John Lewis’s March: on Marching and History

The graphic novel memoir is a subgenre that has birthed many classics of the late 20th/early 21st century. There’s Maus by Art Spiegelman, which my edgy high school English teacher got permission to have us read in lieu of Night by Eli Wiesel my freshman year. There’s also Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which  I read without the prompt of any radicalizing teacher and enjoyed anyway. That one was adapted into a movie. Alison Bechdel, as in the woman who invented the Bechdel test, created Fun Home, which was adapted into a Broadway musical. No, there wasn’t any dancing or singing in the book; people just loved it that much. I enjoyed all of these books myself, and am always on the lookout for more good graphic novel memoirs, so March was a real treat for me.

John Lewis’ three part memoir March chronicles his life as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. As a politician, he could’ve easily come out with a glossy regular book with a fancy title and a picture of him posing in a thoughtful yet welcoming manner on the cover, but he took the more adventurous route, which I suppose is something he’s been known for, thanks to his career, so we really can’t be too surprised.

The most impactful moments in these books, for me, are the many harrowing moments and encounters Lewis had during his participation in some of the biggest moments of the 60’s Civil Rights protest, like the Freedom Rides or the Selma to Montgomery march. People were at risk of being killed, savagely so, at many of these events, and the visual depiction of these violent confrontations really caught my attention. As much as the sixties were a time when protests and acts of civil disobedience were documented, photographed, and filmed, seeing the event depicted by a person who was there enhanced the experience. Even if a camera was in the exact right place at the exact right time, I’m not sure I would feel the same looking at it as I would looking at Nate Powell’s artistic renderings of John Lewis’ life.

When an event becomes history, it becomes set in a sort of mental stone. Any traces of uncertainty  are wiped away. In the moment, of course, even the key players of any movement can’t say for sure what may or may not happen.  The more we see it in news reels and then eventually on YouTube and in history class, the less “real” it becomes. Even the bad things, truly terrible things, can get a fatigued, inevitable air to them. Lewis’ retelling strips away some of that history varnish and reminds people how uncertain the future is, even for brave people doing brave things.

I kept this in mind while making my own decisions about political activism recently, and that resulted in my booking a bus ticket leaving Chicago today and arriving at Washington DC in the morning, with just enough time to join the Women’s March on Washington. I’ve felt fear and confusion over just what I’m supposed to do with myself now ever since the election, but looking to the stories and examples of leaders like John Lewis, I realized that I could make a difference, I could choose to let people know where I stand and what I’ll stand, and march, for.

We should all thank people like Lewis who not only lived through harrowing times, but also chose to share their story with the world. It makes everyday people take stock of their own lives and realize they have more to give and more to say than they maybe once thought. See you next week guys, on the other side of this.

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