on the wrenching “Where Do We Go” and “Stand to the Side”, there’s a certain optimism and belief that by illuminating the darkness through hip-hop, we can hope to transcend the pain.” [via Pitchfork]

Written by Gabrielle

January 10, 2012 at 5:54 am

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