Nate Powell’s Save It For Later is a book for this moment. As a parent, as a white male Southerner, Powell’s book speaks to me in the same ways that Lillian Smith’s words speak to me across the decades. Both Powell and Smith know the intertangled webs that maintain systems of racism and oppression. Both Powell and Smith recognize their positions within those webs, and they interrogate themselves as they lay bare the poisonous roots that we continue to feed, the roots that burst forth from the ground and spread across the earth. Both Powell and Smith know that children do not enter the world seeing and understanding injustice even if they do not have a name for it. Both Powell and Smith know that children become entwined in the poisonous roots, and those roots pierce their psyches, poisoning them as well.
The full title of Powell’s book is Save It For Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest, and the cover depicts Powell and his daughter at a protest, her sitting on his shoulders as she holds up a sign reading “Save it For Later.” As I look at the cover and the title, two thoughts come to mind. One is the argument, which has been around since the Civil Rights Movement and before that we shouldn’t push for drastic change, we should be moderate. We should save the change for later. This is what Jack Marshall does in Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. He didn’t want the plantation, but he doesn’t change the system either. Instead, he merely gets drunk every day. This is what Lillian Smith argued against throughout her career. In “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way,” she said that we must not be moderate or silent. Those moderates who keep silent, she says, “are suffering from moral and psychic paralysis. They are working harder to be moderates than they are working to meet the crisis.”
The other thought that comes to my mind when I see the title and the cover is that we must do everything we can possibly do to save this world for those who come after us. Powell’s five year-old daughter asks to participate in protests after the 2016 election, and he allows her, telling her, when protestors are marching to occupy city hall, “You lead the way, either way. I’ll follow.” In the chapter “Good Trouble, Bad Flags,” she asks to read March Book One as her bedtime story; she had seen Powell drawing illustrations for the book, but he did not go into detail with her about the images. After hearing John Lewis on CSPAN and seeing video from Selman, she wanted to know more, and Powell details how each time they read the book her perspective and observations change. He “curated the reading experience to her level, paying attention to where history intersected with what she knew about her world.”
He begins with a panel of his daughter, who appears as a unicorn throughout the text, pulling up her sleeve as if she is about to engage in a fight. Powell writes, “Every four-year-old has a pretty clear radar for fairness and injustice as small as that scale may often bee, and every four-year old has already experienced a bully.” Through depicting his children as unicorns, a move that highlights both their innocence as well as, for me, a kind of mythological existence that we strive for but that seems ever elusive, Powell presents them as blank slates, slates that will eventually morph into humans such as himself and those around them.
On their first reading of March, Powell’s daughter notices the work of Lewis and others as the spoke out against injustice. The second reading she noticed “the actions of the bullies” who had power and worked to maintain unjust laws. This panel depicts judges, policemen, and others. The third time she picked up on the unfair treatment of people under Jim Crow, and this led to the fourth reading where “she was equipped to understand the injustice of unfair treatment due to something as arbitrary as skin color.” In this panel, which appears in color, we see Powell’s daughter in profile in the foreground reading March with John Lewis’ head staring the same direction behind her. A glow of light, like a halo, illuminates Lewis. The next panel zooms in on his daughter’s face as he writes, “Kids get it immediately—and a hell of a lot better than adults do—still allowing themselves to be moved without reservation.”
Kids understand, as Powell and Smith note, the injustice that surrounds them, even if they do not know the name for it. They grow into a world, though, that continues that injustice. This is where history comes in and the teaching of history arises. The control of the historical narrative is the control of power. While he was illustrating March, Powell did not push all of the specifics of the events he was illustration. However, he noted the importance of his daughter getting to meet Lewis during this time. Powell’s depiction of this meeting is illustrative of the ways that we need to think about history. History is not just stories we make up to tell ourselves and explain the world. History occurred, and real people partook in it.
In the two panels where Powell’s daughter meets Lewis, Powel narrates, “But whenever possible, I felt it was important to underscore that these were really events pushed into action by real people . . .” Underneath this narration, Powell has two panels. On the left, we see Powell’s daughter holding his hand. On the right, John Lewis bends down to shake her hand as Powell geeks out in the background. Powell has a narration dissect these two panels, breaking each one in two. The narration continues the thought from the top narration, reading, “connecting her to living, breathing history along the way.”
The severing of the panels points to the ways that history becomes severed, something I’ve written about numerous times on this blog. When we sever history, we do not get the full picture, and without that full picture, we continue to repeat, again and again, the sins of the past. Powell writes about this with his own childhood and the ways that his memories impact his own life in this moment. Next post, I’ll pick up here because Powell’s comments about growing up with that severed history really resonate with me, especially as I think about the ways to suture that severed history back together for my own children in order to save the world for them.
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