The Silence of Our Friends

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Comics are a powerful medium. When I have new graphic novels in the house, I like reading them first thing in the morning with my coffee. Today’s read was The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long & Jim Demonakos (writing) and Nate Powell (art), with the tagline

The civil rights struggle was never black and white

Starting in 4th grade and until I finished high school, I went to Catholic school. In 1981 we moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, one block from Thomas Hooker School. My parents were happy that I could walk to school and I was looking forward to a small sense of independence.

Then someone told my dad that it was one of the 10 worst schools in the city. That there were fights and a lot of distractions from learning. He managed to get my into St. Catherine of Siena, a Catholic school where I was the one and only minority.

Being a minority wasn’t much of an issue and I rarely noticed it. Most of the kids were from good families and open minded. A kid named Kevin once told me to ‘go back to India’ when we had a disagreement about something (I’m curious if his parents still feel that way).

However one instance sticks out in my head, from 5th grade. We were in Mrs. Glagowski’s social studies class and learning about Africa, taking turns reading from the textbook. It was a girl names Lori’s turn when she came to a part about the Niger River. She paused, uncomfortably. Then said Nigger River and stopped at the end of the sentence.

There was pin drop silence in the class. I was alarmed that she said a bad word (I was unclear on what it really meant). After a moment Mrs. Glagowski let out a sheepish smile and a little laugh; half the class (at least) followed suit. It felt off to me and I might have smiled. She corrected Lori’s pronunciation and we moved on.

This bothers me to this day. It was certainly uncomfortable and I don’t blame Lori at all for an honest mistake. It just doesn’t seem funny. Or maybe it bothers me because I was aware of being different? I don’t really know.u

I remember – vaguely – learning about the civil rights movement in school. I don’t remember much beyond Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. There was a sense of injustice being defeated but I felt disconnected from it. Maybe it’s something hard to relate to at that age. I’m sure it was watered down for younger kids.

Now if we’d read The Silence of Our Friends it may have been a different story. The book is moving and emotional. It tells the story about real people and a true incident of police brutality in a way that is much more real than any textbook can.

We see an open-minded white family and how endemic racism can be in society . We see a black family in a neighborhood where  a white family was often not welcome in homes (the same went for the white neighborhoods). This book brings the problems to life – it makes the struggle and the roadblocks very, very real.

One scene really made me think. A black man is denied service in a store and told to go to a ‘colored’ store a mile away. The shopkeeper goes

used to be we had a sign up, no coloreds…

In the wake of Charleston and the burning of black churches, how much has changed and how much just simmers under the surface? It’s easy for me, living in white suburbia, to have no clue what the real struggles of other people are. But this book made me feel in a way that a textbook never did. It made a distant struggle real. And it makes we wonder how much better things can be.

I highly recommend it. Go read it and let me know what you think.

 

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