Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White

One way that blogging has changed my reading is that I rarely just happen upon books I’ve never heard of. When I go to the bookstore or the library, most of the books that jump out at me are books that I’ve seen reviewed on blogs. Although I often go to the library without specific books in mind to pick up, I usually leave with books I’ve been planning to read. Aarti’s recent post about the pleasures of browsing got me thinking about how rare it is for me to “discover” a book by browsing. This graphic memoir by Lila Quintero Weaver is an exception. I ran across it among the graphic novels at my library, read the description, and decided it might be worth a read. The result? While it’s not a perfect memoir, parts of it were amazing, and I’m glad I took a chance.

Weaver emigrated from Argentina to Marion, Alabama, in 1961, when she was five years old. Alabama at the time was sharply divided by race, but as a Latina, Lila didn’t fit the usual categories. She didn’t face the kind of discrimination black citizens encountered; she attended a white school and could sit at the front of the bus. But having a Spanish-speaking family and olive skin still made her feel like an outsider. As she grew up, she observed the racism of the Jim Crow South, and her own beliefs about right and wrong were scrutinized by people on both sides of the color line.

Weaver’s story covers a lot of ground, which is both a strength and a weakness of this memoir. She shares her family history and her experience of life as an immigrant, she describes the usual awkward moments of growing up, and she discusses the racism around her. As a Latina woman in 1960s Alabama, she has an unusual perspective on these matters, but any one of these themes would have been enough to fill a memoir. Because of that, this book sometimes seems to lack focus. Weaver uses motifs such as the idea of seeing and being seen to create some unity, but this technique isn’t always enough, especially in the early chapters when she’s introducing these different strands and jumping around chronologically.

For me, the most compelling parts of the book are the ones where Weaver describes the racism that baffled her throughout her youth. She depicts some of the ordinary day-to-day racism that most of us know about—separate entrances to clinics and separate seating in movie theaters—as well as violence against African-Americans. The two most arresting sequences in the book deal with each of these aspects of racism.

In one sequence, Weaver provides excerpts of the Know Alabama textbook that she used in school to study history. Growing up in the South, I encountered pro-Confederacy propaganda about happy slaves and kind plantation owners depicted in this book, but by the time I was in school, Ku Klux Klan apologetics would have been frowned upon. Not so in 1960s Alabama, where Lila read passages like this in her textbook: “The Klan did not ride often, only when it had to. They held their courts in the dark forest at night; they passed sentence on the criminals and carried out the sentence.”

The other sequence that left me with a lump in my throat was the story of the February 1965 night march on the Marion courthouse for voting rights. A mob violently attacked the marchers as the police stood by, or joined in. One protestor, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, was fatally shot by a state trooper as Jackson attempted to usher his elderly parents to safety in a nearby cafe. This event led to the first Selma-Montgomery march.

Lila did not witness the events, but her photographer father was there, fleeing only when it became evident that the mob would soon be coming after him for attempting the document the event, a futile quest when the street lights had been turned off. As he ran home, the last thing Lila’s father saw was a club being brought down on the head of NBC reporter Richard Valeriani. The images on these pages are suitably dark, and layered onto a black background, to emphasize the darkness surrounding the event.

Weaver gives her narrative the feeling of a documentary by filling it not just with her black-and-white drawings of events she witnessed or heard about but also with drawings of photographs, maps, and letters. She sets her images on backgrounds to fit the section and sometimes incorporates more fanciful images to convey her ideas. She uses a drawing of herself perilously balanced over a chasm to convey her feeling of trying to navigate the gap between the cultures of school and home. And a series of images in which she erases a drawing of herself expresses her desire for—and fear of—invisibility as an awkward adolescent. The variety gives the book a nice rhythm.

This is Weaver’s first book, and although it gets off to a shaky start, it’s impressive overall. Consider this review an endorsement not just of this book but also of the idea of book discovery through browsing. And one of the pleasures of accidental discoveries like this is being able to share that discovery with others so that those who are unlikely to pick up a book they’ve never heard of will become aware of a new book they might want to try. Perhaps you’ll try this one?

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11 Responses to Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White

  1. Lisa says:

    Other than Maus, I’ve never read graphic novels, but yes, this is one I will look for.

  2. CJ says:

    I’ve never been much into graphic novels (and didn’t even know there was such a thing as a graphic memoir). They’re categorized in my mind along with musical theater—the form doesn’t really appeal to me, so I tend to avoid the genre unless someone recommends what they consider a stand-out example (like what happened for me with Sweeney Todd, which I really enjoy). Long story short, your review intrigued me, and I’ll be picking up Darkroom.

    • Teresa says:

      There’s actually a lot of variety among graphic novels, so a lot of the time it’s a matter of finding the ones that you do like and then finding similar ones. There are quite a lot of graphic memoirs out there (Persepolis and Fun Home come to mind) and quite a few that explore social issues (Joe Sacco’s work is a good example of that). I think looking for recommendations from people who do enjoy a form you don’t generally like is a great way to dip your toes in!

  3. Jenny says:

    Wow, that is a pretty horrific textbook excerpt about the Klan. This looks really interesting — layered explorations of racism are of course my fave. I hold out very little hope of my library’s having it though — they always do this thing where they list comics as being on order, and I get excited and place a hold on them, and then the library cancels the order and sends me an email to be like, “You have a hold on this book but we’re not ordering it after all.”

    • Teresa says:

      I felt like that quote shouldn’t have shocked me, but it really did. The Klan was around still when I was growing up, but it was condemned in pretty much all official quarters. Seeing textbooks treat them as heroes is just … ugh.

  4. Deb says:

    In Georgia, in the early 1970s, when I was in junior high school, a teacher told me quite openly that the n—-rs in our newly-integrated school were “too loud.” I still remember the shock of her saying that and the shame of her assuming I felt the same way because I was white. As late as 1978, the Klan was burning a cross on the lawn of the (white) basketball coach’s lawn because she had both black and white girls practicing in her yard.

    I haven’t heard of this book, but in a way it reminds me of Stella Suberman’s The Jew Store about growing up in the south as a member of the only Jewish family in town. Different in tone and content but still the story of an outsider who, while not treated as awfully as the black people in town, is still not fully accepted as being “completely white.”

    Allison Brechdel’s Fun Home is a great book–graphic or otherwise.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s amazing to me to think about how recently some of the more overt forms of racism were commonplace. I still know people who don’t think twice about expressing racist views or using the n-word, but a lot more people now see it an unacceptable. We’ve got a long way to go still, but it is encouraging to see how far we’ve come, even in our own lifetimes.

      I hadn’t heard of The Jew Store. I’ll look into it! And I definitely want to read Fun Home sometime. Everyone I know who’s read it seems to love it.

  5. boardinginmyforties says:

    I’m always looking for good recommendations for graphic novels since I’ve only read a few and they are all so new to me. I think the fact that this one is in black and white makes it even more powerful, considering the subject matter.

    • Teresa says:

      This is a good one, even for someone who’s not used to graphic novels, because the subject matter is so compelling. She makes good use of the form, too.

  6. Pingback: TBR Reflections and Reviews~Darkroom: a memoir in black and white | Vamos a Leer

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