Newsflash: There are sooo many stories missing from your history books. There are important and influential moments, figures, and facts about people of color just totally absent from a lot of American classrooms, and because of this, many heroic, change-making and influential names remain obscure.
Lack of representation is a huge problem, for so many reasons, because in order to change the past, we need to learn from it - all sides of it. And even though Black History Month is great, it is really not enough time to tell even a fraction of the stories that need to be told.
Introducing Joel Christian Gill, the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and part of the Boston Comics Roundtable. He’s using comics and art – specifically comics art – to tell these unknown stories and share them with the masses. The first volume of "Strange Fruit" has just been released, telling stories like that of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who literally shipped himself in a box up North to freedom. Gill wants to use visual narrative to show that when it comes to black history, 28 days will never be enough.
MTV: Can you tell us about the backstory of how you came to write and draw "Strange Fruit?"
JOEL CHRISTIAN GILL: I had a friend of mine tell me that my paintings were trying to tell a story and they were failing. I was trying to think about ways to go back through the process of visual narrative. I started to look at doing my own type of stories, like autobiographical stories. Around this time I moved back to Boston from Southwestern Virginia and I had a friend of mine at the Boston Comics Roundtable go through the book and look at the stories I’d been working on. He said, “I’m thirty pages into this and I have no idea what I’m reading.” Which is not something you want to hear when this is your magnum opus, right?
After doing that, I started thinking about visual narrative to tell other stories. I came across the cartoonist Box Brown, who just had a book come out called “Andre the Giant.” When I Googled him, I found the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who was a slave who mailed himself in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia. I sent an email to [cartoonist Box Brown], asking why he had the name of a slave. He sort of laughed and said, “No, I’m square-shaped so my friends call me Box. But I might do a story about that guy someday.” I thought that was a really good idea, so I stole his idea and did the story of Box Brown.
MTV: Where do you draw inspiration from?
GILL: Everything. Movies. Books. Poetry. I’m a huge Chris Ware fan. I just saw “Selma” and it was the first time I started crying three minutes into a movie. I always tell my students, “If you’re just drawing inspiration from the type of thing that you do, then you’re not going to be a well-rounded person.” I’ll listen to hip hop and think, “I need to go draw.”
MTV: What surprised you the most while working on this book?
GILL: What surprised me the most is that black history stories aren’t categorized as the American story. The quintessential American story is rags to riches. You start out as a poor person, and because of the strength of your character, you become some great thing. Most of those stories are untrue. But when you look at the stories from obscure black history, those stories are absolutely real. Major Taylor is a rags-to-riches story. Richard Potter is a rags-to-riches story. There are people who start out as slaves, as property, and become something amazing. Every time I see one of these stories about how black people have survived, it makes me say, “Our experience is the true sort of American mythos story about pulling yourself up.” What amazes me, over and over again, is that the stories are still obscure.
MTV: What are your thoughts on calls to diversify areas like comics, books, TV and movies?
GILL: When I was an undergrad I had a professor who was white who ran a gallery. He told me that he specifically does not look at the names of people when he’s looking for artists. He said when you don’t do that, you find there are a lot of black people and there are a lot of women and there are a lot of minorities in there. The voices of minority people in entertainment, in comics and books, in everything, is a rich voice. We all have a shared history, but we come from a different place.
There the idea that, “Oh, we had the black author in this month. We shouldn’t talk about that person anymore because they’re a monolithic sort of people.” Black people who live in Alabama have a different experience from black people who live in South Central L.A. Asian Americans who live in Maine have a completely different experience than Asian American who live in South Central L.A. There is a lot of variation in the voices of people. If we don’t start getting more of these people and more information, then the stories are all going to be the same. I think bringing more minorities into comics and other forms of entertainment is going to enrich those areas.
MTV: You just released the first volume of "Strange Fruit." Can you give us a hint of what future volumes will be like?
GILL: I’m going to do a story about “Blind Tom” Wiggins, who was an autistic savant. He was billed as the last American slave. He was given away free with his parents because he was blind and they didn’t think he would survive very long. Then they realized he had a musical gift. He could mimic sounds. At age five, the master’s children were playing piano and he scooted one of the daughters off the bench and said, “This is how you play it” and played this music perfectly.
MTV: How can people be more accurate and authentic to making sure more African American stories get told?
GILL: We’ve segregated our African-American history into one month. Those stories are obscure because we only have 28 days to talk about them every year. By the time you get through Dr. King and Malcolm X, George Washington Carver and Jackie Robinson — sort of the ‘Greatest Hits’ of Black History — you don’t have time for the other stories. Then we go back to “regular history.” When in reality, African-American history is American history, and we need to incorporate the American mythos and the idea of Black History into every day history in a more intertwined way.
I’ve been tweeting with the hashtag #28DaysAreNotEnough. We should be talking about these things outside of Black History Month. If anyone wants to post any stories about Black History, post them with the hashtag #28DaysAreNotEnough.