how to get the kids to engage with black history

I was really, really excited when I heard about Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (IndieBound), and I waited for months until it came out and then bought it at work. Nobody has checked it out, even though our kids love graphic novels, but it will happen. Especially this year, when we have some new students who very, very much want to find books that validate and acknowledge and respect and honor them as black students (they’re not articulating as much, but they’re talking around it, and actually one of my white students is articulating that she is really enjoying Jacqueline Woodson and Bil Wright, which is awesome), I am glad we have bought this book. So I wanted to read it to see how I get could them to read it, and I found it….interesting.

Well researched, for sure. There is even a bibliography, which I have never seen in a nonfiction graphic novel, and this pleases me as a librarian for technical dork reasons but also because it means that this book can be used like things like Dear America and American Girl – that is to say, a kid who really likes one thing in it will be able to start on their research steps to learn more. Hurrah!

The book is, as the title and subtitle suggest, a series of comics biographies of semi-famous African Americans to highlight the fact that black history is more than Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a foreword from Henry Louis Gates, which is pretty fancy, and even for someone who only dives into comics-style narratives occasionally, I found the art and the storytelling to be pretty solid, if not particularly groundbreaking or uncanny.

I have a huge objection to this book, and it should be an objection to anyone else who reads only as far as the foreword and introduction. The book’s title, acknowledged by both Gates and Gill, comes from a super famous song made so by a major FEMALE singer (though yes, the songwriter was a white man – who adopted the Rosenberg children and was a fucking badass, so let’s not think badly of him), and NOT ONE biography in this entire collection is about a black woman. BILLIE HOLIDAY AND ABEL MEEREPOLL GAVE THIS GUY THE TITLE OF HIS BOOK AND HE COULDN’T EVEN MAKE A SINGLE LOUSY COMIC ABOUT A LADY. It doesn’t matter that this book is only volume I – eliminating women entirely, barring one story about a man who is writing letters to his daughter (who doesn’t speak), is an unforgivable error. You want obscure-ish black female heroes? Madame C.J. Walker. Philippa Duke Schuyler (except she’s a character in my WIP, so dibs!). Sarah Rector. Ellen Craft. Harriet Jacobs. Sarah Forbes Bonetta (okay, she was “British”). There’s a handful to start with. Gill does really great, fairly extensive research for something that was a labor of love, not a highly paid book gig, and yet he failed to find any women worth mentioning. Not just a shame, a major disservice.

But let’s move on (even though that is something to be dwelled upon and thought about for longer) and talk about other parts of the book. Some of the stories are standouts, and Gill really did find some quite uncelebrated people and historical moments. It wasn’t even the second-tier Black History Month people, like W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X. I had absolutely never heard of the Malaga Island community or Richard Potter. And there are lots of things to grab tons of different types of kids. Magician, chess player, basketball player, sheriff, and more. (They’re just all dudes.) But I think publishing them as individual comics would be more appealing for a child or teen to pick up on his or her own than this book, whose subtitle, while super important, also stinks of Good For You.

That’s the thing: books like this make me sad, because they’re really, really hard sells for kids who don’t know how good they’ll be for them (in the medicine sense but also in the I-never-knew-I-wanted-to-know-this sense as well). For one thing, it’s clear that this is an indie comic turned big-time book, and that’s not to diminish the quality of the work, but it does take awhile for it to hit stride, and the first few comics in the book are not all that compelling. Some are literally just two pages, a handful of panels, with a very basic biography. Not attention-grabbing at all. They’re useful only in the sense that now I’ve heard of a person and can mention that person to a kid if they’re interested in a subject in which that person was a major player. And the stories are inconsistent in style, grandiosity, length, and focus, which is fine, since different stories require different storytelling styles, but again would be less conspicuous as individual comics.

I hate having to criticize this book, since the terrible fact is that the more times someone points out where this book is problematic, the more fuel gets added to the fire that says stories by and about black people aren’t worthwhile for reading or for getting behind in publishing (even though we all know that mediocre, terrible, or problematic books by white people will NEVER deter publishers from not telling more of those stories), and this book should be the beginning of more books like it, even if I do seriously resent Gill’s erasure of women’s history. This book is not bad. It’s not the greatest book in the entire world. It will require a lot of handselling. But there are some gems inside, and they do make the whole package worth it, even if you can’t see the shine from the beginning.

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6 thoughts on “how to get the kids to engage with black history

  1. NOT ONE biography in this entire collection is about a black woman

    Well, that sucks. I just added this book to my TBR and now I’m annoyed. I mean, I’ll still probably read it, but what a way to fail.

  2. This is a complaint that I have heard before. I understand the issue. The stories came to me organically. Every story in Volume I was told to me by people relaying information. I did not seek out the stories; the stories found me. You will be glad to know that when I did research for my second volume there are more women (II might even do it as all women!). My second series Tales of the Talent Tenth will have a book devoted to Bessie Stringfield.

    • That’s nice to hear about the second one. That said, saying the stories came organically as an excuse not to include women is basically the same argument people use to claim that it’s not that they don’t want to read diverse literature by PoC, they just only want to read “good books.”

      • That’s assuming that I set out to write the book excluding women; not the same argument. Think about about it like this you go to a friend house and get served steak for the first time you decidie you like steak and go home and make steak. Some one comes in sees you eating steak and says you are choosing not to eat pork and that’s wrong. You did choose to eat steak but you did not specifically exclude pork. No, the stories coming to me organically is not an excuse. Saying it like that is like saying I am some women hating neck beard. That’s not me . I understand where this would come. It was not my intention, and furthermore I intend to remedy my oversight in future books.

        • No, it’s exactly how I said. It’s equivalent to people claiming that not reading books by PoC is an organic accident. Doesn’t matter if it’s on purpose, it’s still problematic. I don’t understand at all what you are saying about neck beard; that was totally incomprehensible.

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