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Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans. Written by Roland Owen Laird, Jr., with Taneshia Nash Laird. Illustrated by Elihu "Adofo" Bey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. 206p. bibliog. $15.95. ISBN 0-393-31751-X.

African American nonfiction; history

Adults, teens, kids; anything depicted or said is in a historical context

This book is an overview of the history of black people in America, from 1618, when the first skilled African craftspeople and farmers were brought over as indentured servants, to the Million Man March of 1995. The book is framed and "narrated" by a modern couple, a woman who has a fairly militant take on the events that make up black history, and her husband, whose voice is more even-handed.

In 1618, in an effort to stem the rising cost of European indentured servants, the powers-that-be began to import Africans willing to indenture themselves. After the struggle to adapt to the new land, the Africans began to thrive and even prosper, because they were more skilled than their European counterparts. Unfortunately, as so often happens, the success of the Africans sparked resentment in white indentured servants and free whites, who disliked the idea of a black man ordering around a white man, and greed in their masters, who didn't want to lose these quality workers. Part of the "problem" was that successful Africans bought out their contracts as soon as possible, or even bought the contracts of newly arrived workers. So the powers-that-be began to (illegally) lengthen African contracts and prohibit early buy-out. Of course, this didn't sit well with the unfortunate servants, many of whom tried to run away. Those who were caught had their contracts extended indefinitely (whites who ran had their contracts extended too, but not for as long). They tried to resort to the legal system that the masters were so flagrantly defying, but the courts were no help either. They tried teaming up with white indentured servants, but the masters arranged for spies to report on their activities. Then they tried rebellion, in the form of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. However, the rebellion was put down, and by 1677 slavery was official in all the colonies, with brutal overseers being hired to keep the slaves in line.

The book continues through the history of slavery, outlining ways in which the slaves coped (or didn't cope) with their lot, as well as the hard-won successes of free blacks such as Benjamin Banneker, who "built the first striking clock wholly of American-made parts." When the American Revolution gets under way, the British offer American slaves their freedom if they join their side of the struggle, prompting the Americans to make the same offer. Still, despite the freedom won on both sides, many more remained enslaved after the war. Some gains (the abolishment of slavery in the North) were offset by big losses (the Dred Scott decision, the kidnapping and enslavement of free blacks). But the free blacks persevered, starting mutual aid organizations and agitating for better conditions for their people.

I don't want to tell the whole story in the book here, but suffice it to say that every major American black political movement, historical event, and organization is covered, as well as the achievements of inventors and businesspeople such as Madam C. J. Walker. The bibliography contains dozens of titles that the Lairds consulted; additionally, they worked with historical consultants from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Princeton. University. And the book begins with a long and excellent introduction by Charles Johnson about black cartoonists and the subjects they dealt with; this introduction has a separate bibliography.

I was going to present this title for Black History Month, and then I thought, No, it's not like black history stops being relevant at the end of February. Black history is as much a part of overall American history as "white" history, or whatever you want to call it. It's inextricably intertwined with all our lives, socially, politically, and culturally.

This is a fascinating book jam-packed with information, yet presented in such a way that the story flows along smoothly, with little of the choppiness or "episodicness" that often pervades such efforts. The book's emphasis is on the early years of America; the story is much more detailed prior to the 20th century, and more rushed and sketchy afterwards. But pre-20th-century black history is less well known and harder to find material on, so this emphasis is appropriate, if a tad disappointing.

There are several things about the book that really impressed me. One is the narrative device of the black couple, with their differing opinions about the meaning and even the accuracy of the events in the book. The net result is to convey a sense of honesty about the facts presented--that they can be viewed from several different angles, which is a basic truth about historical events that is sometimes overlooked in history books and usually overlooked in textbooks and the like. Also, the two characters represent two major streams in black intellectual thought, the more militant side and the more accommodating side. Another impressive thing is that the book focuses most of its attention on technical, business, and political achievements rather than on cultural and sports achievements. So you don't hear anything about people like Diana Ross or Michael Jordan, but you get a great deal about early black entrepreneurs (e.g., Madam C. J. Walker), inventors, innovators (e.g., Pap Singleton, who promoted Kansas as a haven for former slaves), educators (e.g., Booker T. Washington), intellectuals (e.g., W. E. B. Dubois), and others whose contributions to civilization stretched beyond hit singles and free throws. (I would've liked to have seen at least a mention of Phyllis Wheatley, but oh well.)

I did have a few quibbles with the book. The pattern of "we did well, we had a setback, we tried again" gets repetitious after a while. The twentieth century seems rushed. The book gives the impression (if no the outright statement) that the Civil War was initially fought over slavery, which is incorrect, though it does point out that the war really turned into one over slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation. Also, there's nothing about how the Confederates murdered former slaves who fought for the Union, or how slaves and ex-slaves were used as spies, or how, with extreme reluctance, the Confederates started using black soldiers themselves, very late in the war. And, darn it, the book really could have used an index.

The art is very cartoony and occasionally broad, which takes a bit of getting used to, but it does what it needs to do, and without getting in the way of the text. Touches of whimsy are plentiful, and Bey is very good at making even the background characters look like individuals. Although his people tend to be cartoony, he can draw them with great detail and accuracy when he desires.

An example of Bey's whimsy, plus one of the narrators "getting in the way." (The two brilliant men are Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Dubois.)

Copyright 1997 by Roland Owen Laird, Jr.

Still I Rise shares the quality space inhabited by the various Cartoon History of... books by Larry Gonick, and indeed would make a splendid adjunct (and more even-handed one) to his Cartoon History of the United States. Extremely well researched and thoughtful, this book should be in the collections of most school and public libraries. It will be of interest to anyone concerned with African American (or American) history, as well as people fascinated by history told in comics form.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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