Forgotten African American Stories, Told in Comic Books

portrait of alum Joe Gill

To Joel Gill (CFA’04), it’s not black history, it’s American history

By Rich Barlow. Photos by Cydney Scott
Home to about 50 mixed-race descendants of a freed slave, Malaga Island off Maine’s coast seemed an oasis of racial harmony in 1912. But then the state, lobbied by reformers who saw residents living in poverty—and perhaps tempted by a land grab too good to pass up—evicted the islanders. The majority who complied were the lucky ones. Those who held out were netted in the nascent eugenics fervor: declared feebleminded, they were confined and in some cases castrated.

Despite an official apology from Maine’s governor in 2010 and a radio documentary about the case, Malaga’s story might have remained little known but for Joel Christian Gill (CFA’04). His graphic anthology Strange Fruit, published last year by Colorado-based Fulcrum, uses comics to tell the stories of African Americans whose contributions and sufferings occupy obscure fringes in the country’s historical memory.

Besides Malaga, the nine tales in Strange Fruit include those of Bass Reeves, a black lawman in the Old West so adroit at nabbing bad guys that he may have been an inspiration for the Lone Ranger; Richard Potter, America’s first stage magician, who became rich passing as a white man, revealing only on his deathbed in 1835 that his mother had been black; and Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who escaped to freedom in 1849—by mailing himself to Philadelphia in a cramped crate, emerging after a 27-hour ordeal by wagon ride.

“This is not just the history of black people. This is our history. It’s American history,” says Gill, associate dean of student affairs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, who is at work on a follow-up volume. He has already published a stand-alone graphic biography of Reeves, Tales of the Talented Tenth. (The absence of women’s stories in Strange Fruit, he confessed on the PBS show Basic Black, was an oversight owing to “male privilege,” and will be rectified in the next volume.)
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