“Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream.” This is the nine-word problem that informs much of our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. It begins with Rosa Parks in Montgomery in 1955, carries through King during the bus boycotts and into 1963 where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The dangerous nature of this problem, as Nate Powell points out in Save It For Later, is that it draws a neat circle around the movement and neat line forward to the present. In “Wingnut,” Powell explores the “deeply ingrained assumptions” that we carry within us about our nation’s history and its impact on our present. These assumptions, which we learned from an early age, plant themselves within us and grow, oftentimes without us questioning them. However, we need to question, and we need to know that a lot of these assumptions are based on myths that we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better.
In one panel, Powell and his parents watch a clip of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address where he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” These lines, of course, stir within us a sense of civil action, a desire to serve and create the ideal society that lies, in many ways, at the heart of the United States. However, the speech gets undercut with Powell’s narration. He says, “White, middle-class Baby Boomers generally raised their kids with a sense of the inevitability of social progress, of a world gradually, casually becoming more just–(A straight line from the defeat of Nazi Germany to Civil Rights figureheads single-handedly toppling segregation to following our own dreams with the help of a few student loans).”
This straight line and the feeling of a movement towards progress and justice for all works to reinforce the faith we have in our systems. The next panel shifts to show Powell’s daughter sitting next to him as Powell takes on the role of his parents, and the narration continues, “as evidence that the structures holding us together actually work.” The faith we put into the system, to move us forward and work for all, allows us, as whites, to believe that the system works because we may see progress in our own lives. However, the faith which we carry in multifaceted abstract systems that have become so entangled we struggle to see where to even begin with dismantling them does not address the roots of the issues which are the systems themselves that we place so much of our faith.
While Powell’s parents call him a few times to express their shock at Trump’s election and tell him that Trump will be out of office soon because of evidence against him, Powell understands that this faith in a system of checks and balances that is meant to prevent “an authoritarian regime” or a fascist exists as nothing more than “a storytime blanket,” one that creates a false sense of security in the apparatus of democracy that has become “its own kind of nationalist myth.” Sketching what appears to be a page based on the Unite the Right rally in 2017, Powell tells his parents, “You’re seeing the breaking of democracy in broad daylight.” The cracking of the system, or to be more precise, the abstractness of the systems has come into full focus. The systems that were put in place to uplift white males have been expanded to include provisions for all, but at the same time, those systems have morphed and reformed in new and insidious ways. Emancipation was 1860s. Backlash occurred immediately and Jim Crow reigned for 100 years until the 1960s. In response, we got mass incarceration followed by the War on Drugs followed by efforts to push voting rights, education, and more back to the “good ole’ days.”
Powell begins to break down “most tangible danger posed by these errors of faith.” In this panel, Powell presents a dissection of a weed sprouting from the ground as its roots seep deep into the soil. He follows this up with three depicting different dangers. In the first, he shows what looks like a politician arguing that freedom of speech covers hate speech, and he narrates, “Hanging on the premise that relativism’s space for fascism to grow is, in fact, evidence of a thriving, open society.” This, of course, is not the case. How can one support hate speech, even under the guise of a healthy democracy, and not see the dangers it imposes? The ways it seeps into the soil? The ways it pollinates and expands?
Along with this, we look back to World War II and our role in defeating Nazi Germany. Through this, we pay “lip service to our parents’ and grandparents’ sacrifices fighting against white supremacists across the ocean.” Here, Powell shows his dad, sitting in a recliner watching a World War II show on the television as he tells his granddaughter, “They answered the call, just went over there and did it.” This “lip service” to the fight against fascism abroad leaves out the important facts, as I have noted earlier, about the connections between the Nazi regime and the United States, specifically in relation to Jim Crow and eugenics. In this manner, the fight becomes whitewashed and presented as cut and dry when in fact it is a lot more nuanced than that.
The final panel shows Powell’s father screaming at the television as the news replays a man punching Richard Spencer in the face during an interview. Powell points out that while we praise those who fought during World War II we trip “over ourselves to gain distance from anyone brave enough to physically confront fascists on our streets.” Powell’s father screams, “When you become violent, you become like them. Ain’t no difference.” Here, I think back to Angela Davis who, when an interviewer asked her about the use of violence as a response to racism and oppression told the interviewer, “Because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere. You have to expect that there are going to be such explosions.”
She continues by talking about one of her friends, the sister of one of the four young girls murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in 1963. She talks about Bull Connor and city officials coming over the radio saying, “Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood. We better expect some bloodshed tonight.” She talks about her father and men in the neighborhood taking their guns and patrolling the neighborhood to keep their families safe. She says, “And then after that, in my neighborhood all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.”
Even King understood this. During his “I Have A Dream” speech, he said people asked, “When will you be satisfied?” His response, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” In the posthumous “A Testament of Hope,” he writes, “Virtually every riot has begun from some police action.” While we extol the bravery of men and women fighting fascism and authoritarianism abroad, we remain(ed) blind to it on our own soil. Again, this thread is nothing new. One need only think of the American Nazi Bund or neo-Nazi’s marching in Skokie, Illinois, in 1978. Neat, straight lines in history do not exist, nor have they ever existed. What exists are narratives, myths, and security blankets that we wrap ourselves in, hoping that they will lead us to progress and justice.
These myths, though, exist and grown because, as Powell points out, they require “external foes, even when their domestic counterparts pose an existential threat to us all.” Why do you think Trump pushed so hard for a border wall? Why did he start his campaign with racist and xenophobic language calling Mexican’s rapists? Why did he push for the Muslim ban? This is nothing new, and Trump’s regime was only a new iteration of an age-old trend. The difference is that Trump’s reign was overtly more authoritarian and fascist, and just because he is no longer in office it does not mean that the “existential threat” has suddenly disappeared, poof. It remains, and we must acknowledge that it remains because we cannot merely sit back and act like everything will be ok.
Powell concludes this section with a full-page panel showing Corey Long with a improvised flamethrower countering marchers at the the Unite the Rights Rally. Long was charged with disorderly conduct and spent 20 days in jail, merely for protecting himself against a mob hurling racist slurs at him as they approached. In big letters, Powell writes above Long’s head, “Please, support our troops. (They rarely wear uniforms.)” Powell reminds us that in this manner we honor those who fought back fascism in the 1940s and those who do it now because we are “acting with knowledge that the voices and methods of fascism have changed, and that we all must work to stop it. We can.”
Next post, I’ll continue looking at Powell’s Save It For Later. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.