28 Days Are Not Enough: Joel Christian Gill on Adapting Black History into Graphic Novel Format

Graphic novelist Joel Christian Gill speaks about his graphic novels on Black history as well as the challenges of adapting Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning.

The first comics that Joel Christian Gill made were about individual people and moments in Black history, but now he shifts to a bird’s-eye view as he adapts Ibram X. Kendi’s history of racism in America, Stamped from the Beginning, into graphic novel form for Ten Speed Press.

Gill, who is an associate professor of illustration at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, started his comics career with mini-comics about figures in Black history, such as Box Brown, an enslaved man who was shipped to freedom in a wooden box. That led to two series of graphic novels about Black history: Strange Fruit, which collects brief stories, and Tales of the Talented Tenth, longer biographies of Black people whose accomplishments have been largely overlooked. Gill is also the author of the picture book Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride. Earlier this year, he shifted gears with the memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph over Violence. He recently wrapped up the third volume of Tales of the Talented Tenth, this one featuring Robert Smalls, which will be published in February 2021.

We asked Gill to talk about how the different aspects of his work fit together and the importance of recognizing Black history as an integral part of American history.


You created the hashtag #28DaysAreNotEnough to make the point that Black history should not be confined to February. Is that hashtag still needed?

I think so. I was talking to my mom about how I didn’t learn about Juneteenth, even though I’m from the South, until I was in high school, and she said, “We always celebrated. We always studied that.” It dawned on me at that moment that there is an entire generation of people who went to segregated schools and knew all this history that I am telling everybody else about. Black History Month, for my mom, was 12 months because when she was in school it was always integrated into their curriculum.

When we had integration—which wasn’t really integration; it was forced assimilation—Black cultural identity wasn’t integrated into American schools in a way that was respectful. It was more like, “We are just going to forget about this stuff.” The dominant society has told the nondominant society, “You need to be like us,” and that is something that Black people have accepted, as opposed to thinking about how important and integral a part those separate cultures become when you put them together and study them alongside each other.

I just finished the book Tales of the Talented Tenth: Robert Smalls. The first law in America that required public education and funding was written by a former enslaved African man named Robert Smalls. That’s a huge contribution. The most popular music in America is hip-hop. That started in the African American community. Country music and bluegrass were basically enslaved African music; the banjo was a modified African gourd. That’s “white people” music now. So Black people are a small percentage in the population but a large percentage of culture.

So 28 days are still not enough. We are still not talking about these things. We are still looking at Black people in America as assimilating, as opposed to true integration.

Do you think there is more consciousness of this now?

I think there is. When Angela Davis said “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be not racist, you have to be anti-racist,” that was controversial, but now everybody is saying that. Everybody is trying to figure out how you be antiracist. I just hope it doesn’t become superficial platitudes. My fear is that we are just going to celebrate Juneteenth but we are not going to think about structural racism and how it affects Black and brown and poor people on every single level.

Racism is like an algorithm that you set in place. You don’t have to go in and tweak it; it just runs in the background and will run forever unless you do something specific to stop it. When we’re talking about it in the context of schools, studies have shown that SATs don’t indicate success level in college. The only thing they indicate is how much money you have, and because poverty in America has been tied to race, in a lot of cases because of systematic racism, that disproportionately affects Black and brown people. If you believe that all people are equal and something is affecting Black or brown people or some minority group more than others, you have to look at that policy and not say that these people are different. Because if you say these people are different, that’s a racist idea.

Your approach to history up till now has been to tell stories about individuals, rather than broad swaths of history. Why is that?

The way in which we look at Black history in America was always the first person who did this or the first black person who did this. It didn’t show the Black contribution in a way that I thought was more holistic. Looking at the Black experience in America, it became clear to me that the people in Strange Fruit and the stories that I’ve told are people who exemplify what it means to be American in a way that people have ignored: The rugged individualism and the bootstrap mentality. Black people had to do that. It wasn’t “We are going to do this because it’s an American ideal”— it’s “We are going to do this because America is legitimately hindering us and putting up walls behind it.”

So what do we do? We build our own Black Wall Street. We build our own community. After the Civil War there were 150 all-Black towns in Oklahoma, which would have been in a desolate area full of nothing. So Black people were striking out and saying we are going to create this, we are going to create our own way of life, and that’s what we personify as Americans. That’s the ideal.

What I did was try to find people who exemplify that American experience that we say we value but we don’t value when we see Black people. We look at it as somehow other, as a "credit to their race," as opposed to something that is quintessentially American.

Stamped from the Beginning is a book that covers a huge swath of history. How are you adjusting your style and your working process for this book?

The way I’m approaching it is telling how these people—Cotton Mather, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. du Bois—were defined by the ideas that permeated them. Look at Cotton Mather, all these things were floating around him, and so he becomes the vehicle by which all these ideas are consolidated into a founding doctrine of racist ideas. It’s the same with Thomas Jefferson: All of those ideas, the Enlightenment, this whole idea about how you’re racist and you’re pro-slavery but you’re also anti-slavery, you’re both of these things at the same time, and how that comes out as part of the founding doctrine. It’s a lot of little vignettes of stories and then a lot of things I am putting into it that aren’t in the book.

Like what?

In the pitch we did, there’s a section where I have Richard Mather and John Cotton and Henry Dunster as big-head cartoons talking to one another, and there are these antiracist ideas that happened early on that don’t make it into their doctrine. One of them is Herodotus, who says, “The Nubians are the most handsome people.” I have Cotton, Dunster, and Mather saying, “That doesn’t seem quite right. Their faces aren’t white.” Then there’s another one where Alkidamas said, “The deity gave liberty to all men, and nature created no one a slave,” and then I have one of them say, “Then who is going to build our nation?” And the last one is St. Augustine saying, “Whoever is born anywhere is a human being, however strange they may appear,” and I have Cotton saying, “Of course he would say that. Look at him!” because he’s brown.

thumbnails and notes from Stamped, the graphic novelWhen I was reading the books, every time I saw those foundational racist ideas, I saw them in black word balloons that were just dripping. I always remember the word balloons in “Bone” that looked really creepy—you could just hear the voice. So in my version of Stamped, all the word balloons that house racist ideas will be black word balloons that are dripping, so you can distinguish them visually on the page to know that these are racist ideas that permeate society.

You dedicated the first volume of Strange Fruit to “all those who freed themselves by cutting the rope.” Can you explain that?

The thing that I consciously didn’t say is the rope is gone. They didn’t remove the rope; they cut it. The symbolic noose of what America is, is still there. It’s still present; it’s still this thing that hangs over us as Black people. It’s in the comment section of a Facebook post: “The problem with Black people is….” “Black kid gets killed by drive-by shooting—that’s Black on Black violence.” But we never talk about white on white violence. There’s always this paternalistic and patronizing thing in which we talk about race in America. That is that noose that’s left over from when we cut the rope.

Barney Ford escaped from slavery and became one of the richest men in Colorado. They called him the Baron of Colorado. For him to do this in the 19th century, when everything was set up against him, is pretty incredible. It’s incredible to become a millionaire, but it’s also incredible to become a millionaire when everything in the system is set up against you.

Whatever you believe about the Horatio Alger myth, Black people as a whole actually personify that entire thing. To go from something that is not even considered human to becoming senators, doctors, lawyers, presidents—that’s the Horatio Alger story that we don’t celebrate in America. The stories in Strange Fruit were me trying to make that argument that we should celebrate these people because they exemplify what it is to be an American.

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Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, editor of the “Good Comics for Kids” blog, writes “Stellar Panels” SLJ’s graphic novels column. 

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