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The Silence of Our Friends

With February over, it’s easy to switch mental gears: it’s March! Time to put the African American history books back on the shelf and pull together a women’s history display! But black history and women’s history are integral and ongoing parts of everyone’s history, and should be consistently represented in our curriculum and discourse.

A new graphic novel called The Silence of Our Friends (First Second, January) sheds light on a little-known moment of the civil rights movement. Written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos with art by Nate Powell, The Silence of Our Friends is based on Long’s childhood memories of 1968 Houston. At the crux of the story is the uneasy alliance between Long’s father, Jack, a white television reporter, and Larry Thompson, a black professor and activist at Texas Southern University. The two meet during Jack’s coverage of on-campus civil rights protests and warily begin a friendship, with each man unsure how much to trust the other. When the protests escalate into violence and five students are unfairly tried for manslaughter, Larry and Jack find themselves on opposite sides of the case, their relationship further strained.

Long and Demonakos show the volatile racial tension in thoughtfully selected vignettes. Mark’s sister comes home from school one day to find a flier promoting a K.K.K. rally on their doorknob. Larry’s daughter gets knocked from her bike by a truck of men shouting racial slurs. The Longs have altercations with friends and neighbors who angrily accuse them of fraternizing. Larry and his son go crabbing, but the bait store owner refuses to serve them. This tension never really abates — even at social gatherings — and the cost of crossing racial lines is high. The words of Martin Luther King Jr. (including the title quotation), segregationist George Wallace, and spirituals adopted by the civil rights movement weave through the narrative like refrains. Nate Powell’s nuanced art eloquently captures moments both poignant and lighthearted.

One especially effective scene portrays the introduction of the Thompson and the Long families. Mark Long writes in his author’s note, “It was as if aliens had landed in our front yard… I had never met a black person before. And I don’t think [Larry’s children Danny and CC] had ever played with white kids.” The children are understandably curious about their differences, but soon forget them in a group game. Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” on the record player gets both families on their feet to dance.

SLJ has compiled a great list of graphic novels on black history for reading all year long — not just in February.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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