Sterling, 2009

In the mid-90s, the Lairds were used to publishing 36-page comic books; they were all about entertainment, not about a one-stop volume of African American history.

It was quite a challenge for Roland and Taneshia Nash Laird to move from that kind of production, to a full-length book, and with a publisher who was new to the idea of long graphic works as well.

One advantage they had, however, was their longtime working relationship with Elihu “Adofo” Bey.

Their projects with him, too, however, were also shorter and more straight-forward, and Roland explains that Eli was left to manage the bulk of the artistic/production work while the Lairds hit the books.

The husband-and-wife team became increasingly preoccupied with the written aspect of the work, which, ultimately took more than two years.

Roland Laird stated that they wanted “to do the comic book equivalent of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, something that strong”.

And, so, it was no small feat to condense the history of a people from 1619 to the present day with such a powerful intent.

(Even though Roland felt that he had a good grasp of African American history going into the project, he was amazed by the amount of research required even yet.)

And that present day has, since, been updated. The 1997 published version ended with The Million Man March, and the 2009 version has been updated to include The Million Woman March, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation wrecked upon New Orleans, and the election of President Obama.

The guts of the original work remain. It begins in 1619, when the first Africans were brought over as indentured servants. The Lairds wanted to aim for broad swaths of subjects, like the mainstream abolitionist movement, but also wanted to incorporate more individual struggles and successes.

He wanted to include details that had been overlooked, too, like what had been happening in black towns in Oklahoma (with more than 20 towns settled between 1865 and 1915) and the proposal by the two richest black men in the United States to buy the Montgomery Bus Line in the Civil Rights Era.

As an artist, Elihu Buy is concerned with revealing “the beauty in things that are not beautiful”.

The full-page images (for instance, that of Madame C.J. Walker, first self-made heiress in the United States) are striking.

But just as impressive are the busy pages which often contain seemingly contrasted but interconnected events.

For instance, part of one page details the efforts of Henry Highland Garnet at the 1842 National Colored Convention to raise the stakes in the strike against slavery.

And right alongside, surrounding the results of the vote at the convention, is a short series of images of whites in blackface in performances in 1843 New York City.

“And to this day some Americans, both black and white, continue to stereotype and oversimplify black people for fun and profit.”

There isn’t a lot of direct commentary like this. Mostly one has the sense of relayed facts, but when commentary does exist, it reflects all the complexity of the issue at hand.

For those of us who grew up thinking that history was as simple as memorizing a list of dates, the Lairds do a fine job of complicating the matter.

Because, as Baratunde Thurston states in How To Be Black, people “don’t know the full story”.

Not only is it important to understand the “history of the compound effects of advantage and white privilege over time”, he explains, but it’s also important to grasp “the history of never learning the stories of your people who fought and succeeded in breaking out of their circumstances”.

The latter is the aspect of this volume that I most greatly appreciated; those are stories that I have never, ever heard. Those stories of triumph and success.

I do know what Thurston refers to as the “key people”. To be knowledgeable about African American History, “you need to know only a few:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washinton, J.J. from Good Times, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.”

(Thurston, if you aren’t aware, is a comedian, so the above list is intended to provoke a wry chuckle — and yes, I’m certain he knows that he’s repeated a name — but the parts above that, about “the full story”, reveal the serious matters that lurk beneath his humour.)

Those key people? Yup, they’re all there in the Laird’s Still I Rise. (Except for one, unless I missed him.)

But there are so many other people too. People whose names I’d never heard, whose achievements I’d never recognized.

This kind of inclusion is inspiring and necessary, and it recalls the powerful intent in Maya Angelou’s poem; Taneshia chose “Still I Rise” as a title because she felt it resonated personally and politically. It seems the perfect fit.

And what are the Lairds working on now? What Roland says could be lightly dubbed a “relationship comic”.

Will you be adding it to your reading list? Along with Still I Rise?