The Silence of Our Friends

by on Jan.30, 2012, under Comics

A few months ago I read this awesome article on the civil rights struggle by Hamden Rice (h/t ABL):

It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea.  Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement decided to use to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.

And it is true that when the civil rights movement is taught and discussed today, the talk often focuses on legal markers of discrimination: housing, employment, the right to vote, school segregation. But Rice reminds us that civil rights leaders deliberately picked these fights not just because they were important in themselves but because they provoked racists into making visible the terrorist violence they were accustomed to carrying out in secret. It can seem borderline insane to risk serious beating over a seat on the bus or service at a lunch counter unless you remember that the violence was the point, not a byproduct.

They told us: — whatever you are most afraid of doing vis a vis white people, go do it.  Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter.  Sue the local school board.  All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we’ll be OK.

They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad.  They taught black people how to take a beating — from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses.  They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating.

Please let this sink in.  It wasn’t marches or speeches.  It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.

That threat of violence hangs over every interaction in The Silence of Our Friends, lending weight to its local story of a small civil rights skirmish. When author Mark Long was young, his father Jack covered the “race” beat for a TV station in Houston. On that beat he made friends with Larry Thomas, a professor at Texas Southern University (what today we would call a “historically black university,” and then was simply a black university), and an organizer in protests to get SNCC recognized as a campus group.

The book enters into each man’s family life, shows them beginning to approach each other in friendship. Then Thomas’s daughter is hit by a pickup—very likely deliberately—and SNCC calls a protest to close the avenue where it happened, a thoroughfare through a black neighborhood down which racists liked to ride at top speed, shouting racial insults. Cops move in on the protestors, and radical students in one of the dorms shoot at them. The cops open fire, one of them is killed by a ricochet from his own gun, and in the book’s climax, five students stand trial for his murder, with Thomas defending them and Long subpoenaed with his news footage as a key witness for the prosecution.

I don’t know how much of the actual dialogue Mark Long wrote as opposed to his coauthor Jim Demonakos. Understandably it tends to be better in the sequences showing Jack Long with his family than in those of Larry Thomas with his, and in most ways Jack Long is a richer, more nuanced character. He’s basically a good man but, for example, his functional alcoholism becomes a significant plot point.

Overall, though, it’s Nate Powell’s art that makes the book shine. In one scene, for example, Thomas takes his son down to Freeport to go crabbing. The first store where they stop refuses to sell him bait, insisting he go to the “colored store.” He starts to make a scene when another white man arrives with menace in his face, and Thomas retreats. Powell does a remarkable job of conveying that threat, and Thomas’s fear, with expressions and shading alone, and in the ensuing panels, when Thomas takes out his frustration on his kid, Powell shows his transition from anger to guilt without a word of dialogue.

Long and Demonakos put a great deal of trust in Powell’s ability to convey emotion and subtext in this way, without verbal description, and that trust is most richly deserved. Violence is rarely spoken of openly in The Silence of Our Friends; it is Powell’s art that does most of the work creating an ever-present feeling of threat and mistrust.

Check it out in a preview here.

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