Keeping the Fire Burning: An Interview with the Co-Author of “March”

Keeping the Fire Burning: An Interview with the Co-Author of “March”

“March,” the multi-book graphic novel about the life of Congressman John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement has been five years in the making. That’s five years of late nights and weekends that Congressman John Lewis, his staff person Andrew Aydin, and the book’s illustrator Nate Powell committed to retelling, writing, and sketching the story of Lewis’s life and the Civil Rights Movement for the current and next generation of activists. Aydin spoke with UrbanFaith about how “March” was born, his experience working with Congressman Lewis to plumb the depths of some of America’s most pivotal moments, and what he hopes readers will gain from the book.

How did “March” come to be?

It all started in Congressman Lewis’s primary campaign in 2008 when I was working as his press secretary. It was coming to the end of the campaign and he started talking about what I was going to do after. I freely admitted that I was going to a comic book convention. You know, in professional politics that gets you some looks—there’s a surprising amount of comic book fans but I think they’ve always been told that it’s not something you admit. So amidst the jeering,  jokes, and snickering, Congressman Lewis stood up for me. He said, “There was a comic book during the Civil Rights Movement and it was incredibly influential,” that comic book was “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” When he told me that I was captivated by this idea of a comic book because I was a lifelong comic book fan. I was captivated by this idea of something that I cared for, as a fan, being impactful on something that I had come to make my career of. So I looked it up.

I read this story again in the Congressman’s memoir “Walking with the Wind” about the Greensboro Four, two of them reading the comic book and having that be the moment of inspiration that lead them to sit-in for the first time on February 1, 1960, and how that taught them nonviolence. It was that moment that gave them the inspiration. And so, being 24 years old, and not knowing any better, knowing that “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” was about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and having heard so many of these stories from Congressman Lewis’s perspective about what happened after Montgomery—you know the national sit-ins or the Freedom Rides, Birmingham, the March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer or Selma…I just asked, “Why don’t you write a comic book?” At first he thought I was a little out of my mind. This is John Lewis, an immensely respected congressman who built a life’s work on very serious topics that few will ever have the courage to broach, and so doing a comic book may have seemed a little out there. But I think something sort of resonated in him. I’ll never know what the moment was that changed his mind, but I wouldn’t give up. I kept asking and to my complete shock, one day after I asked it again, before the campaign was over, he said, “You know what? Let’s do it, but only if you write it with me.” And that moment changed everything because, here is this man who is having, not just faith in my idea, but faith in my ability to make it happen.

Did you know a lot of history about the Civil Rights Movement beforehand or was a lot of it what you learned from sitting with Congressman Lewis and diving into the books?

I learned, you sort of learn about these things in the abstract like most students do. They teach you about it in history class, they teach you about it in civics, and so in that sense I knew of these stories. But it wasn’t until I heard the congressman say them in his own words and tell these stories to kids and hear the way they reacted when they heard these stories and me going through my own childlike reaction to them—disbelief at first and realization at the utter horror that he lived through and yet, he stuck to his principles. I definitely learned a different side of history hearing his story because its not the sort of simplified version that a lot of school kids hear and that’s a big part of why I thought this book was so important to do. Hearing it changed my life. Learning these stories made me look at being a citizen in a whole new way. It made me look at my ability to live freely in this country in a whole new way. And every generation, not just ours, but generations, decades, if not centuries from now, should hear these stories and learn this history. So that’s why I had to do this, that’s why it is so meaningful.

What was it like co-writing with Congressman Lewis?

A big part of what made this such a great experience is that Congressman Lewis is such a kind and wonderfully generous person. I’d worked with him closely both in his congressional office and in his campaign, so we had a very good working relationship and  it was very natural to extend that to this process. I would interview him to have him tell me the stories and then I would get research materials—“Walking with the Wind” was basically my Bible—and just write it out as a script. I got some of Scott McCloud’s books, I looked at other writers scripts to see how they did it, and I just started writing. And that’s the thing, something like this or any challenge where you’ve never done it before, you can’t be afraid to just do it, to just try. That’s sort of the mindset that I had to have this whole time. Part of that really was terrifying because it’s not that I was afraid that other people wouldn’t like it, but I was afraid that I would let the congressman down and that meant more to me than anything. I just wanted to do the right thing by him. He did the hard part, he lived this story. I’m just a messenger, in some respect, trying to tell the story in a new way for a new audience, and so, it’s been an unbelievably special experience because I’ve gotten to hear this from him. So many moments I’ve gotten to see him share his story and see how people react and I always felt like I shouldn’t be the only one to see this, everybody should have this. This is important history not just for our nation, but also for the world.

