In a moment when understanding Black history is becoming increasingly important, fortunately there are ways to learn beyond a lecture hall. Congressman John Lewis, a veritable living legend of the Civil Rights Movement, offers today’s readers a poignant look at history in his visual memoir March. Lewis’ personal account of events in the 1960s onward follows in the tradition of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story by weaving his tale with both pictures and words. His biography, written by both Lewis and author Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, is a collection of three graphic novels, follows Lewis’ every pivotal experience that led him to his calling of activism.
The graphic novels, whose stories are mostly told through flashbacks, follow the events of several time periods. The first volume takes the reader through Lewis’ childhood in Alabama, the beginnings of his interest in social justice and the road trip with his Uncle that was the catalyst for opening young Lewis’ mind. Intermittently, we see the present-day story of John Lewis preparing for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008. The smile illustrated on Lewis’ face during the inauguration despite the bitter cold says clearly, “Oh, yes, I have waited for this day.”
The second volume’s tone shifts dramatically. Gone is the youthful passion and interest with which John preaches to his chickens in Pike County, only to be replaced with the determination to do something. The volume charts Lewis’ decisions, showing that his path was a series of choices: the decision to move to Fisk from the Seminary, to follow a path of nonviolence, to engage in the sit-in at Woolworths. Violence and fear provide an ominous undertone to the work, however incidents such as the Freedom Riders’ buses bombing and the assault at Woolworths are combated with the steady flame of hope that each of the activists mentioned clinging to throughout the tumult. From jail cells, to the streets, to the church, Lewis and his SNCC and Freedom Rider peers assert their belief in their ability to exact change and you, as a reader, believe in them and cheer for them, as if they were imprisoned today, and not some 50 years ago.
John Lewis’ narrative says, “Yes, I’ll wait,” and engages a stance of passivity that presents itself as if it is the most clear and productive path forward. Years after the events of his biography take place, John Lewis employs the familiar methods of his youth, rooting his feet firmly in his beliefs and again saying, “Yes, I’ll wait.” After the shooting at Pulse in Orlando earlier this summer, the American government found itself having the same conversation it had post-Newtown, post-Blacksburg, post-Aurora…leaving Congressman Lewis and House Democrats to sit-in with the intent of forcing a position on gun control. With the same fervor that we tweet and share images of DeRay Mckesson’s arrest, should we seek out and understand the images and protests that came before him.
See also: Ieshia Evans, a young woman, from Baton Rouge, plants her feet firmly against armored police in a photograph taken by Johnathan Bachman, which many are calling one of the most iconic pictures of the Black Lives Matters Movement. Her stance and spirit are reminiscent of the calm that SNCC activists taught each other and practiced before sit-ins, in the event they suffered abuses.
March is a history that we all can benefit from, a story for teachers to use, a lesson for children to learn, a reminder for older citizens and a fresh perspective on a situation that sometimes feels brand new. It reminds us, as with most things, that ugly though the story may be, there is a way to make it beautiful and bountiful. Lewis tells me that this spirit of standing firm for moving forward has existed long before us, long before him. With the right nourishment, so much can be gained.
Ravynn is recent graduate of the University of Virginia and rising graduate student at the Colleg of William and Mary. She enjoys Black self-expression, collecting sweat-shirts with popular culture references on them, and regularly gives dissertation length talks about representations of Lois Lane in American culture to her dog, Genghis Khan.
She can be found on Twitter: @RavynnKaMia