On History: Strange Fruit Review

By | Tuesday, July 18, 2017 Leave a Comment
Let me clear right off the bat: today I'm talking about Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill from 2014. This is not about the Mark Waid and J.G. Jones book of the same name from 2015. The Waid/Jones book is fiction; Gill's book is history. (Hence my reviewing it under my "On History" section.)

Strange Fruit is a collection of nine stories about Black men from American history that are generally not taught in schools. Seven of the stories are fairly straightforward biographies, one is more of an autobiography (using the subject's own correspondence as narration), and one is more broadly about a town. Some of the subjects I was at least somewhat familiar with previously, but most were entirely new to me. For the record,
the book contains biographies of Henry "Box" Brown, Harry "Bucky" Lew, Richard Potter, Theophilus Thompson, Alexander Crummel,
Marshall "Major" Taylor, Spottswood Rice, Bass Reeves, and the town on Malaga Island. (I happened to read a Taylor biography by Frederick Noland recently, and Gill himself later expanded his Reeves biography into a full book which I reviewed earlier this year.)

The biographies here are solid, if necessarily short by the dictates of the overall book length itself. Gill has clearly done his homework, and chosen subjects with a range of backgrounds. Accordingly, he tells each story differently using a variety of framing devices and tonal styles that match the lives of his subjects. His cartoony style is somewhat deceptive in that it belies both the drama of the stories and some of the design and storytelling sensibilities Gill has. Although, in much the same way that "strange fruit" is something of a euphemism, Gill also avoids any particularly graphic aspects of the stories; for example, using actual crows to suggest the violence that came with enforcing Jim Crow laws.

I know I've complained in a variety of places (frequently on Facebook) about how I remain upset at how distorted a view of history I was taught in school. I knew from around seventh grade that a lot was getting glossed over but as I get older, I keep discovering instances where we were flatly lied to. I feel like I've had to spend a good chunk of my adult life re-learning everything (primarily history) that I was taught incorrectly. So I love that comics like the ones Gill is creating are out there, not only improving the education that I should have gotten in school, but doing so in an engaging comic format that I'm already enjoy. I love that Gill is one of the guys out there doing exactly this type of thing. I understand he's working on Strange Fruit volume 2 right now, and I'm eager to pick that up whenever he's done.

All that said, I do have two minor complaints about this book. First is that some of the biographies are left incomplete. Not that Gill never finished the story, but that the figures disappear from history and we just don't know what happened to them. Given the subject matter, that's sadly not entirely surprising, but it's still a bit of a disappointment.

The second issue I have is that all of the Gill's subjects are men. Women only show up as mothers, wives, and daughters. Naturally, given that Gill is trying to focus on "uncelebrated narratives", women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman are poor candidates, and given that Black women are generally the least well respected (and therefore least documented) group of people in American history, I can understand that finding female-focused narratives would be more difficult, but what about Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin or Sarah E. Goode or Sophia B. Packard or Frances E.W. Harper or...

(Side Note 1: These are just a handful of notable Black women I looked up just now. Me, the ignorant white guy.)

(Side Note 2: If you don't know these women, look them up!)

Gill's subjects are interesting, certainly, but I think that since he's trying to address giving due credit to under-represented Black historical figures, he shouldn't limit himself to only men.

But all in all, I'll recommend any of Gill's historical books. He does a good job of presenting history in an entertaining and engaging way, and that he's covering poorly covered subjects makes it that much better!
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