How one educator chose comic books as a medium to talk about race and identity and created (H)afrocentric: the Comic.
For months at Oakland’s First Friday, I have been selling my comic book, (H)afrocentric: the Comic, the story of a few undergrads of color at conservative “Ronald Reagan University.” The story centers around a protagonist, Naima Pepper, and her search for a political and racial identity in an increasingly hostile world. One night, a man who bought (H)afrocentric: the Comic opened up on his take on Naima Pepper. Pepper was similar to most recently politicized activists like himself when he was in college, he said: angry at first, pessimistic about the future, and in a passing phase marked by young naiveté. I thought that perhaps my writing was not clear enough. I wondered if he had missed the part about Naima Pepper questioning everything around her because she knew her life—much like the lives of other people that looked like her—was treated with less worth. I wondered where my writing had gone wrong.
I’ve been asked a number of times why I opted to go from being an educator to becoming a comic book writer. As an educator, one of my jobs is to do what James Baldwin called "beginning a disturbance, in someone else’s mind." I taught an introduction to political consciousness informed by the works of community organizer Malcolm X, prison abolitionist George Jackson, anti-racist and anti-imperialist activist Claudia Jones, and feminist poet Audre Lorde—they were ancestors we called upon during class.
Though I now work in the medium of comic books, I still converse with them. (H)afrocentric is the practice of dreaming in pen. Historian Robin Kelley writes about the idea of freedom dreams to call upon students, teachers, readers, and activists alike to imagine a different future. (H)afrocentric is a manifesto to create and a fantasy that calls on many freedom fighters.
In (H)afrocentric, Naima Pepper dreams from the vantage point of a leftist Black woman in this current moment. Assata Shakur is elected governor of New Jersey, UC Berkeley has a George Jackson endowment chair, and Hugo “Yogi” Pinell is freed after 40 years as a political prisoner. In different moments of her life, George Jackson and W.E.B. DuBois visit her in hallucinations, dreams, and visions. At times, we aren’t sure how and why these freedom fighters appear. For advice, guidance, or comic relief?
Another main character, Elizando “El” Ramirez, dreams of a time when the land is given back to its indigenous inhabitants. And yet, in this same scene poor black folks collect cans to secure their next meal. Naima Pepper oscillates between apocalyptic visions of the future and dire concern about her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
Of course, this comic is partly autobiographical— it's a world I want to see, but also a world I believe people are afraid to see. Folks may be aware of the high rates of imprisonment, bleak numbers regarding unemployment, and diagnosis of mental illness in Black communities, but those who climb up on their soapboxes are often dismissed as pessimistic or angry. But these issues require discussion and a radical dream.
When we think of the dream, the Martin Luther King speech is given the monopoly. Not all of our freedom dreams are the same though. The worker’s dream is to earn a higher wage. The immigrant’s dream is to be financially secure and blend into the new country of origin. The woman’s dream is equal pay for equal work and complete control over her body. But what is the dream of the enslaved?
Perhaps that man who bought my book on the Oakland streets recently sees anger as harmful to health and wellness. Anger, though, is but one emotion. It can be dismissed as illegitimate or overly emotional. It can also be a powerful catalyst for action. Understanding where Naima Pepper's seemingly unadulterated anger is coming from is vital.
Naima Pepper invites us to dream bigger. Frustration can root visions of freedom as well as fears of the future. The practice of imagining a different future is in part, a suture to our lack of feeling whole. My comics are just one small way to call out the structures that limit our humanity, and my own expression of a very different imagined future.