Title: The Silence of Our Friends
Authors: Mark Long and Jim Demonakos
Illustrator: Nate Powell
Published: 2012 by First Second Books
L.P. Hartley said, as noted in the book, “The past is a foreign country. They do things different there.”
Taking place in Houston, Texas, in 1968, The Silence of Our Friends is a brief memoir of Mark Long’s childhood against the backdrop of his town’s peaked racial tension. The title comes from that famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Long was raised in a white, Liberal, Christian middle-class family—as American as apple pie, it seems. They find themselves in Houston when Mark’s father, Jack, moves the family to take a job as a TV camera man and the TV station’s “race reporter”. Through his job, Jack befriends a local Civil Rights leader, Larry, a teacher who has rallied students at a segregated university in the 3rd Ward—Houston’s impoverished African American community. The school’s administration banned the right of SNCC to organize (The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee—a nationwide student group elemental in the rise of the Civil Rights Movement on post-secondary campuses). For more information about this history, I recommend reading a [White-written] news article from the time period, complete with all its presuppositions and bias. This 1967 piece from Harvard Crimson paints a pretty good picture, in addition to providing background on this chapter in Houston’s history.
Despite significant tensions, Jack and Larry’s families attempt to forge a bond in a time and place when it was considered against the rules for African Americans to be in a “white” neighbourhood even at the invitation of community members, and the Ku Klux Klan openly passed out flyers for their monthly meetings.
The story is told masterfully against many different backdrops that reflect the memory’s time and place: images of the Vietnam War constantly on TV, rodeos and ‘crabbing’ as weekend past-times. The writing displays an intimate recollection of the events of this time and place—subtleties that pop for modern readers, because so much seems to have changed. A little boy pretending that he’s a soldier in Vietnam; a mother politely arguing with a next-door neighbor about how the war is wrong; a Black man quietly observing that he hasn’t spoken to a white person for any length of time since he was in the Army. One of my favorite scenes is when the children of Jack and Larry’s families are getting to know each other. They spend a good minute just looking at each other. Then they take the time to feel each other’s skin and hair—to investigate difference innocently, without the obstruction of judgement or power dynamics. This is captured most beautifully by Mark’s younger sister, who is blind.
Nate Powell’s artwork equals the story in quality and care. I’ve been a fan on Nate’s work for so long that it’s sometimes impossible for me to appreciate the specific things he does to make a particular work stand out for what it is. The flow of panels here is so well mastered—using song lyrics of contemporary hits (like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come”) to guide us from one scene to another. His artwork is never static—each page is presented with an amazing overall aesthetic. Backgrounds jump from open and white to closed in and dark; the realism of a car driving down a street will be spotted with emotive/expressionistic shapes from the headlights. When I look at his work, I feel like I could be in a dream, where reality unhinging is a slight and beautiful thing. (I also can’t but notice that the subtitle of the work is “The Civil Rights Struggle was Never Black and White”–and Nate, who often works only in B&W, has used a lot of grey tones here.)
There is no other comic book that really compares to this work—it is unique and educational as much as it is personal and moving. However it seems to be opening the doors for more work of a common history—Powell has done artwork for another comic documenting Civil Rights history, March (Book One) written by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin. I look forward to adding this work, alongside The Silence of Our Friends, to my bookshelf.