17 December 2018
Reading Response 2: The Silence of Our Friends
In their graphic novel The Silence of Our Friends, Long, Demonakos, and Powell powerfully illustrate the struggle of a Black and White family as they dealt with violence and injustices of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Jack Long is a White television reporter who is responsible for covering news about racial divide. Larry Thompson is a Black professor who leads a peaceful nonviolent protest against racial inequality. As the story unfolds, the two characters find common ground and develop a rare friendship in the racist town of Houston. The events of the story progress when their friendship begins to impact their families.
If you cover the surface of the book, you would think it is a story about two people who formed a rare friendship during the 1960s when segregation was prominent. Looking deeper into it, the story is about how their actions made sure that the will of their friendship is passed on to the following generations. The author was trying to convey an important message—kids quietly internalize parents’ racism and subtle prejudices. Not only do they remember the loudness of their words, but the silence of their actions.
Employing family as a literary theme, The Silence of Our Friends includes several instances of the two lead characters attempting to teach their children to be unbiased. Jack takes his family out to a barbeque that one of his African American friends has set up. As they are walking to the stand, Jack asks his son Mark if he is okay with him having a Black friend. Mark does not comment at first as he is unsure of his position. Jack does not let this opportunity pass and patiently waits for his son to make up his mind. Although it is not illustrated, we get a hint in the next panel that Mark has made up his mind as he raises his head with a smile on his face. Mark has come to his own conclusion that it is acceptable to be friends with different racial groups, specifically Black people. Another instance of the family theme is portrayed between the Thompsons. Larry’s children have dressed up as cowboys for school, but their mother Barbara has forbidden them from going that way. Barbara is entitled to be angry at a costume that subtly supported an institution of racism. Larry did not believe that his children needed to inherit the same hatred; he saw it as an opportunity to befriend rather than oppose. He witnessed his children’s excitement to dress up as cowboys and understood that “Go Texan Day” was a day to have fun at school. There was no reason for him to take that excitement away from them. Another impactful scene from the graphic novel is when the Thompson family crosses the color line to visit the Long family. This was a big deal at the time for a man to do, let alone with his wife and children—putting them all at risk. Long purposefully incorporated these scenes to show that they occurred in the kid’s everyday lives, which contributed to their understanding that friendships with other races is nothing to be ashamed of.
Powell’s approach at storytelling and visual literary is a crucial technique used in the graphic novel. The illustrator used images with and without text to relay messages and to give the story a real-life dimension. Powell’s artwork brings the protests and trial to life as they evoke an intense sense of violence. He pictures the police marching in formation like soldiers, armed with pistols and rifles slung across their backs. Billy clubs are coming down on the bodies of protestors on the ground making loud noises. The author cuts from this scene and switches to Jack behind a camera filming the violence. Powell allows the reader to view the scenes through Long’s camera, un-inked and in pencil with faint glassiness to mimic a television scene, which all of this will be aired on later. These effects make the scene more distant and the brutality feel more real. As readers, we know that Jack is within the violence as the police hit him with a billy club and yell at him to leave. Jack is also portrayed out of the violence (as a reporter) as he stays amidst all the chaos and witnesses Larry fall and get beaten by the police. Larry calls out to Jack for help, but the reporter retreats and keeps filming. The noise and the violence seem unimportant for a moment as Jack fulfils his role as a journalist but betrays his friend. Powell also stresses different sized frames and speech bubbles in his art to make the comic feel frantic, which adds to the readers experience.
Violence of language is another method utilized by the authors to represent a theme (racism). This literary device captivates the reader and allows their understanding to broaden by giving them an outlook on the setting (such as atmosphere and mood). For instance, the family moves to Houston from a less segregated San Antonio and have trouble adjusting to the blatant racism around them. There is a scene where Julie tells on her brother Mark for “nigger knocking”. The parents are horrified by Mark’s and Julie’s unintended racism. As readers, we are disturbed by how Houston’s casual racism seeps into the children’s lives and as time goes on, it becomes normal to them. When asked about the recurring use of the word “nigger” in a commentary review, Long mentions that this kind of language is important to understand. He explains that it is the people who go on about their lives oblivious or willfully ignorant to racism and racial slurs that shove people of color down. The authors intended to use this specific racial slur to portray White racism without any restraints and tell it like it is. Using such language evokes an uncomfortable response from readers—it challenges our views and makes us think that if we address our history, so much of today’s ignorance could be solved. But many critics of the books disagreed with Long’s unconcealed use of the slur. One commentator, Noelle, remarks that the graphic novel “toes the line on being a white savior tale”, which makes readers uncomfortable because it was written and illustrated by three White men. She believes it contributes to White voices speaking over those of African Americans. During an interview, Long is asked whether he has been able to reconnect with Larry. He regretfully explains that he had lost touch with Larry and his family sometime after the 1960s. Long attempted to find them before the production of the book but was not able to. If they had kept in touch and Larry had contributed his own perspective, the graphic novel would have been impacted dramatically. The readers would have gotten an insight on the past of both men, therefore eliminating bias and the discomfort of reading about African American struggles from a White perspective.
The Silence of Our Friends depicts the relationship between the Long and Thompson families as the two men fight for civil rights. It offers a personal take on the impact of racism in our country, which is as relevant today as it was before. The graphic novel ends with the murder of Martin Luther King. In a sequence of panels, Powell illustrates a march in King’s honor, where Long and Thompson walk beside each other along with their families with joined hands. The author leaves the reader with a final haunting quote from Martin Luther King, which gives the book its title.
Barnewitz, M. (2018). Speaking Out About THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS Review - ComicsVerse. Retrieved from https://comicsverse.com/the-silence-of-our-friends-review/
Heaney, C. (2015). March: Interview with Nate Powell and Andrew Aydin—The Appendix. Retrieved from http://theappendix.net/issues/2013/10/march-interview-with-nate-powell-and-andrew-aydin
Noelle. (2013, September 27). RE: The Silence of Our Friend [Community Review]. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11311549-the-silence-of-our-friends
The Story Behind The Silence of Our Friends | GraphicNovelReporter. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.graphicnovelreporter.com/authors/mark-long/news/interview-011712