Brain Pickings

Strange Fruit: Nine Unsung Heroes of Black History, in a Graphic Novel

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Equality on two wheels, and other tales from the everyday pioneers of civil rights.

Over the past decade, graphic nonfiction has become a powerful storytelling medium that blends the lightness and visual repertoire of comic books with the weightiness and substance of history books, tackling everything from science education to gender politics to the biographies of such cultural icons as Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. But arguably best suited for the genre are subjects with an inherent duality of darkness and optimism, to parallel graphic nonfiction’s blend of lightness-of-form and seriousness-of-content, which is what makes Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (public library) so appropriate.

Titled after the harrowing song made popular by Billie Holiday and written by a Jewish schoolteacher who witnessed a brutal racial lynching, this graphic anthology spotlights nine unsung heroes of civil rights. Among them are Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself to Philadelphia to escape slavery, Bass Reeves, who became the most successful lawman in the Old West, and Theophilus Thompson, a former slave who taught himself chess and became the first African American chess master. Alas, women only appear as secondary characters — let’s hope the next volume brings a more gender-balanced roster of pioneers.

One of the most interesting heroes in the book is Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878–1932), America’s first black champion in any sport — and in cycling, no less, which remains one of the least diverse athletic endeavors even today. Just as the bicycle was beginning to play an important role in the emancipation of women, Taylor, known as The Black Cyclone, attained another feat of equality on two wheels as he bulldozed through the walls put up by racism to break numerous world records and win the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899.

Strange Fruit comes from comic artist and writer Joel Christian Gill, a dean at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Complement it with this visionary vintage children’s book about space exploration, featuring a black female astronaut twenty years before that became a reality.

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