Earlier this week, in a review of African American Classics, the latest volume from the Graphic Classics series, I made this claim about comics adaptations of African American literature:

These “graphic” adaptations elevate the visual field of representation in ways that should remind us that literary expressions of African American experience have always been deeply entrenched in the realm of social perception, spectacle, and visibility. The works were originally written to counter claims that the entire character of a people could be arbitrarily determined by what is seen, from skin color to physiognomy to a so-called drop of Negro-stained blood. African American Classics, then, returns the counter-argument of its featured stories to their visual origins and exposes the absurdity of race prejudice in a way that only a comic can.

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This assertion about the fundamentally visual nature of black literary and cultural production is one that I think deserves more attention in the field of comics studies. But lately I’ve been thinking about ways to experiment with this claim, and about how the profound explorations of racial constructs by a writer like Toni Morrison may offering a thrilling exception to the rule.

“They shoot the white girl first,” is the opening line of Morrison’s 1998 novel, Paradise. The first chapter details the murder of five female outcasts living on the outskirts of a small town in Oklahoma during the 1970s and the remainder of the novel details why. What we are never told, however, is which one of the women is white; the group is made up primarily of black women and it is clear that race matters in their relationships, but this aspect of their identity is subsumed in a collective alienation that is based on all sorts of conflicting assumptions about their gender and sexuality, their political commitments and morals.

Morrison has tested readers like this before in her 1993 short story, “Recitatif.” The tale follows the lives of two women of different races named Roberta and Twyla who met as foster children in upstate New York. We learn a little about each of the women during their chance encounters over the years as Roberta acquires wealth and status, and Twyla lives in a working class neighborhood with her extended family. But when it comes to their race, Morrison leaves us floundering again, gathering self-incriminating clues from the carefully crafted character descriptions and own cultural assumptions about their thoughts and behavior. (It is not that the women look visibly similar; their racial identity is evident to everyone except the reader.) Twyla’s mother was an exotic dancer; Roberta had “huge hair” during the 1960s; Twyla believes the public schools in their town should be integrated, but Roberta doesn’t. Race and class tensions intersect as they become mothers themselves and at one point, when they run into each other at the supermarket, Twyla thinks:

I placed the groceries and kept myself from glancing around to check Roberta’s progress. I remembered Howard Johnson’s and looking for a chance to speak only to be greeted with a stingy “wow.” But she was waiting for me and her huge hair was sleek now, smooth around a small, nicely shaped head. Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery and rich. I was dying to know what happened to her, how she got from Jimi Hendrix to Annandale, a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.

Graphic novels like Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro have addressed social phenomena like “passing” by illustrating bi-racial characters that appear to be white, but how might a comic book tackle one of these Morrison stories? I am convinced that comics can be used to tell any kind of tale, but perhaps Paradise and “Recitatif” are truly bound by their medium. How can stories that rely so deeply on faulty visual assumptions about race and social identity be visualized?

From Johnson and Pleece's Incognegro

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

9 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    Qiana,

    This is a really interesting question. I have been thinking a good bit about adaptation lately (both my own, and Henry Pratt’s, contributions to my anthology The Art of Comics grapple with issues of adaptation, and the fact that some things that can be acheived in one medium are often impossible in another).

    Nevertheless, I think that, in one sense, there might be a simple answer to you question. Closely coupled with the unique aspects of visual storytelling in comics is the vast range of visual styles that one can adopt in a comic (see, of course, Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story for the paradigm exploration of this). As a result, there is surely some visual style that could be used to visually ‘hide’ the race of the five characters in Morrison’s story. For example, the author could use simple stick figures ala XKCD that did not indicate race.

    Of course, any choice of this sort comes with limitations. The question then becomes whether the story could be told faithfully, or even well, in a style that was able to ‘hide’ race. This will likely depend a good deal on the exact style adopted.

    • An xkcd version of Recitatif! I’m intrigued! I didn’t even think about generic stick figures. I’m also not familiar with Madden’s text, so thanks for that reference, Roy.

