In 1967 Houston, white and black families didn’t mix. Their worlds were completely separate. In 1967, writer Mark Long’s father, then a reporter for a local television station, made friends with a black activist while reporting on anti-racist student movements. “The Silence of Our Friends” is about crossing that racial line, and it’s about a white man who tries to be ally. Its new edition was released last month by First Second into a changed racial and activist culture than that of 2012 when it was first released.
Written by Mark Long & Jim Demonakos
Illustrated by Nate Powell
As the civil rights struggle heats up in Texas, two families-one white, one black-find common ground.
This semi-autobiographical tale is set in 1967 Texas, against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights. A white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the suburbs and a black family from its poorest ward cross Houston’s color line, overcoming humiliation, degradation, and violence to win the freedom of five black college students unjustly charged with the murder of a policeman.
Context is very important when talking about the new edition of “The Silence of Our Friends,” it has a few contexts that are worth thinking about. Within its story, there is general, political context of the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s. This is after some key achievements made by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, for example, was signed into law two years before. But still, at one moment early in the book, we see the black counterpart to Long’s father, Larry Thompson, not get served in a store because he is black. As he leaves, the storeowner laments, ‘used to be we had a sign up, no coloreds.’ There may be formal protections for people of colour, but culturally they are still ostracized.
Examples of this build in extremity as the book continues, to the point of these student being charged with the murder of a police officer at a protest against racist violence on a street near Texas Southern University and the banning of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) from campus. Long’s father, Jack, was at this protest, filming it for the news, where he did nothing to help his friend, Larry, when the police started to be violent to black protestors, Jack did see that the shot that hit the officer was fired by police, not students, though he didn’t offer that information up quickly. For Jack, it is a choice to interact or even challenge with the racism around him.
And that links us to another context, a personal context, that of Mark Long and the family he grew up in. Long’s family feels very textured, each of the members, his father, his mother, his two sisters and himself feel alive. Their home feels lived in. You can see parts of other stories in their lives. While the book is semi-fictional, the line between reality and fiction is unclear. Long, Demonakos and Powell create personal lives for Long’s family that live beyond the confines of the pages of this graphic novel.
However, the personal lives of the Thompsons, the black family, feels less alive. They are given space in the book to develop, we see parts of their everyday lives, in the same way we see the Longs. It’s just there feels less layers and personality to the Thompsons. Now, obviously, the Longs are based on Mark Long’s own family, so it’s natural that they feel more authentic. And they are trying to add texture to the other family, there just isn’t enough. It’s a shame that in a story about crossing racial barriers, that the white family feels more authentic than the black.
Having said that, the most emotional effecting moment of “The Silence of Our Friends” does surround the Thompsons. The daughter, Cecilia, gets hit by a truck, and it is genuinely heart wrenching as you fear for the safety of this little girl. Powell beautifully renders this isolating sequence of the parents waiting with their child in the hospital emergency room, sitting silently as they are surrounded by tragedy and fear.Continued below
Nate Powell’s name in relation to comics about civil rights now comes with a lot of weight, having drawn Congressman John Lewis’ story in “March,” but when “The Silence of Our Friends” first came out, that weight wasn’t there. The context of reading this has changed between editions. Reading Powell’s pre-“March” civil rights work is interesting, seeing how Powell developed before illustrating a book that quickly became a part of the canon of the American Graphic Novel. It maybe puts an added pressure on the new edition of “Silence.” Here, Powell does a lot of the same things he does in “March.” The black and white colours, with the grey in-between. The white gutters changing to black for impactful moments.
In some ways, I feel “The Silence of Our Friends” is more impactful than “March.” Perhaps its less tightly truthful story gives the book more of a chance to have a narrative impact. Perhaps it not being centred on big moments and key figures in the civil rights movement, but a smaller, personal story gives it more emotional force. It is a reminder that politics happens through a series of regular people having to make tough choices to try to make progress.
And that’s where we get to another changed context for this new edition. In the last six years, politics has changed. It feels more prescient than ever in my life to look back on the ways that radical and protest movements organised in the past. Comics is a wonderful way to engage with the movements, people and emotion of these past movements. That’s why “March” is so successful, and it’s largely the success of “The Silence of Our Friends.” Joining that personal and emotional aspect with the broader parts of the political movements. The only hold up here I have is that this is the story of a white ally, and I’m not sure whether it would be more useful to hear more marginalised voices. Or if seeing an empathic portrayal of an ally is also useful, in showing how we can help a movement lead by marginalised peoples. Those things probably aren’t mutually exclusive, and I don’t think I can begrudge Long (with Demonakos and Powell) telling this important story from his personal life.