Recently, I reread Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell’s The Silence of Our Friends, a graphic novel that tells the story of the events at Texas State University in 1967 and 1968, events that would become known as the TSU Riot even though a more apt label, as Black Past puts it, would be a “police riot.” While the novel tells the story of what happened at TSU in 1968, the core focuses on the relationship that arose between Mark’s father Jack and Larry Thomas, an African American activist and organizer in the Fifth Ward, and their families. As I reread The Silence of Our Friends, there were multiple moments that stood out, but two key scenes leapt out at me because as I read them I kept thinking about contemporary incidents which mirrored them.
Each of these scenes involve whites, screaming down Wheeler Avenue in their cars, accosting Larry and physically harming his children. In the first scene, Larry walks home down Wheeler Avenue in the dark after a protest at TSU. A car approaches, and Powell depicts the headlights piercing the night at the bottom of the page. At the top of the next page, the car speeds off towards the left side of the panel as the white passenger leans out of the window and yells at Larry, “GO ON BACK TO AFRICA!” In the panel, Larry turns his head, more as if being startled at the noise rather than the comment, but the next panel shows him glaring angrily in the direction of the fleeing car.
The passenger’s comments are nothing new. They are racist and telling individuals to return to a place where they have been has been spouted for centuries. This moment reminds me that such incidents do not exist in the past either. They exist today in the 21st century. They exist on the streets that we travel, to the people we know. They exist even though many want to believe they no longer exist.
Speaking to her graduating class this year, Anea Harris talked about her memories of her K-12 education: recess, the nicknames, cafeteria conversations, crushes, band practice, and movies in the classroom. Harris flips these memories and tells her fellow students and those gathered about things that happened to her as a Black student. The time when they watched The Help in a class and some boys called her over, one of them spitting in her face. The times in history when they talked about slavery and everyone looked at her. The time in the cafeteria when she pulled wads of napkin pieces out of her “puffy nappy hair.” Questioning whether or not her crush’s “parents would let him date girls who are Black, even in high school.”
On band practice, she told the story of walking to the field one day and having “a group of boys roll down their window and only shout the N-word.” She continued, “That’s weird, because of all the lyrics in the song, that’s the one you made sure I heard.” This moment, and these incidents, did not occur in 1968, they occurred in the 2010s. It occurred with a group of boys, riding in a car, blaring music and only saying one word out the window towards Anea.
All of this made me think about another scene in The Silence of Our Friends, the scene where a white man in a truck drives by Larry’s children, Mike and Cecila (CC), as they ride their bikes down Wheeler Avenue at night towards the store. Like the passenger who yells at Larry, the man speeds past them and yells, “GET OUT OF THE STREET! YA LIL’ JIGABOOS!!” The man hurls racist insults at the children as he screams down the asphalt.
Mike and CC stop their bikes and yell, “Hey! Cracker!” The man screeches the truck to a halt then speeds off. The kids go to the store, get a couple of Icees, then start back home. As they ride home, headlights appear behind them and speeds towards them. The vehicle runs the kids down and CC falls off of her bike, hits her head, falling unconscious. We do not see the vehicle or the driver, but we assume that it is the man in the truck.
His actions lead not just to the mental harm of Mike and CC. His actions physically injure them, causing one of them to go the emergency room. Again, this scene reminds me of contemporary incidents. I recall a student I taught a few years back. After a play on campus, her and some friends walked to their dorms. A group of men in a truck drove past them and threw a full beer can at her and her friends. She said, “When I looked over, I couldn’t see who was in the truck, but I heard them laughing.” Again, this was not in the 1960s, it was in 2015.
These incidents still occur in our schools and in our neighborhoods. We must listen to those who experience them. We must hear their experiences and their thoughts on them. We must push for change and for justice. A can full of beer or any liquid thrown from a moving vehicle at someone could injure them. It could could knock them unconscious depending of factors such as velocity and where it hits the person. This is physical injury on top of mental injury, none of which is acceptable.
It doesn’t matter that those in the vehicles were students or others in the community. What matters is that they chose to commit a drive-by verbal assault of physical assault. At the end of her speech, Anea Harris told those gathered, “When I was in school I had to figure out why people insist on mistreating people. . . . I’m starting to realize that people mistreating people is something they chose!” The boys who drove by Anea singing the N-word knew what they were doing and chose to do it. The individuals driving past Larry and telling him to go back to Africa knew what they were doing and chose to do it. The white man in the truck knew what he was doing, and he chose to do it. Those who threw the beer can at my student knew what they were doing and chose to do it.
This is the point. Individuals know what they do when they commit acts of violence such as the ones described above. As well, they choose to commit those acts from inside the metal vehicle that they can wield as both a weapon and a defense mechanism. They use the car and its speed to mask themselves and run away from any repercussions from their actions.
Next post, I will write about a few more scenes from The Silence of Our Friends. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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