Other more serious writers have written about Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell‘s The March, Vol 1. (Top Shelf, 2013) . They’ve written about the audacious presentation of solemn historical material in a graphic novel; John Lewis’ contribution to perfecting the Union; The March‘s importance in relation to American History and the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington; and even how Lewis was inspired by a ten-cent comic about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
What I keep returning to is young John Lewis’ fondness for chickens.
Before I get to the chickens, though, I am going to veer over briefly to pandas. Years ago, I saw Stephen Colbert interview NAACP Chair Julian Bond on The Colbert Report. Framed as a discussion of how President Bush “make[s] Black friends so easily,” Bond was there to help Colbert select a new Black friend after Colbert had alienated his old one*. The interview started with a discussion of Bush’s first speech before the NAACP, then Bond helped Colbert vet pictures of potential friends. Colbert’s character is afraid of bears, and when they came to a picture of a man holding a baby panda, Colbert said, “The second one, for me, is right out because he’s holding a panda bear.”
Bond replied, “I find this attractive. I like pandas.”
“Where does the NAACP stand on bears, sir?”
“We’re for them.”
Still, despite his fear of bears, Colbert ended with, “I think that this might be a little forward to ask, but is there any chance that you would be my Black friend?”
“Surely, I would,” Bond replied.
I love that moment. I love Colbert for asking a leader of the Civil Rights Movement about pandas. People like Bond and Lewis have become icons. They are, in a way, like Dr. King is now, carved out of marble, representing moral authority. And it’s easy to lose people, lose humanity, in creating Civil Rights leaders as the embodiment of America’s conscience. Talking about the attractiveness of pandas brings humanity back into something that should be about humanity anyway, discussions of social justice. And, I suppose, part of me loves the idea of Bond enjoying looking at pictures of pandas and, perhaps, watching panda videos on YouTube. Similarly, I love Lewis’ stories about the chickens he cared for on his parents’ farm.
For those of you who haven’t heard of either The March or John Lewis, The March is the first of three volumes recounting Lewis’s story and events that are not so long ago, but seem impossibly far away on the other side of the Millennium. Lewis is the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. He lived much of the history we think of when we think of the Civil Rights’ Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He sat-in at department store lunch counters that refused to serve African-Americans. Along with Bond and others, he helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Selma to Montgomery March. The brutality with which he and other protestors were treated as they demonstrated for voting rights led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lewis went on to become a Congressman, representing Georgia’s fifth district.
The March is well-constructed and beautifully-drawn, weaving between the present of the story, President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration, and the stories John Lewis tells about his childhood and teen years to two African-American children visiting his office that day. And I feel okay about starting with chickens, because that is exactly where John Lewis starts when one of the boys asks him, looking around at Lewis’ office, “Why do you have so many chickens?” (20)
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis was tasked with taking care of the family’s chickens. He fed them. He cared for the hens when they were setting on eggs. He daydreamed about someday having an incubator (25). He talked to them, and, as he realized that he wanted to become a preacher, he preached to them. In the book, he preaches to them from “The Sermon on the Mount.”
“They would sit quietly. They would bow their heads. They would shake their heads, but they never would quite say amen” (27).
This story reminds me of the Bond interview above and of Andrew Young‘s accounts of Martin Luther King’s pillow fights. In fact, Young recounted a pillow fight King had with Ralph Abernathy and Young the day King was assassinated:
I came back to the Lorraine Motel and I found Martin and A.D., and Ralph, and everybody gathered there…talking and clowning, and when I came in, Martin just grabbed me and threw me down on the bed, and started beating me with a pillow. I mean, he was, he was like a big kid. He was fussing because I hadn’t reported to him, and I tried to tell him, “I was on the witness stand, I’m here in the Federal Court.” And he was just standing on the bed swinging the pillow at me. I’m trying to duck with him saying, “You have to let me know what’s going on.” You know, and finally I snatched the pillow and started swinging back and it, you know, and…it was sort of like the…touchdown, and everybody piles on everybody….I mean, people just started throwing pillows and piling on top of everybody, and laughing and…going on and then, he stopped and, and said, “Let’s go.”
When I first heard this story, i felt an incredibly painful juxtaposition between joy and dread, knowing what would come after. But I like these stories, because I appreciate the humanity revealed in them. I am inspired by the silliness and the fun. The stories remind me that great people and moral consciences are human beings, like us all, not the bronze or marble statues we make of them. We often rip at people who have accomplished amazing things for being flawed, for not being perfect, for being, in essence, human. People who do deserve all our respect can be almost dehumanized by that respect. And we can separate ourselves from our own consciences in making some people responsible for conscience and justice. But these silly human moments remind me not only of what they have achieved, but what we could all achieve. And so these little moments are meaningful to me, whether it’s expressing a fondness for pandas, a pillow fight or a child preaching to his chickens.
*I also like how this ongoing search cleverly addresses white anxiety about being perceived as “racist” and the importance of having a Black friend to prove one is not racist.
Carol Borden received a review copy of The March from Top Shelf Comix. She will also be Editor for the Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness and Vanguard Programme Blogs for the next 4 days. She likes pandas and pillow fights and is now looking at chickens in an entirely different way.
This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Sept. 12, 2013.