  2. Tim Caron says:

    Great observation and questions, Qiana. I especially like the opening strategy of privileging the visual trope in African American literature. The questions then about Morrison’s work take on a particular urgency because she is looking at visual representations of race, but especially in “Recitatif,” she is also examining the ways in which race, for both blacks and whites, gets coded into other senses as well. It’s been a while since I’ve read the story (I’ll be rereading it soon since it’s on one of my syllabi this semester), but doesn’t Twyla also talk about the particular smell of Roberta and her mother?

    And the link to Johnson and Pleece’s Incognegro is very provocative–downright brilliant, in fact. Both texts are interrogating the ways in which we as readers might have to acknowledge some of the uncomfortable ways in which we make assumptions based on what we supposedly “know” about people based on racialized categories. For instance, every time I teach “Recatitif,” at least one student in class insists that he or she knows which character is black and which is white, despite the fact that I assure them that Morrison has “erased” these clues from the text.

  3. Conseula says:

    I’m intrigued by the challenge of doing a comic adaptation of this story. I think many of us interested in race and comics are interested primarily because of the ways the visual construct of race maps on to the visual aspects of the comcis medium. (Okay–it’s possible I’m speaking for myself here.) For instance, one of the genius moves McGruder makes in Boondocks is making great use of visual racial stereotypes (Jazmine’s ponytail, the way the white female classmate always seems to be on her tiptoes, Riley’s cornrows, Huey’s afro) at the same time that he skewers much of what he assume to be true about race.

    The great possibility of a comic adapation of “Recatitif” would be for the artist to erase those markers of race (as Morrison does), while, at the same time, convincing us that the other characters in the story can still see something or know something that makes the girls’ race legible. In some ways, Morrison can play with the markers of race because she can easily do away with the visual markers. She just doesn’t mention them and asserts (convincingly) that others can still “see” them. A comics artist has a greater challenge, but not an impossible one, I’d argue.

  4. Hey Tim and Conseula, I’m glad you both stopped by. I’m really excited to talk about this possibility! McGruder is a great example of an artist/writer who has a keen sense of how to carefully deploy visual racial stereotypes in a subversive way. I’m thinking that “Recitatif” would demand something just a clever but more subtle. I would also hate for it to dissolve into series of abstract images: disembodied hands, the back of a head, objects in the room. What might be effective is if the story’s panels and scenes randomly alternated between Twyla and Roberta as black and white then reversed it (but with some distinctive facial/body feature attributed to each woman), so the reader would never quite be sure of their race. Now that I think about it, McCulloch and Hendrix’s Stagger Lee does a little bit of that with the different version of Stag – black, white, tall, short, from different eras – but they all have the same Stetson hat…

    Tim, there is a line in there about “how they smell funny and never wash their hair” or something like that! I’ve had black and white students in the same room who admit to having heard that stereotype about the other. It is a terrific story to teach if the students are open-minded. Hey, drawing a comic version might be a great extra credit assignment for your class this semester, lol.

  5. I think there must be some comic artist out there clever enough to do it. In that move The Women, I hadn’t even noticed that men were removed until I was thirty minutes in, so some technique could be used. I’ve never read this story though, but now I feel I must.

    I’d love to see the Bluest Eye made into a graphic novel.

    • Hi Evelyn! Thanks for reading the post. Please, please, please read “Recitatif” – I just have a feeling that you will love it. I agree that there must be someone out there clever enough to adapt it, but it would be tough.

  6. Qiana,
    I am curious to know whether you’ve read any comics that explore the “one-drop” rule about African American identity. In my mind’s eye, I can picture a single drop of blood, traveling through a person’s body, indicating “something” about their racial identity. Combining that with Roy’s idea about stick figures (xkcd style) could really make a profound visual statement. Furhter, what would happen if a character had two of those visually “different” drops of blood?

    In light of your question, I also think about Erving Goffman’s ideas about stigma and the way that a sign of difference (whatever that sign may be) gets interpreted.

    Thanks for posting about “Recitatif.” I haven’t read it before, but it’s on my list now.

  7. Hah! Was going to say stick figures and then saw that somebody else said it. Too slow!

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