Words that Matter #2: Stepping Back into March by John Lewis

I urgently turn the page of March (book two) by the late congressman John Lewis (with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell). I’ve come to the pages that depict the explosion of the Freedom Riders bus in 1961. I’m trying to escape the burning bus with them. I’m absorbing their faces as I “read” the panels, and I tear up for their terror and determination as they try to escape the flames only to be beaten by the mob in the streets. I’m there, fully in the “movie of the mind” in this profoundly moving book that is also a “comic.”

I know, I know, I said that this occasional column would be about books by poets of color I admire, but with the passing of Congressman John Lewis, I remembered a different kind of poetry, the graphic memoir of the remarkable trilogy March, depicting his life in the Civil Rights movement. These pages offer the details of Lewis’ suffering and the horror of that white supremacist street mob in a way that I would not otherwise absorb some fifty plus years after the fact. It’s not just the comics-loving child in me that is lured in, nor is it that this movement was part of my youth. Though I’m a grown woman now (on most days), and have passed beyond my youthful love of comics, (haven’t I?), the insightful image-based elements of a contemporary “comic book” make history real in a way that history books never can. In these books, I am invited inside John Lewis’s life in a way that makes the story engrave my brain—their words and these illustrations stamp history on me again. Or sometimes, for the first time. In its expansiveness, the trilogy is an epic poem with great heroes—similar to the comics of childhood. But in these books, no one has superpowers except in their determination to pass Civil Rights legislation. And they do, but the cost, oh lord the cost to their personal and public lives is huge—and still they go on.

Lest it be too easy to dismiss, a further word about March depicted in comics. Once dismissed as kid-lit or comic literature—not because it was comedy but because it was image-based storytelling, the graphic genre has grown-up, evolved to a full-fledged long-narrative method, and has found a powerful following, especially among astute millennial and younger readers. But even as an older adult who did not grow up in the image-text generations, I enjoy the sophistication and subtle nuance (yes!) in contemporary graphic literature. And March is the perfect vehicle for John Lewis’ life and work because it’s episodic, and because in the ways a human can make change, he is a superhero. Book one spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Dr. King, the birth of the Nashville Student Movement. In book two, John Lewis is more committed than ever to changing the world through nonviolence. As the Freedom Riders’ busses enter the heart of the deep south, their challenges are depicted in the starkly violent visuals and terse dialogue that mark this genre. The Freedom Fighter graphics also depict John Lewis meeting powerful allies, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In Book three readers see the Civil Rights Movement as an undeniable theme of the national conversation just as Black Lives Matter is now. As chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders and with every trip to Washington, with every march, white supremacists intensified their opposition and… well gosh, I’ll leave it there. Let me just say there is something remarkable and beautifully right for every generation to absorb in this new mode of the “high” graphic memoir.

SO. Don’t dismiss this series. Don’t assume that as an adult, Lewis’s story, told this way in March, won’t have the power to move you. It will. It still does. And as we honor and grieve this survivor of a previous tumultuous time, this is one intentional way to educate ourselves about the activism necessary, especially in the time of pandemic when once again, these circumstances place focus on our own racism and the need to be allies against social injustice it spawn.

Note: For those who’d like to learn more about the power of the graphic novel and its application, check out the Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College (MA) where my colleague Josh Neufeld offers classes in the genre during residencies. http://www.pmc.edu/comics