The Pendulum Swings

Trump-color-nobg

I drew this back in 2015 for a French comics magazine. The concept was to illustrate some of  the “weirdest” news stories of the year—you know, like the idea that Donald Trump was running for U.S. president..

One of the things I’ll never forget about the 2008 election was watching the returns on TV and also tracking it on my Facebook feed. Facebook was a relatively new phenomenon at that point, and the folks who were on it seemed to so epitomize the energy that the Obama team was bringing to the White House. I’ll also never forget that, late that night on November 4, a lone trumpeter paraded down Eastern Parkway (in front of my apartment building), tooting triumphantly on his horn for blocks and blocks and blocks.

On January 20, 2009, I wanted to experience the moment of the inauguration of our first African-American president with other folks in my community, so I headed over to Cafe Shane. I sat at their coffee bar, watching the ceremony on TV with a diverse crowd of celebrants. I remember toasting the moment, with my cup of tea, with the 40-ish black guy, and his cup of coffee, sitting next to me. (I also remember Chief Justice Roberts fumbling the words as he led Obama through the oath. Do you remember that?)

Back then, after eight years of George Bush, it all felt like a fresh start, like our country had taken a giant stride forward. Now, eight years later, our country seems to be making another “fresh start.” But it’s not something I can bear to witness with a crowd of folks. I’ll watch the inauguration here at home on my TV, but it’s hard for me to see this fresh start as anything but a giant stride backward.

Illustrating the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Oberlin-ant-slavery-activism-comic-verticalTwo of my biggest heroes when I was a kid were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I had posters of them on my wall! I read Douglass’s autobiography a number of times, and I thrilled to the daring exploits of Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

Many of the residents of Oberlin, Ohio, home of my alma mater, Oberlin College, were active in the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. (Ohio borders Kentucky, which, during that period, was a slaveholding state.)

Recently, Oberlin Alumni Magazine commissioned me to illustrate an article about Oberlin’s role in anti-slavery activism. In reading the piece, by J. Brent Morris, and researching the era for my illustrations, I was fascinated to learn that many escaped slaves stayed openly in Oberlin—despite the fugitive slave laws—and became active abolitionists. Here’s a great quote from the article illustrating the fierceness of Oberlinians’ defiance of the “peculiar institution”:

Even though federal marshals and Southern slave catchers seemed a ubiquitous presence in Oberlin, it was nearly impossible to reclaim a free Oberlinite or “fugitive slave” from the town’s protective grasp. . . . Brooklyn abolitionist William Watkins could tell that Oberlin African Americans were “not afraid of the white man.” He noted “a sort of you-touch-me-if-you-dare” attitude about them and would not have been surprised by the security plans of a man like Gus Chambers, who declared that “If any one of those men darkens my door, he is a dead man.” In his blacksmith shop, Chambers always had a hammer and iron bar at the ready for protection, and most often also had a red-hot poker in the fire. Above his door was a loaded double-barrel shotgun, and beside his bed were razor-sharp knives and a pistol. He would never kill a man, he conceded, but clarified that a “man-stealer”
was not fully human. “The man who tries to take my life,” Chambers declared, “loses his own.”

A number of brave former slaves even journeyed back across state lines into Kentucky to recruit slaves to escape back north with them! In a four-panel comic I did for the piece, I show what one hapless U.S. Marshall based in Oberlin was confronted with when he tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, from being run off with a shotgun to being beaten with a walking stick, to finally being run out of town by a group of Oberlin citizens. Ha!

I was given my choice of what to draw for a full-page illustration, and there were many amazing anecdotes of Oberlin’s place in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. But the story I ultimately chose was a key moment in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In 1858, an escaped slave named John Price was abducted by Southern slave catchers, who intended to bring him back to Kentucky. A large group of Oberlin residents, including many African-Americans, rushed to the nearby town of Wellington, where the slave catchers had holed up in a hotel for the night. In blatant defiance of the “law,” the Oberlin residents forced their way into the hotel and rescued Price.

My illustration shows the aftermath of the rescue, as the joyous crowd of rescuers carry Price out of the hotel on their shoulders. Photos from the era showed many of the Obies who took part, as well as the Wellington hotel itself, all of which I incorporated as best I could into the illustration. I even portray the slave catchers, cowering up in the attic, peeking out the windows as their “prize” is taken away.

It turned out that the Oberlin-Wellingto Rescue was a key moment in the lead-up to the Civil War. Ohio state officials defended the rescuers, despite their flouting federal law (the Fugitive Slave Law), and even tried to repeal the law at the 1859 Republican convention. (Remember, the Republicans were the “good guys” back then!) The resulting attention kept the issue of slavery very much in the public eye right up until secession and the shots fired at Fort Sumter.

Seeing as how it’s Black History Month, I’m proud to share this story, and my visual representation of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, which has rarely been portrayed.

(Thanks to Emily Crawford, the OAM art director, who was so accommodating to work with, and so supportive all along the way. I also want to draw attention to cartoonist Bentley Boyd‘s Oberlin: Origins and Onward!, a comic book history of Oberlin from 1833 to the present.)

Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Joel Christian Gill’s STRANGE FRUIT

Strange FruitIn 2007 Boston-area cartoonist Joel Christian Gill started drawing a story about a 19th-century man who escaped slavery by mailing himself to freedom in a box. The following year he made a minicomic and went to his first comics show to sell Strange Fruit #1 (followed by six additional issues). Today those stories and more are collected in Strange Fruit, vol I: Uncelebrated Narrative from Black History (Fulcrum Publishing)—with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates!

These offbeat stories of heretofore-obscure African-American pioneers are filled with heartbreak and triumph. Without whitewashing the realities of slavery and racism, Strange Fruit has a wry, welcoming tone—much aided by Gill’s dynamic, inventive storytelling. After reading about such real American heroes as chess master Theophilus Thompson, bicycling champion Marshall “Major” Taylor, and lawman Bass Reeves, I’m eager to learn more—and so should you!

So buy the book—and check out Gill discussing it recently on HuffPo: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/537e66e3fe34440f9d00011c