Last month I attended the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg. I only went to one panel but it was worth the trip to Harlem because that’s how I first learned about the work of Juliana “Jewels” Smith, creator of (H)afrocentric. Jewels kindly agreed to answer some questions for me; since my last post (“Do Comics Empower Black Girls?“) I’ve had a few conversations with black women creators and scholars that give me hope about the field. Qiana Whitted is compiling a list of great comics for girls and I’ve started my own collection of black feminist comics. If we want to see different images and stories, we’ve got to support the creators who are trying to make it happen!
1. How can comics empower Black girls? Conventional representations of women in comics seem to reinforce the worst stereotypes of patriarchal society. Can unconventional representations of men and women really transform our understanding of race and gender (& class & sexuality)?
Comics, like any form of media or art, have the ability to change the way we see reality. If all you see as a reader and consumer of culture is women as sexual objects with limited AGENCY/POWER, then you may think that is the way the world is and should be. Conversely, you may see strong women characters that have a physical prowess (often seen as a masculine quality) but are redeemed through their sexuality, particularly heterosexuality. God forbid you have a strong character that is a lesbian or bisexual too! Aaaahhh!
But, if you read a heaping amount of strong women getting on soapboxes, leading movements, kicking ass, and also being vulnerable, we can begin to see representation that is both complicated and nuanced, like all of us. And that is what I hope to do as a writer and storyteller. I think the best thing we can do as writers and storytellers is continue to try and nuance characters (representations of blackness and gender) and tell stories that may alter the way we see the world.
2. As an educator, I’m troubled by my students’ attitude toward literature; most don’t read recreationally and therefore struggle with assigned readings for class. I’ve resisted appeals to pen a graphic novel, though I appreciate the broad appeal of comics and the importance of visual literacy. As a writer, why did you choose to tell stories this way?
I started precisely for this reason. When I was teaching at Laney College in Oakland, I was experimenting with comic books as a way to introduce really complicated concepts like the prison industrial complex to my students. I gave my students the Real Costs of Prisons Comix and they really enjoyed it. So much so that I had a student in my class said she had given the comic book to her grandmother to read. I was floored. I thought to myself, comics are a really powerful medium that I should explore. I was already a huge fan of The Boondocks and using that in class as well.
Later, I started writing (H)afrocentric in response to my work life, being a young educator in Community Colleges, my family life; musing on the relationship between my brother and I, my hometown, and my current life in Oakland.
3. Can you recommend a few artists and/or titles that have a progressive and/or unconventional approach to representing women and men in comics?
I really like Qahera, a story about a Muslim woman superhero who kicks the ass of misogynist men and white savior complex feminists. How can you be mad at that? Sounds like a match made in heaven.
Also, buy my comic book!!! It’s funny and instead of saving Africans by adopting them, you can save an African American artist.
Juliana “Jewels” Smith is a cultural worker, educator, writer and organizer. She earned her B.A. in Sociology from UC Riverside and M.A. in Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego. As an educator in community colleges Smith decided she could reach more of her students through an unorthodox medium, a comic book. She created (H)afrocentric as a way to challenge students and readers alike about the presumptions around race, class, gender and sexuality through character dialogue. Her practice focuses on the links between racial justice, gender equity, and political literacy; using creativity to facilitate dialogue. Follow her on Twitter (@hafrocentric) and on Facebook.