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Review: ‘Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White’

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Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White
By Lila Quintero Weaver
The University of Alabama Press
Not rated, but suitable for ages 12 and up
Content note: This book includes several instances of “the n-word,” always used in a historical context.

DarkroomLila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White is a graphic memoir that succeeds as both a historical document and a work of literature.

Weaver and her family immigrated from Argentina to Marion, Alabama, in 1961, so her father, a former preacher, could teach language in one of the local colleges. She was in grade school when the voting rights movement began in Marion, a movement that would culminate with the marches on Selma and Washington. While John Lewis’s March tells the story of those events from the point of view of a participant in the heart of it, Weaver was an outsider who didn’t quite understand at the time what was going on. And in fact, she was not a witness to the main event of the book, a protest that culminated in the killing of a black man, although her father was there.

Weaver’s father was an amateur photographer, and as the title suggests, she uses black and white photography as a metaphor for what is going on around her. As a child, she was fascinated by the final stage of developing, when the image slowly appears on the white paper. Something similar occurs in the book, as Weaver and her family and the people of Marion, Alabama, slowly come into focus, and as the book continues, the gray areas begin to appear and the details become clearer.

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Although Weaver and her family were regarded as white, and she went to a whites-only school during segregation, she hadn’t grown up with the culture of racism that was second nature to those around her. As a result, she and her family come into frequent conflict with that culture. Sometimes they do so unknowingly, as when her father invites a black choir to sing at a white church or when she strikes up a friendship with a black student in the local junior college. Sometimes it is deliberate, as when her father chooses to sit in the black section of a local restaurant. That episode made me wonder: What did his black companion think about that?

While she doesn’t explore that, Weaver touches on another sensitive area later, when a black fellow student yells at her: “You! Always in black folks’ way about something! We don’t need you, soda cracker. Go back to your own kind!… You are not one of us!” Although another student reassures her, Weaver is left in tears. “I was dead wrong thinking I’d earned a spot in the civil rights martyrs club,” she reflects.

That’s the sort of nuance that makes this such a worthwhile book. It’s easy to see right and wrong in situations that happened 50 years ago and are now only experienced in grainy black and white; it’s harder, even for those with the best of intentions, to do the right thing when you are actually in the situation. What seems like striking a blow for justice may be read as patronizing—or put another person in danger. And sometimes, as when the first black student comes to Weaver’s school, it’s simply hard to know what to say or how to behave.

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Darkroom is an important book because it shows the texture of day-to-day life under Jim Crow. It shows how nice people can be racists. Even smiling old people. Even minsters. The culture of Marion in the 1960s reinforced segregation and Jim Crow in many ways. Weaver includes excerpts from a public-school textbook that show happy slaves being well treated by their masters, in a passage about how lovely it would be to grow up (as a white boy) on a plantation. She shows how social norms reinforce racism in everyday encounters, and with the benefit of hindsight, she also depicts the political opportunism that kept the system going and resisted change so vehemently.

It’s to Weaver’s credit as a storyteller that none of this comes off as preachy. Her story is grounded in the everyday realities of growing up, plus the awkwardness of being the child of immigrants and never quite fitting in. She doesn’t pretend to know all the answers; instead, she is willing to show her moments of doubt, confusion, and failure. She is also a superb artist with an eye toward the telling details of everyday life, which adds to the realism of her story (and may evoke déjà vu in those of us who lived through the 1960s).

While Darkroom adds dimension to the story of the Civil Rights movement, it is also missing something: The experiences of black people. There are plenty of black characters in the story, but they are all viewed from the outside. None are depicted as intimately as the main characters. This itself is a legacy of the time Weaver grew up in, when it was difficult to form friendships that crossed the color line, and it is certainly no fault of hers. What would be a very welcome addition to this body of literature would be a similar account by a person of color, an ordinary person—not a John Lewis—who lived through this tempestuous time.

That’s not a critique of Darkroom; it’s a critique of the world around us. On its own merits, Darkroom is a moving and intimate story of one girl growing up in a time of struggle—a story that is both personal and universal, and so beautifully drawn that it doesn’t simply lie on the page but draws the reader in to the world it depicts.

(Click here for a sample chapter.)

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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