Progress vs. Memory

This depiction of Aretha Franklin singing at President Obama’s inauguration alongside smaller panels showing past racial violence was, for me, the most powerful image in March. The page, inserted into the middle of John Lewis’s account of the particularly bloody encounters in Montgomery, juxtaposes the suffering that demonstrators of the Civil Rights Movement endured with what they were suffering for – a future in which a black man could be named president and a black woman could perform at the inauguration. In the middle of a story of the long, bloody fight against oppression, it provides a hopeful reminder of who won the fight. Still, it does not lose grip on memory and the scars left by racial brutality. Another important contrast exists between the words Aretha Franklin is singing and the sentiments expressed by the police officers and the violent protesters in the smaller panels. She sings about the US as a “land of liberty” and “freedom,” concepts which the men holding bats and Confederate flags clearly thought only applied to their own lives.

Not only does the main juxtaposition serve to highlight the progress that the country has made since the Civil Rights Movement, but it also reveals to me the multidimensionality of racial violence. For example, the image of the white child staring in horror at his bloody hands while an adult hand reassuringly places itself on his shoulder is indicative of an unnatural violation of conscience, reminding the reader that hatred is taught. Attached to this image, another image of two badly beaten demonstrators, one black and one white, holding each other up is a reminder of the involvement of white Americans on both sides of the segregational conflict. Furthermore, the pairing of the six smaller images together creates a deeper level of contrast – between the presence and practice of law enforcement, between the emotions of the perpetrator and the victims, and between the perpetrator’s actions and self-concepts (as shown in the panels on the bottom left).

It is also important to note the large size of Aretha Franklin on the page and her words that flow across the entire space, as well as the smaller size of the violent memories. The sizing places the reader in the moment in time on which the narrative briefly focuses, while keeping the reader’s mind on how that moment relates to what is happening in the story as a whole. Only a graphic novel could present this many contrasting images at the same time in such a coherent way.