The death here in Minnesota of George Floyd has sparked world-wide protests against police brutality and racism, with people demanding new laws and orders to protect every person’s civil rights. History has shown that “law and order” political leaders such as President Trump at best too often have limited understanding of the injustices perpetrated under the guise of law. Today I look at two graphic works that spotlight such injustices—bittersweetly showing both how far U.S. laws have come in righting wrongs and how much further such laws have yet to go. Young readers late elementary age on up may find the historical perspectives here on civil rights and wrongs of particular benefit, putting today’s protests and related violence in fuller context. These powerful books examine not only specific laws and legal orders but the attitudes about these rulings—what President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 described as “the fabric of our nation.”
Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act that year is recounted near the end of March, Book Three (2016), the concluding volume in the graphic autobiography of U.S. Representative John Lewis. As a young man, Lewis actively participated in the 1960s civil rights movement, often in leadership roles, and since 1987 has represented Georgia’s Fifth District in the U.S. Congress. The longtime African-American activist collaborated with writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell on this award-winning trilogy, (begun with March, Book One  and including March, Book Two ). I have discussed the first two books in depth in previous blog posts. Volume Three continues to portray the charged events in Lewis’ life through remarkable grey-toned, black and white images which complement and extend the verbal account.
Often, wordless panels or pages convey the emotions of those opposed to civil rights for African-Americans as well as those struggling for them. In Book Three’s prologue, such wordless pages also capture the pain and horror of the parents of the four young Black girls slain in in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church. Their emotions are juxtaposed with the cruel excitement later that same day of murderous white teenagers and of the terrorizing white police officer who traced and killed a Black teen. The officer was never indicted.
The graphic format is particularly effective in demonstrating how, even after laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are finally passed, such individual and social prejudice often harmfully continue. Such attitudes impede legal reforms of institutional racism. It is this reality, along with the differences of opinion within the civil rights movement itself, which I believe will provide particularly valuable insights for readers seeking context for current protests and reactions to protest. Those who feel overwhelmed by the ongoing nature of racism—institutional as well as personal—may be heartened by Representative Lewis’ assessment of today’s civil rights protests. Comparing these to the 1960s movement, he has said elsewhere, “This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all-inclusive. . . . [with] people from all over the world taking to the streets . . . to speak up, to speak out . . . . It’s another step down the very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”
As with the other two volumes, March Book Three bookends Representative Lewis’ account with the ground-breaking inauguration of African-American President Barak Obama. March, Book Three may be read on its own (and has indeed garnered separate awards, including the prestigious National Book Award for Young People’s Literature), yet if younger readers are up for only one volume of the trilogy, I would suggest Book One. The account there of Lewis’ boyhood will appeal to youngsters in ways that Book Three’s enumerating civil rights activists and opponents may not.
The ways in which U.S. laws and orders have unjustly denied rights to other minority groups, again institutionalizing racism, is key to another powerful graphic autobiography: George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy (2019). It focuses upon how, after Japan’s December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II, Japanese-Americans’ lives changed drastically. Presidential Order 9066, issued in February, 1942, had Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese swiftly isolated as “enemy suspects,” removed from their homes, and interned in bleak, often faraway guarded camps. More than 110,000 people were uprooted and imprisoned in this way, merely because of their racial heritage. Then 4-year old George Takei’s family was among them.
Co-written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker, this award-winning book was first newsworthy because of adult George Takei’s prominence in popular culture. As every Star Trek fan knows, this actor played Lieutenant (later Captain) Hikaru Sulu in that 1960s TV series and its movie offshoots! Takei has also been prominent as an activist for gay rights. Yet They Called Us Enemy stands fully on its own merit as a powerful work. (Similarly, the musical play Takei helped create in 2008 about his family’s WW II experiences, Allegiance, in which Takei also appeared, won accolades before its Broadway run was cut short.)
Most of this 200-page autobiography recounts the experiences of young George Takei during the four years he and his family spent in two internment camps. Readers will appreciate the grey-toned, black-and-white drawings depicting not only the terrible uncertainties of forced relocations but also the ways in which Japanese-American families pulled together to establish supportive communities within the harsh internment camps. There were childish hopes and pranks (including one about a live “dinosaur” that turned out to be a pig), along with family love and pride. These temporarily offset the unfair, bewildering regulations and casual cruelties of some guards and neighboring ranchers.
We see most of these events through young George’s eyes. Yet as adult George looks back at those years, he also notes the consistent kindness shown by some people outside the camps, who risked arrest to bring books and other aid to the imprisoned Japanese-Americans. Illustrator Becker’s consistent use of a style typical in Japanese manga (comics) —for instance, exaggerated mouths and eyes to convey strong emotions—unites the viewpoints of child and adult George. This doubled perspective is important to our understanding both of the strength shown by Takei’s parents and the bigotry Japanese-Americans continued to face after the war, when they were released from the camps. Close-ups juxtaposed with medium and long-distance panels maximize the emotional “punch” of the incidents recounted here.
They Called Us Enemy also includes relevant events in adult George’s life. We see his work as an actor involved with civil rights issues, which led to a memorable backstage meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, and how Takei always strove to take roles—such as Sulu on Star Trek—which were not just stereotypes. Takei also shows how court decisions about the World War II internment remained important to him and his family. Not until 1988 did the U.S. government offer an official apology and attempt restitution for Presidential Order 9066 and its subsequent, hurtful wartime rulings.
Wondering what to read as follow-ups here? The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has some suggestions. I also recently learned about Citizen 13660, a graphic memoir created by Japanese-American artist Mine Okubo about her World War II internment. It was first published in 1946! I am looking forward to having a copy of this work’s 2014 reissue in my hands later this month. (This memoir as described may be appreciated best by readers teen on up. Readers of all ages, though, will be interested in images from Citizen 13660, online in the Mine Okubo Collection hosted by the National Japanese American Museum.)
It will be a longer wait for an announced sequel to the autobiographical March trilogy. Titled Run, this graphic work first scheduled for 2108 publication has been delayed again until September, 2023. Representative Lewis and Andrew Aydin are Run’s authors, but its illustrator is comics award-winner Afua Richardson, with input from March illustrator Nate Powell. I just hope that Representative Lewis’s health permits him to continue with this multi-book project. Meanwhile, daily and weekly news about current protests for civil rights—and the possible changes they may bring to U.S. laws and local government orders—is full of articles and opinion pieces for eager, concerned readers.