While teaching a class on the prison industrial complex at Laney College in Oakland, California, Juliana “Jewels” Smith was trying to experiment with new ways to engage her students. One day, she decided to bring in an instructional aid not typically used in classrooms: comic books, including The Real Cost of Prisons Comix.
The decision was not just a success — her students loved it — but fortuitous, too. Soon, Smith found herself writing her own comic with an eye toward social justice.
Inspired in part by Boondocks — which taught her that “I could be unapologetically radical and Black in a comic book” — Smith began working on (H)afrocentric, a witty and pointed look at a group of disgruntled undergrads navigating their way through the cheekily named Ronald Reagan University. The comic is produced along with Ronald Nelson, who provides original illustrations, and Mike Hampton, who handles coloring and lettering.
The comic is based on a word defined and devised by Smith herself, who handily shares it in dictionary-ready form:
Hafrocentric\h-a-fro-sen-trik\ adj: Emphasis on the difficulties of being Afrocentric in a Eurocentric world: relating to, measured from, or as if observed from one’s blackness.
The parenthetical (H) is a nod to the comics’ two main characters, siblings Naima and Miles Pepper, who are mixed black and white. “The pronunciation and spelling of (H)afrocentric comes from mixing half + afrocentric = (H)afrocentric,” Smith says. It also ties in to the comics’ tagline, “Because it’s hard being Afrocentric in a Eurocentric world.”
In addition to tackling racial issues, Smith has said she wants her comic to serve as a “feminist version of Boondocks.” In that comic, she says, the women characters “came off as one-dimensional. I wanted to create a world where Black women were smart and thoughtful, but still given the space to have contradictions.”
The comic is also a reflection of the creator herself — a hallmark of much great art — including Smith’s activism and relationship with her own brother. “I purposely used the soapbox as Naima Pepper’s weapon of choice to take a crack at myself and activists alike, who lean towards self-righteousness,” she says. “I also wanted Naima Pepper to have Black feminist politics with millennial sensibilities.”
Too often, comics are dismissed as childish or rudimentary, a reductionism that overlooks how much power they can have in shaping discourse, including around issues of social justice. When Smith is asked why she turned to comics to explore complicated themes surrounding race, gender, and sexuality, she says:
“In my experience, comics allow for a reimagining of new and different worlds. Naima Pepper might live in a world where gentrification and police violence exist, but how she resists those realities is funny and ironic. That’s especially empowering if you are coming from a reality that dehumanizes and devalues your skin color, gender, or sexual orientation on a daily basis.”
Smith’s work taps into not only a longstanding tradition of independent comics tackling social justice (Smith singles out Brotherman, for example), but an increasing focus on such themes in the mainstream — Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona Harvey, for instance, were recently recruited to produce comics for the behemoth Marvel brand. “The importance of producing the kind of content I want to see can’t be overstated,” she says. “I’m unabashedly talking about Black Lives Matter in this comic!”
As for what’s next for Juliana and her team, they recently finished their fourth volume of the comic book, and are looking next to produce an (H)afrocentric animated series (which you can support via Patreon here).
Starting today, you can get your dose of (H)afrocentric here at The Establishment, beginning with the four-panel strip below, and continuing with a new syndicated panel released each Sunday in the coming weeks.