STORY: MARK LONG & JIM DEMONAKOS
ART: NATE POWELL
PUBLISHER: FIRST SECOND
In the Bible, from the Book of Leviticus particularly, there is a particularly haunting yet aspirational line that reads: “You will not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (19:16). It is a juxtaposing phrase, placed among a variety of dictums towards leading a life suffused with holiness. In the broader context of the Levitical precepts presented in that same chapter, it has perhaps the most immediate and emotional resonance: no matter what you may think of another person, their core humanity transcends their corporeal bonds. Indeed, among the laws prescribed for priests and holy peoples, the precept of not standing by while your neighbor’s blood is shed is the most concrete example of righteous empathy, placing oneself into the mindset of another. It is in this economy of words that we are presented with one of the starkest sins: the sin of non-action.
As we end Black History Month, a time dedicated to remembering the tumult of history, culture, triumph, and pain, it also useful to reflect on the artifacts and remembrances that make this month such a potent time for cultural reflection.
In the American popular imagination, our most spirited time for action was during the Civil Rights era. Every day, millions of simple men and women performed acts of heroism. They weren’t prophets or anointed kings (Martin Luther or otherwise), merely ordinary people who lived their lives under extraordinary circumstances. The recent graphic novel series March remains (and will continue for many decades to come) a brilliant encapsulation of Rep. John Lewis’ journey of taking on the mantle of history. Whereas March looks at the era from the viewpoint of Lewis and others who held say in the upper echelons on the movement, the equally brilliant and moving The Silence of Our Friends (First Second), released in 2012, is a visceral testament to the complexities of building simple bridges across communities.
Written by Mark Long, and loosely based on his life experiences as a boy in Houston, TX during the mid-1960s, and Jim Demonakos, with illustrations by Nate Powell, The Silence of Our Friends is a semi-autobiographical take on growing up in the racial tinderbox of the South during the height of the Civil Rights. The locus of the story is Mark’s father Jack, a news reporter assigned to cover the increasingly frenetic and charged state of racial relations for a local Houston television station. Among Jack’s first assignments is to cover the demonstrations at the nearby Texas State University campus, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is protesting against the unfair treatment and harassment of black students by university officials and the police. It’s there where Jack meets Larry Thompson, an activist and organizer leading the protests against the institutions that promote an unfair system.
The story, then, is not so much about Mark’s childhood growing up in a racially segregated system, but about the courage of individuals to build bridges in the most difficult of circumstances. As a young white boy, Mark and his sisters (who are present throughout the comic) are exposed to a society that allows casual racism to fester without consequence regarding its psychological components; it’s a normal outgrowth of the culture. Jack, for his part, doesn’t want his children to be inoculated against the miasma of baseless hatred. To combat such notions, Jack disrupts the tranquility of the community by inviting Larry and his family over for dinner. Such an act, while unassuming, is as subversive as gathering a large group to fight against injustice. Indeed, the course of the graphic novel is gripping. Nate Powell’s artwork, as always, is pristinely rendered and affecting. Every character leaps from the pages, not as a drawing, but as a three-dimensional figure locked in time. The climax, centered on an unfair trial meant to impugn some peaceful protestors, is as taut as any legal thriller.
From our perch some fifty years after the events of the graphic novel, it should be easy to say that we—as a society—have come so far to ensure the fair treatment and dignity of vulnerable populations in the United States. But this isn’t to be. Relations between communities—and within—are as frayed as they were during institutionalized American racism. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, and there is much to be optimistic about. When the dynamics of the times provide an inclement climate, it comes down to the regular person to be the principal vehicle for change. Larry Robinson. Jack Long. You. Me. We possess the energy. We are the gears in a mechanism that bends towards justice. The Silence of Our Friends is a treatise about the possibilities of standing up against the petty iniquities that are normalized, and that want to be left alone by a fearful elite. This can’t be sustainable, nor should it be.