Over the course of this semester, I’ve posted conversations I’ve had with authors such as Kiku Hughes and Lila Quintero Weaver, along with scholars such as Michael Dando, Jennifer Morrison, and Eir-Anne Edgar for my Multicultural American Literature course. Today, I want to share the discussion I had with educator Tim Smyth about John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March: Book Two. Tim Smyth is a P-12 history teacher who regularly uses graphic novels in his classes, and he maintains History Comics and Comics in Education, a great resource for educators with information and lists on works that cover a myriad of topics. As well, his book, Teaching with Comics and Graphic Novels, comes out this summer. During our conversation, we spoke about March, but we also spoke about how he uses March and graphic novels in his own classroom.
I began by asking Smyth some of the panels or pages that his students gravitated towards, and he immediately mentioned the panel where Nate Powell recreates the photo of John Lewis and other kneeling to pray during a protest to desegregate the public pool. This is the first panel in March that relies on its verisimilitude to the original. We see television images of the attack on Edmund Pettus Bridge and Bull Connor attacking individuals in Birmingham, but these do not have the verisimilitude of a photograph like this one does. I’ve written about the use recreation of photographs, in a photorealistic and non-photorealistic manner, before. Weaver’s Darkroom is very photorealistic, partly due to her father’s work as a photojournalist but also partly because of her artistic style. Powell’s style, on the other hand, doesn’t lean towards photorealism, so this moment appears out of nowhere, as a seeming anomaly in the text.
However, it isn’t an anomaly. In fact, it serves a very specific purpose within the broader narrative. The use of the photorealistic panel grounds the narrative within reality, within the historical context. The entire narrative does this; however, Powell’s reproduction of the original image adds to the text’s position within the telling of the Civil Rights Movement.
Along with this panel, Smyth also pointed out that students are drawn to the splash page showing a young Black girl during the Birmingham Children’s March standing in front of a kneeling white Alabama state trooper. The trooper asks the girl, “What do you want?” She looks at the trooper and simply says, “F’eedom.” Behind them, we see troopers leading individuals involved in the march into the back of a police van, taking them to jail. The panel recalls, in many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” where when people ask him “When will you be satisfied?,” he responds by saying, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” While we see people getting arrested, we do not see, in this panel, the trooper beating or attacking the girl and others, but that is exactly what occurs in the following pages.
On the next page, another march occurred as Bull Connor looked on and told his officers to turn the fire hoses onto the marchers. This is where the infamous images of firehouses being turned on individuals and dogs attacking them comes from. We move from the semi-hopeful panel of the girl and the trooper to the violence of police brutality in an instance, with the flip of a page. Smyth points out that when looking at these images, he shows contemporary images from protests such as FErguson and elsewhere where we see, in the current moment, similar interactions between protestors and law enforcement. For Smyth’s students, the splash page is a pause, “a moment of peace,” as he puts it, where they feel that the narrative will go one way then it takes a sudden turn into state sanctioned violence.
Looking back at the splash page, I also begin to think about Devonte Hart. In 2014, a photo of Devonte hugging a police officer during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland went viral. Devonte holds the officer tight as tears stream down the 12-year-old’s face. However, that is not all of Devonte’s story. The photo was staged by the women who adopted Devonte. In 2018, the women drove their SUV off a 100 foot cliff in California. Devonte, along with his five adopted siblings, died in the murder-suicide. After the incident, a history of abuse from the parents surfaced, adding a tragic layer to the image from Portland. All of this is referenced, as well, in the first episode of season three of Atlanta. There, though, the siblings survive, tricking the women before they drive into a lake.
I think about Devonte here because the 2014 image has hope in it, a pause, even though we know his adopted parents staged it for social media attention. It took place during a BLM protest, just as the splash page takes place during a protest march. Following the picture, it turned as we learned about what Devonte and his siblings endured at the hands of their adopted parents, who were both white. The violence they endured can be see in the same manner as Bull Connor commanding his men to attack the children marching in 1963. The only difference is we have video evidence of Connor’s violence. We don’t of the women.
There is not a one-to-one correlation between the splash page and the picture of Devonte. However, we need to think about them, and other pictures of interactions between protestors and law enforcement together because they help us see that even when the pause occurs the violence rests, simmering underneath. White supremacy works to maintain itself, whether that be through the use of police brutality or through the abuse of white women. It takes many forms, and both the images of the young Black girl and Devonte highlight this because when we look beyond the image, to what happens next, or what happened before, we begin to see the simmering began to boil, ratcheting up till it overflows the edges of the pot, releasing itself upon the young girl, Devonte, and others.
Along with all of this, Smyth and I discussed other items. Most significantly, near the end, Smyth highlights how he has students create their own graphic novels based on social justice issues today. After they read through texts, placing sticky notes here and there and breaking down page layouts and the interactions between text and image, students construct their own works. He shares these on Twitter, and details the process they use. I have done similar assignments, and I find that having students create graphic texts causes them to really think about pacing, narrative, layouts, and much more, helping them really see the ways that a text works.
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.