I love graphic novels. I love having visual representations, so I’m always excited about reading graphic novels and finding more interesting way to experience topics like history. Still I Rise is the history of African Americans, presented in a graphic format. Though it wasn’t always the most engaging or well-crafted read, I certainly learned a good deal from it.
The novel starts off explaining the reasons the first black slaves were brought to the U.S. From there a very detailed tale of how African Americans survived those dark times and rose above them unfolds. The section covering slavery is, by far, the most extensive section. So much detail is involved and so many people are introduced that the section almost takes away from later sections, like the civil rights movement. It felt almost lopsided. Because the history of slavery was so in depth, the absence of some events during the civil rights movement stood out to me. Maybe it’s because I’m from Alabama, but I’ve heard the story of Rosa Parks my whole life. That story was nowhere to be found. I found that strange. This is clearly not a thorough history, but it isn’t quite limited either. I was left wondering why some parts of the history were left out, and who made those decisions.
I will admit that I learned a lot, though we’ll see how much I retain. There were plenty of names and stories I recognized from history; there were also many that were new to me. Honestly, I think this is the type of book that’s better read slowly, in sections. I read most of it in a week, but I was rarely very engaged. My attention span waned after a story was finished or a point was made. Reading it all at once almost felt like information overload. I think my brain was just processing a TON of so much and I wish I’d given myself a little more time with it. Since it was for a class, that wasn’t an option.
This is nonfiction, but strangely enough there are characters present. The narrators of the history are a seemingly elderly man and woman who occasionally have different opinions on some of the issues. The man often exhibits a more optimistic view than the woman. Aside from presenting differing opinions, I see no point to their presence. They are never identified and never develop in any way. The narration could have stood on it’s own.
That’s the perfect segue into my next point. Graphic novels are interesting to read because they incorporate a new medium in a meaningful way. The art helps tell the story. The story, as it’s written in the graphic novel, shouldn’t be able to stand on its own. Ideally, if the art were absent, the book would have to be rewritten. The art in this graphic novel is neither effective nor particularly good. The blurb on the back of the book claims that this graphic novel has been compared to Maus, and I hope that Art Spiegelman doesn’t take that too seriously. The reason why Maus is so lauded is that the art is just as important as the story itself. It’s not just compelling because there was an important and emotional story to be told; it’s compelling because Spiegelman took the time to craft the story and art equally. The subject of Still I Rise is just as important and emotional, yet there’s a disconnect. There is nothing in the art that moved me. Frankly, there’s nothing in the art that isn’t said in the text. The creators just missed the mark, in that regard.
This the second edition of this graphic novel (Note: The previous edition subtitles it as a “cartoon history” instead of a “graphic history”). It previously ended with the Million Man March. I think the election of President Obama sparked the creation of the new edition. The problem is that the information is no longer seamless. The Million Man March still feels like a clear ending, and the rest just feels like it was tagged on the end. I suppose that’s because it was. The new section covers gang wars and African Americans in politics, but it’s clear that the purpose is to celebrate the election of the first black president.
I love the idea of creating graphic novel histories. I think it’s a great way to engage disinterested students in a topic they’re studying. I also think it’s a great way to create histories that are more accessible to people who are more visual and might become bored with reading a history book or learning meaningless facts (that person is me, by the way). I just wish this book had done that well. I’m pretty let down by it, but I’m interested to dig around and see if there are similar books that are crafted better.