A couple of years ago, a student introduced me to Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. I read it soon after, and I knew that I wanted to eventually teach it in one of my courses. This semester, in my Multicultural American Literature course, I taught Darkroom, and Weaver graciously spoke with me about her book. Today, I want to share some of the thoughts I had when rereading Darkroom in preparation to teach it and some of what Weaver and I discussed during our conversation about her graphic memoir.
First and foremost, when I was planning out the course for this semester I knew I wanted to end with John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March trilogy. We would cover, to that point, texts dealing with Japanese Incarceration and the Holocaust, and following a chronological trajectory, ending with the Civil Rights Movement seemed logical. Darkroom immediately precedes March on the syllabus, so that means we read it right before look at March: Book One. This ordering proved fortuitous, mainly because of the ways that Darkroom ends and March begins. I didn’t reread March before I spoke with Weaver, but once I reread book one I saw the immediate connection, as the opening of March serves as a direct continuation of Darkroom.
March opens with John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and close to 600 others marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on their way to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. As they crossed the bridge, Dallas County law enforcement, along with recently deputized white males twenty-one and over, met the crowd, telling them to disperse. When Williams went to speak with John Cloud, the commanding officer, the men began to beat the marchers, as the news crews looked on and broadcast the violence around the world.
Jimmie Lee Jackson’s shooting and murder, in Marion, Alabama, on February 18, 1965, served as the spark for the march. In Marion, around 500 people marched from Zion United Methodist Church to the Perry County jail, to protest the arrest of James Orange, a Civil Rights activist who was arrested for enlisting minors to assist in voter registration efforts. Police and white citizens attacked the crowd, turning off the street lights and violently beating the marchers. During the attack, Jackson ran with his sixteen-year-old sister, his mother, and his eighty-two-year-old grandfather, into a cafe behind the church.
Officers beat Jackson, clubbing him to the floor. As his mother tried to pull the men off of her son, they beat her. When Jackson tried to protect his mother, they shoved him against a cigarette machine. Here, James Bonard Fowler shot Jackson twice in the abdomen. He dies on February 25, 1965. The Alabama State Police, as Jackson was on his deathbed, served Jackson with an arrest warrant.
We don’t see Jackson’s murder in Darkroom or at the start of March. In Darkroom, Weaver points out that there weren’t any pictures, partly because officers attacked journalists and also because no photographers were in the cafe at the time. Weaver doesn’t move into the cafe to depict Jackson’s murder; rather, she remains outside the cafe, concluding a sequence where we see Jackson lead his family into the cafe with these words, “a shot in the dark.” Jorge Santos points out that this phrase carries two meanings: “The first is literal, referring to the bullet that claims Jackson’s life. The second is figurative, referring to any photography that might have captured the murder as an evidentiary gap that keeps this moment in history perpetually ‘in
With Darkroom, Weaver fills in gaps in our historical narrative, specifically the ways we think about the Civil Rights Movement and race in the United States, as a binary: black and white. Through her memoir, Weaver counters this narrative, and through her use of photo-realism, Weaver underscores the ways that we must bear witness to history, not limiting it to sound bites or things like the nine word problem, “Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream,” when we think about the Civil Rights Movement. I say all of this to remind us that there is so much more to history that we need to know, that we need to relate to students, that we need to learn. Singular books such as Darkroom and March can’t provide everything about the Civil Rights Movement, but reading them in tandem, along with other texts, helps us create a broader picture.
Added to this, we to think about one of the things Weaver and I discussed during our conversation. I asked Weaver about the Know Alabama textbook that she references in Darkroom, and she told me that as a kid, going to school, she didn’t really think much about it. However, when she took her own children to the library one day, she saw the textbook on the shelf, pulled it down, and started to read. After all of those years, she had learned more and recognized the ways that Know Alabama perpetuated a history that created chasms, adding more gaps to the historical record, instead of relaying the factual history. She knew, then, that she wanted to use that text in some manner in a project, and years later she did.
Know Alabama was one of many textbooks like this. Today, legislatures are working to pass laws that would bring textbooks and curriculum such as this back, not in the exact same form. What Weaver and Darkroom show is the importance of our understanding of the past to recognize the ways that textbooks and/or curricula create gaps. Students, especially at the age where they would read Know Alabama, probably wouldn’t question what they read. As they grow older, they still may not question it; however, some will. Weaver, through the use of Know Alabama and other moments in the text, highlights the ways that education serves as a battleground for the cultural narrative and also serves, when used as propaganda to uphold things like white supremacy, inculcates students and perpetuates oppression.
There’s a lot more that I could say here, but I’ll leave you with my conversation with Weaver. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.