(cover image from quebecreadingconnection.ca)
I was at the Holocaust Museum Houston a few years ago when I first saw this one. By then, I’d had my mind opened to the power of graphic novels and how they can say things versus traditional print novels. And it was about Houston. So I snatched it up.
The Silence of Our Friends is based on true events that happened in Houston in the late 1960s. It involves a white TV reporter/cameraman (Jack) and a black organizer (Larry) who end up talking one day and keep on talking. Jack’s trying to film a student protest near Texas Southern University, the city’s historically black college, and almost gets in a confrontation before Larry shows up. They start talking, and when it’s over, they go back to their lives.
The central action involves a sit-down protest that turns violent and the Houston Police loses a few officers. Hundreds are arrested and five put on trial for murder. Jack was there filming despite intimidation and is eventually called in to testify. I chuffed in disgust more than once when it led up to the trial. If you read it, it won’t be hard to see why.
It’s more than a story of understanding between these two men and the Civil Rights movement. There are the families as well. Jack has several children, one of whom is blind, and they find Houston is very different from San Antonio. The parents have difficulty reconciling the naked racism they see and hear around them, and they notice it more and more as time goes on and tensions get higher. The kids hear it constantly and bring some of it home with them, especially Mark, who pals around with neighborhood kids who nonchalantly expose the racism they’ve heard their whole lives.
This leads to some frustrating moments for the parents, and some very teachable moments, especially when Larry and Jack take turns inviting the other’s family into their homes. The kids’ learning really starts, and the dialogue makes you smile, because they are kids after all.
I was born in the 1980s, what had been referred to as part of the post-racial American timeline (scoff). I have no recollections of the 1960s to fall back on. This book was a window into those days, into the naked racism and hatred that permeated what was considered a more liberal Southern city like Houston.
And when I read what the kids are seeing and hearing around them, it makes me understand better how someone can be my dad’s age and still use racist language without a second thought. It’s what you were born with and grew up on, and over time, some people grow beyond those prejudices, and some just don’t.
The willing blindness by some whites in The Silence of Our Friends in light of the truth made me go cold, because you know those types of people exist in all times and cultures.
It’s not a very long read, less than 200 pages and tons of well-illustrated panels by Nate Powell. As someone who has lived in the Houston area my whole life, I’d say this is a great window into the past (and meshes with what little I’ve been able to read about regarding my home, albeit in one of the least-pleasant ways, but that’s reality for you).
I’d also recommend this for students, high school and above because of the language and violence. This is something history teachers could bring in to reveal something about the Civil Rights movement and the 1960s outside of the major events every textbook talks about. They’re important, but Houston never figures much in those histories. It’s a way to bring it home if you live here, and really get it.
Great resource just to bolster any learning on the era, too.