Sunday, February 5, 2017

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History does exactly what its title says. I was shamefully unfamiliar with most of the stories recounted in this volume, even that of the Noyes Academy. I single that one out because it was located in Canaan, NH, and it's a small town where I used to teach summer school. I had no idea that once a landmark school was located there.

There are many other stories told here in a straight-forward, semi-humorous fashion. These stories feature much courage and strength in the face of injustice, heartbreak, and misery. Some of these stories are about collective people, such as the shameful, racially motivated eviction of an entire community from Malaga Island. Most though are about exceptional individuals. There is the tale of Henry "Box" Brown who was literally mailed north to freedom.
Also, many forgotten figures are celebrated, like Bass Reeves, the most successful US Deputy Marshal; chess master Theophilus Thompson; magician Richard Potter, and bicycle champion Marshall Taylor aka "The Black Cyclone."
Like I noted above, there is an undercurrent of humor running through these sometimes difficult stories. One recurring funny feature is the flying baby birth, as seen in the "Box" Brown excerpt. Many of these tales start that way, and there are small jokes and asides from time to time. There is also the visual motif of the crow, which delineates the presence of Jim Crow enforcers and ways of thinking. Racial slurs are similarly represented pictorially, to good effect. These are stories directed toward a younger audience, but it does not hold back on showing the difficulties and hatred folks had to endure, as well as the will power needed to persevere through such conditions.

The artwork might seem too simple for some, but I think it is very expressive. Another critique I have seen from multiple sources that I agree with is that this book is very male-centered and also not so delicate about depicting Native Americans.

This book's creator Joel Christian Gill is the the Chair of Foundations at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Since publishing this book, he has embarked on creating and publishing extended biographies of African-Americans in his Tales of the Talented Tenth series. Thus far he has two volumes, on Bass Reeves and Bessie Stringfield, and he is working on at least a couple more. He speaks about his work on Strange Fruit in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Rob McMonigal called it "a wonderful addition to non-fiction comics." Allyce Amidon called it " visually witty, engaging, and well researched." And Megan Purdy called it "a great book that deserves to be read, discussed, shared and celebrated."

Strange Fruit was published by Fulcrum Publishing, and they have an excerpt and more available here.

No comments:

Post a Comment