I bought a copy of The Silence of Our Friends yesterday at Comic Con, Bangalore. It took me two pages of browsing through at the counter to know that this is a graphic novel I will enjoy reading and will cherish for a long time. And that is exactly how things seem to be turning out. I read the book today, all in one sitting, and kept going back to several of the conversations between the important characters and the oh-so-subtle imageries in the backdrop of the artwork. And it was in these revisits that I had the Aha! moment about this book.
On the surface, it is a book about the American Civil Rights Movement and takes place in Houston, Texas in 1968. At that time, Houston was still divided by the colour line with the white and blacks choosing to stick to their own neighbourhoods. The book tells us the story of two families – one black, one white – and their journey through a specific period of peaceful protests that turned ugly when the police intervened.
Jack Long is a white, television reporter, who is responsible for covering news about the racial divide. Larry Thompson is a black professor at Texas State University, leading a peaceful nonviolent protest against racial inequality. Through the course of the story, these two lead characters find common ground and develop a friendship that is rare to come by in a place like Houston. It is a story about how they are there for each other in times that call for great personal sacrifices.
But the real beauty of the story comes through, not in this friendship, but in how the actions of these two men impact their families. You might have noticed how Jack Long shares a surname with the first author of this graphic novel. He is, in fact, a fictionalised version of author Mark Long’s father and this is Mark’s way of telling his story of growing up in a family that saw black Americans as people and not as vermin.
There is a scene in the book when the Thompson family crosses the colour line and visits the Long family. It was a big deal at that time for a man to do it, leave alone a man who brings his wife and children along, putting them all at risk. Mark Long talks about it in his Author’s Note at the end of the book.
“Crossing the colour line in Houston was literally an act of courage in 1967. There was the real possibility of violence, especially in our neighbourhood, Sharpstown, where the Ku Klux Klan left fliers advertising rallies rubber-banded to our front doorknob. When the Thomas family [in the book as the Thompson family] first visited our home, it was as if aliens had landed in our front yard. The entire block came out to gawk, and we weren’t much better ourselves. I had never met a black person before. And I don’t think they had ever played with white kids. I recall our fascination simply with texture of each other’s hair.”
— Mark Long in his author’s note at the end of the book.
It is a scene that reminds me of my own childhood. I lived in a neighbourhood that had several communities that are still looked down upon. The politically-correct literature recognises them as Harijans – people of God – but it is still a big deal to let them inside a Brahmin house. I was fortunate to have been brought up by very liberal parents, but even then it was impossible for me to think, even as a child, about playing with Harijan kids, leave alone inviting them over for evening snacks. They stayed in their part of the neighbourhood and I stayed away from them. How much better would it have been if I had a scene like this to play out in my own memory too?
And that is the thing about this book, my Aha! moment: this is not a story about how two people found friendship. It is a story about how their actions made sure that the will of their friendship is passed on to the generations that follow them. It is a story that tells us that children learn from the actions of their elders, and so it is imperative that we act. In the end, the children will remember not the loudness of our words, but the silence of our actions. If we don’t act, we don’t teach them anything.
And that is why I want to show you a glimpse of two small conversations in this book that tell us how the two lead characters taught their children about friendship with the other race. Both these conversations have deep meaningful thoughts cloaked as mundane everyday lines.
The first is Jack Long taking his family out to a barbecue that an African-American friend of his has set up.
MARK: A friend of yours? You mean like a Negro?
JACK: Why? Is that not okay with you?
MARK (evasively): I guess…
JACK: You guess, or is it okay?
MARK (thinks for a while, raises his head in a smile): It’s okay, Dad!
Notice how Jack first patiently asks Mark if he is okay with his Dad having a Negro as a friend. Mark does not initially want to comment on it as he is not really sure of his position and does not want to commit to a stand. Jack does not let this opportunity pass. He insists that his son make up his mind, that his son think about it before they actually meet the negro friend. And Mark does think. There is no mention of his thoughts and it is left to each one of us to fill in the thoughts between the panels of the comic strip, but we get a good enough hint in the next panel when Mark raises his head with a smile on his face. He has come to his own conclusion. It is okay to be friends with a negro. Mark has no problems with that.
The second conversation has fewer words. It is a conversation that Larry Thompson has with his son Danny and daughter Cecilia. But it starts a little earlier with his wife Barbara. The two children have dressed up as cowboys for school and their mother forbids them from going to school that way.
DANNY: MOM! I want to. Why not?!
BARBARA: Because I said so!
LARRY: Honey, it’s Go Texan Day. All kids dress up. It’s only a half day of school…
BARBARA: Our children are NOT going to be seen supporting an institution of segregation. If anything, they will oppose it.
Larry walks the children to school. The children are dressed in traditional African attire and are not at all happy about it. As the kids stomp off towards their school building…
The kids turn to see their dad pulling the cowboy costumes out of his bag.
DANNY and CECILIA (broad smiles on their face): DADDY!
LARRY: Don’t tell Mom about this, okay? I’ll meet you here after school is out.
Yes, Larry is the leader of the protest against racial segregation, but he is also a champion of mutual respect. Barbara was right in her anger against a custom that started as an institution of segregation, but that was a thing of their generation. The kids didn’t need to inherit the same hatred. Larry didn’t see it as an opportunity to oppose, but as an opportunity to befriend. He saw the natural excitement that the children had for dressing up as cowboys and understood that for them Go Texan Day was a day that kids had fun at school. There was no reason for him to change that.
And just like that, two very important conversations happened as part of everyday lives and contributed to the children’s understanding that being with the other race is normal, is okay, is good. And just like that, a new will was entrusted to the new generation.
I had such a moment too, yesterday, when I was at Comic Con.
I met Jim Demonakos, the second author of this book. He was a bundle of enthusiasm when he shook hands with me. We had a little chat about how we can bring out social themes in the graphic novel medium so that they are more accessible to everyday folks like us. It was brief, but at some level, we connected enough for him to give me his email ID so that we could continue the conversation there. After I read the book today, I thought about the things I had talked about with him. He was bringing out the social issues he faced while growing up and by encouraging me to write more about the things I have chosen to, he has entrusted a bit of his will to me. Before saying our goodbyes, Jim had left me a little message on my copy. I leave you, friend, with the same.