You see people all over the world protesting and starting to really push and pull to change their own circumstances and the Civil Rights Movement is an important example of how you do that and how you do that properly. Non-violence is the most powerful tool that oppressed people have and with so many people being left out of our system and our society, they need to know that they have a recourse and they need to understand how they can take advantage and use that recourse. If it’s worked once before, if a comic book was able to reach those young people and inspire them to make themselves vessels of nonviolence, then why can’t we do that again? Why shouldn’t we do that again? It seems almost obvious now looking back on it, but at the time it was not an idea that people necessarily heard and thought was a good one based on their own experiences. But, for the congressman, this is a man who has been on the right side of history for a very long time and he understood the idea and he understood very much the potential for the idea and he sort of gave me the freedom to pursue this with him.

Do you hope that “March” will become a tool of social change just like “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story?”

I think a graphic novel has a potential to start a conversation. It has the potential to make people think about things differently and perhaps to see things that maybe were right in front of their noses that they didn’t see for some reason. The book can inspire people but they have to be the ones to act. What I hope this book does above anything else is that it shows them how to do it, that it uses a story of how it has worked before and it gives them a model to follow for the future. The book is dedicated to the past and future children of the movement. I think there’s a movement again in America that needs to happen and I think it might not just be in America that it needs to happen but maybe all across the world. And so, it’s my hope that “March” will inspire these young people to make the world a better place, a more just place, and a more fair place for everybody. We need a level playing field in America because it will make everything stronger. It’ll make our institutions, our economy and our culture stronger. There’s a reason in the Constitution that they put you have a right to the pursuit of happiness and if the society becomes such an unfair place then do you really have that right to the pursuit of happiness anymore? These tools allow young people who are so much freer than folks older, or even my age to get involved…If we’re lucky, it might work that way.

“March” and a graphic novel’s potential to spark activism…

Connecticut Slave to Get a Long Overdue Church Funeral

Connecticut Slave to Get a Long Overdue Church Funeral

WATERBURY, Conn. (RNS) The remains of an 18th-century Connecticut slave whose abuse continued long after his death will finally be given a dignified burial.

On Sept. 12, more than two centuries after his death, a slave known as Fortune will be interred at Waterbury’s Riverside Cemetery with all the trappings of a state funeral.

It will be a ceremonial end to the life of a man whose mistreatment serves as a reminder of the North’s participation in slavery.

Fortune died in 1798. His death is clouded in lore and speculation. Did he drown in the Naugatuck River? Was he fleeing and fell and broke his neck?

What is certain is that Fortune’s master, a Waterbury bone doctor by the name of Preserved Porter, stripped Fortune’s skin, boiled his bones and used his skeleton as a medical specimen. The mistreatment of the slave was recorded in a book about Waterbury’s history by Joseph Anderson.

The indignity continued well into the next century. Porter is believed to have opened an anatomy school in Waterbury where bone surgeons studied Fortune’s skeleton. In 1910, the slave’s skeleton surfaced in a closet in a Waterbury building.

It was then donated to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury where it hung in a glass case with the name “Larry” scrawled on its skull, horrifying and entertaining curious schoolchildren on field trips. Museum curators realized the display was in poor taste and took it down in the 1970s.

There he remained boxed up, his story untold, until museum officials began researching the history of African-Americans in Waterbury and received a letter from a city resident urging them to look into “Larry” the skeleton at the museum.

What followed was a decades-long Fortune Project for the museum as scientists and anthropologists examined and studied Fortune’s bones, most recently Quinnipiac University. All the while, many debated how best to serve his legacy.

For Maxine Watts, the chair of the African American History Project, which partnered with the museum, Fortune’s bones serve as a reminder of the flawed slave ideology that considered African-Americans subhuman.

“His living and his death were not in vain,” said Watts, former president of the Waterbury chapter of the NAACP. “Slaves were not considered totally human. Yet Fortune’s bones were used as a teaching tool for human anatomy. Fortune is proof that we are all equal underneath the skin.”

The Rev. Amy Welin, who will preside over Fortune’s funeral at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waterbury, said the way the slave’s master used his bones is hard for her to fathom, even after studying the cruelty of slavery. Fortune was baptized in St. John’s in 1797, where Porter’s wife, Lydia was a member.

Welin said she won’t eulogize Fortune’s life, but will preach about God’s justice

“The service will be for the rest of us,” she said. “What are we supposed to do with what we’ve learned about Fortune? What are we supposed to do with the racial injustice around us now, the ghosts of slavery that still haunt us?”

Fortune and his wife, Dinah, had four children. But because Fortune’s descendants can’t be found, members of the Southern Connecticut chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians will accompany his casket down the aisle of the church during the funeral.

Steven R. Mullins, a founding member of the chapter, will serve as master of ceremonies during the funeral.

“I hope that the Waterbury community comes out to the burial,” said Mullins. “I hope people realize that there was slavery in Connecticut. Fortune’s burial will be a learning and teaching moment.”

Connecticut abolished slavery in 1848, but it provided gradual emancipation for persons who turned 25 prior to 1784.

The funeral will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 12 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

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