The Talk Review

By | Monday, June 19, 2023 Leave a Comment
When I was a kid, "the talk" referred to your parents setting you down and telling you about the birds and the bees. I don't recall any of my friends ever mentioning they had "the talk" and so the very idea of it was largely limited to family-based sitcoms where the father embarassingly bumbled his way through the conversation as quickly as possibly using a variety of euphamisms and really strained metaphors that generally left the child (generally a teen who was years past having learned about the topic, not infrequently being played by an actor who was nearly as old as the character's parent was supposed to be) more confused than previously. It was always a painful-to-watch trope, and not in the painful-to-watch way that it was intended. Less "ha ha, look at how embarassed that father is to talk about sex" and more "good grief, this is just plain atrocious writing! Why is this show still on the air?"

But that's my experience, growing up in a decidedly white, middle class, insularly suburban town.

"The talk," as used by Black people in the US, is often given to kids of a much younger age and revolves around how to deal with the racism they will undoubtedly encounter in life. Often, more poigantly, it's specifcally about how to not get killed because an armed white person -- frequently, the police -- decides that they're a threat for absolutely no reason other than they've decided the child has too much melanin in their skin. My understanding -- and this is just me speaking as a white guy who's never been on either end of this talk -- is that the conversation is often very tactical in nature. "Don't make any sudden movements. Keep your hands open and visible at all times. Announce your intentions to move in any capacity before you actually start moving, even if you are following direct commands." It's never "if you get pulled over" but "when you're being detained for 'matching the description' while Black."

I've been a fan of Darrin Bell's Candorville comic strip for several years now, and his editorial cartoons are often very clever and pointed, so I was really eager to see what he had to say on the topic. I expected The Talk to be something of a treatise on "the talk" and something of a critical explainer on what it is and why Black parents feel the need to have this conversation with their kids. I was a bit surprised, then, to see the book roll out to be more of a memoir of Bell's own life from age 6 up through a year or two ago when he finished working on the book. And while his mother does give him "the talk" fairly early on, he's clearly not paying attention (he literally offers "blah blah blah" as a the translation of what he heard) and the subject of having another talk is largely set aside. He does later try to start the conversation with his father, but he responds by staring out into the distnce and (mostly) ignoring young Darrin.

Of course, that's where Bell is being stealthy. As we follow his successes in school, and college, and eventually as a professional cartoonist, he's treated to the thousands of small, but ever-accumulating cuts. The school teacher that tried failing him because he didn't in his homework desite getting only As and Bs on all his exams, the professor who baselessly accused him of plagarism, the cop who pulled him over for "speeding" in the five seconds after starting up from a complete stop... Bell experiences very little that most white people think of as overt racism. The n-word is never used in the book, and the closest things that could be considered slurs that are relayed are being called "big lips" and "Halfrican-Amerian" in school. Instead, the cuts are all ones that you probably can't technically prove stem from racism -- indeed, Darrin's brother regularly chalks up the incidents to discrimination against their income bracket, not their skin color -- but most certainly are.

So near the end of the book, when Darrin's six-year-old son asks, "Who's George Floyd?" the entire lifetime of incidents come flooding back and compells Darrin to give his son "the talk." But it's not the tactical one that I -- again, speaking as a white guy -- was under the impression most Black kids got. Darrin instead goes into the broader, elemental issues that fuel racism in the first place comparing to how his son once broke a family heriloom and lied about it. And, like the educator Bell regularly shows himself to be in his editorial cartoons, he spells out what needs to happen before white Americans can collectively get past our "original sin" so we can finally move on and learn empathy. It's a powerful ending, in large part because of the build-up throughout the entire book. That Bell pulls it off seemingly effortlessly, especially in light of this being his first graphic novel despite years of doing comic strips, is impressive.

Will this book move the needle on racism? I'd like to think so, but I'm skeptical. Not because of Bell's abilities, but because the people who need to hear his message generally refuse to listen. I suspect the people even willing to read his book in the first place are those who are the least in need of hearing what he has to say. But, go ahead and please prove me wrong!

The Talk came out earlier this month and retails for $29.99 US at all major bookstores.
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