Over the last two posts, I’ve looked at some scenes in Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell’s The Silence of Our Friends. Today, I want to wrap up that discussion by examining a sequence where Larry takes Danny to Freeport to go crabbing. There are countless other sequences and scenes that I could discuss, but every time I read The Silence of Our Friends, this sequence stands out, specifically for the ways that it conveys so much emotion merely through Powell’s illustrations, the majority of the sequence has no words, and in this manner, it highlights the power that graphic texts have in the ways that they use the interactions between words, images, and layout to transmit the emotion to the reader.

As Larry and Danny drive from Houston to Freeport, the initial panels shows scenes that relate to a carefree road trip. We see them driving towards the horizon, Danny staring out the window, Danny staring at the map, and Danny with his head out the window catching the air as they travel down the road. Powell’s silhouetted panel after these carefree ones marks the shift in tone. The panel shows the landscape, trees on the left side of the panel bending towards the right and the car on the right side of the panel speeding towards the edge of the frame. This horizontal panel separates the carefree father/son outing where they seek a restful reprieve from Houston and the racist and psychological indignities that occur once Larry stops at a gas station for bait.

Danny stays in the car, and when Larry stands at the counter trying to decide what line to purchase, a white man behind him gets pissed of and yells, “Come on, boy. Make up your damn mind and go.” The man’s speech covers two panels, and in these two panels, we see Larry’s reaction to the racist language that the white man employs. Along with this, the speech bubble is not perfectly rounded. The bottom oozes down the panel, creating a sort of icicle like image piercing the image within the panels. The white man referring to Larry as “boy” starts the shift in Larry’s posture. In the first panel, he stands at the counter, finger to his lips, contemplating the line. The second panel shows a close up of Larry’s face, his eyes squinting to push back anger, as the speech bubble bursts and begins to cover his head.

The white man pushes past Larry and proclaims, “They get worse all the time.” He walks to the door and stands in the doorway as Larry speaks with the clerk. Larry tells the white clerk what he wants, and two times he tells Larry to go to the “colored store down by the bridge.” The white customer stands at the door, all shaded, staring menacingly at Larry. He proceeds to reenter the store and heads to the counter as Larry, fuming, walks out. As he gets to the door, the white customer tells the clerk, “used to be we had a sing up, no coloreds . . .”

In the car, Danny looks at himself in the side mirror as he tries on Larry’s sunglasses, and he asks his dad where the chicken necks are. At this, Larry turns towards his son and slaps him hard across the face, sending the sunglasses flying to the floor. Larry screams at his son, “Pick ’em up! Go on, boy! You just sit and wait when I’m gone! Do you understand me?!” Here, Larry’s word bubbles don’t ooze from the bottom; instead, they are jagged like a saw blade, cutting into his son. Larry lashes out at his son because he cannot physically lash out at the white men in the store, even though they accost him. He can only stand there and take it because he knows if he responds he will possibly get beaten or even killed.

As such, the rage boils up within it, a rage bubbling over from years of racist attacks. James Baldwin writes, in “Stranger in the Village,” “The rage of the disesteemed in personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable.” It is something that is difficult to control and, as he continues, can “never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence.” As such, it lingers, and the provocation of the white customer or white clerk can cause it to explode, not necessarily at them but at someone or something else. In Larry’s case, his son. Larry, while he can hope to be free of this rage, cannot, as Baldwin pits it, “be entirely liberated from this internal warfare–rage.”

Larry knows that his anger is misdirected at his son. This is the same thing that happens with Amir in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced when he attacks his wife Emily. (I plan to look at this play in the near future.) For about six pages, as Larry drives to the other shop and the pair go crabbin’, no words appear in the panels except for lyrics from Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” emanating from the car radio as they get out and go to the beach. Powell’s panels show the car, again, driving along the horizon split in two by two panels with Larry’s face. The first is a closeup of his eyes, hidden behind the sunglasses, as he appears to look at Danny. The other is of Larry, mouth drawn tight, staring at the road.

After Larry goes to the “colored store,” he gets back in the car and we see a shift in his demeanor. He hands Danny a soda, and over the course of three horizontal panels, Danny moves from the left side of the panel to the right, sitting right next to his father. Larry, in the final panel, puts his arm around as he son as Danny looks like he has been crying. Over the course of these panels, the frame shrinks until the last panel draws in tight, like a zoomed in camera shot, on Larry and Danny. In this moment, Larry apologizes to Danny, without words. His actions and Danny’s movement into his father’s outstretched arm point to this fact.

This is where the conjoining of words, image, and layout come into full effect. The entire sequence deploys all three to highlight the psychological effects of racism on Larry and the the ways that he channels the rage he feels onto his son, even though he intellectually knows that what he does in not right. The sequence ends with Larry and Danny crabbing together, depicted in a full page panel as the stand in the water pulling crabs up. When they get home, they bring the bag in the yard and we, as the reader, peer out of the bag full of crabs. We look up at people gathered around and see Danny peering in at us, smiling at the catch he hauled in with his father.

Every time I read The Silence of Our Friends, this sequence stands out to me. While I’ve always noticed the interplay between text and images, it was really only this time that I paid more attention to the layout of the pages and the ways that panels worked to mark transition and to bring out the emotion in the moment. As I said before, there is more I could discuss with this text, but I will leave it at this.

What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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1 Comment on “Psychological Effects of Racism in “The Silence of Our Friends”

  1. Pingback: Detecting Bullshit in Nate Powell’s “Save It For Later” – Interminable Rambling

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