This fairly spectacular Graphic Novel gave me the idea to talk this month about how we build empathy with our young readers for events completely outside their realm of experience. I picked it up because it’s going to be featured beside an article I’m writing for Teaching Tolerance about using GNs in the classroom to teach social justice. And I noticed instantly that it is the best book about the Civil Rights Movement that I have ever read. And by “best book” I mean that while I was reading it, I could FEEL a little bit what it must have been like to be a young person who was a part of that movement. I have read many excellent books and seen many good documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement. I certainly know plenty of the history (although, did you know that comics played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement? Me neither, but Congressional Aide Andrew Aydin, who co-authored The March with John Lewis and Nate Powell (and will be on here later this month to talk about it), wrote his Master’s Thesis on the subject.)
Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.
Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole). March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation.Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.
Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall. Many years ago, John Lewis and other student activists drew inspiration from the 1958 comic book “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” Now, his own comics bring those days to life for a new audience, testifying to a movement whose echoes will be heard for generations.
Review: I think this book is epically important. It’s one thing to teach the Civil Rights Movement or to write about it. I think, after reading this book, that it’s another completely to feel like you might get it, feel it even a little bit. In the above page, for example, the word “niggers” is not blacked out in the actual book. And there is something about seeing it there on the page as a word being hurled casually at a group of kids that makes me, at least, recoil.
I think part of what makes the comics/Graphic Novel medium is that the artwork places you more immediately in the protagonists’ shoes. Scott McCloud talks about several reasons for this in Understanding Comics. One of these reasons is the process of “closure” in which the reader is forced to supply certain pieces of the story in order to make sense of the progression. For example, in the above page when the waitress says, “Oh my god, here’s the niggers,” the reader must supply the knowledge that the group of demonstrators has entered the store, before we see them in the next panel, in order for her comment to make sense. Perhaps that’s part of why this book would make the most effective Civil Rights teaching tool I have ever come across. Or perhaps it’s that John Lewis, as a child and adult, comes off as so warm and charming that you want to be his friend (or feel like you might already be, even though you’ve never met him). I’m not sure. But I agree with Andrew Aydin that this book belongs in every history class in the country. It is that good.
So have any of you noticed how immediate Graphic Novels can sometimes feel? Do you have another technique in your own writing or that you’ve admired in others that helps immediately build empathy for the protagonist? Let’s have a conversation.
Andrew Aydin, again, will be on here later this month to talk about The March and his experiences co-authoring the book. And the person who comments most this month will win a copy. Thanks for stopping by!