Monday, May 26, 2014

Strange Fruit, by Joel Christian Gill

In the annals of the history of blacks in the United States, some stories are told again and again.  Seeking out some of the lesser-known African-American heroes has been the passion of artist Joel Christian Gill.  In Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History, Gill introduces characters and events from U.S. history that probably haven't come onto the radar of most of us, black or white.

He found some great stories.  Who knew that the first American stage magician was black?  Or one of the greatest lawmen of the West was black?  The stories of the world-record breaking cyclist, the pre-NBA basketball player whose coach reluctantly put him in games, and the black chess master are fun to read.  But the best are the stories of the men who won their freedom and their families' freedom through their efforts.  One man mailed himself in a box to freedom.  Another joined the army and came back to take his daughter to freedom.  There is a dark, vengeful side to some of these stories, and rightly so.

Gill's simple, comic-book style presentation makes the stories fun to read and highly accessible.  He also provides a bibliography so that more advanced readers can pursue these the stories further.  His illustrations make the stories feel lighter than they really are.  I particularly enjoyed the crows which illustrate and personify Jim Crow laws and the way those laws try to hold back Gill's subjects.

Gill calls this Volume 1.  Surely the number of volumes he could write has no end.  The dark chapters of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination in U.S. history are, unfortunately, long ones.  I appreciate Gill's approach: by focusing on these heroes and their heroic acts and lifestyles, the evil and villainy of slavery and racism are revealed.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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