“If James Baldwin didn’t change fucking America, what’s a comic essay going to do?”

The Nib
The Nib
Jun 24, 2015 · 12 min read

Seven cartoonists discuss race, outrage, and black grief after Charleston

Ron Wimberly

With words and work from Ron Wimberly, Whit Taylor, Keith Knight, Chris Kindred, Richie Pope, Shannon Wright and Darryl Ayo. Illustration of the victims by Shing Yin Khor. Conversation has been edited for clarity.


Keith Knight: My first question is: What do you do with the Confederate Flag flying in front of the Statehouse in Columbia after nine Blacks are killed by a white racist? Do you fly it twice as high?

Ron Wimberly: I remember it being one of the first things I saw when I visited South Carolina.

My most honest reaction to the shooting was quiet shock. Then I noticed something: I’ve grown accustomed to this. I’ve grown accustomed to news of violence.

I’m in France right now, so I don’t know if the news got here yet, but no one in the Maison des Auteurs mentioned it to me. I wonder if it’ll make news here.

Earlier in the week, I had a discussion with my buddy Julian Lytle about the existence and nature of the “black community.” I mused how, since the only thing that binds the black community is an arbitrary, racist distinction, that it’s a community defined by the exclusion and othering of its members. He disagreed somewhat. I felt the reaction to the shooting was the internet’s poignant riposte.

Throughout the day, I’d impulsively check tumblr. Folk on there posted their reactions. Of the professionals who responded, all were black except one. This tweet kind of summed up my feelings as I went to bed:

My most recent reaction, one that almost precluded this response was, frankly, my grief is not a spectacle or a commodity for white people. I seriously considered removing myself from this forum. I just don’t know what use elegant essays or testifying will ultimately do. If James Baldwin didn’t change fucking America, what’s a comic essay going to do?

Darryl Ayo: As far as online responses, I’m sure that it sounds selfish to some people but I don’t like telling social media that something horrific is horrifying, or that something racist is racist. It feels to me like putting on a show.

Darryl Ayo

The thing that struck me first is that I had a Facebook friend who posted about the shooting more than ten times in a row throughout the night with a copy-pasted blurb to the effect of, “Stop talking about other things, THIS is the problem to talk about.” And as selfish and cold as it sounds, that made me unfollow that friend and shut down for the first half-hour. We’re all suffering, we’re all angry and we’re all afraid for ourselves, communities, families, friends. But why does every atrocity, horrific as each is, become an instant contest for who is properly expressing public outrage?

Not to mention, there’s being good at thinking and good at writing. I will flatter myself and say that I think I am good at both thinking and writing. And I therefore see when some people are only good at one, not the other. Waking up at 6:30 in the morning to a dozen posts from one person practically accusing the reader (other black folks) of not sufficiently caring or accusing us of caring about the wrong issues — before even finding out the news ourselves — it puts one on the defensive simply because somebody woke up before you and simply because that person performs their outrage.

There is also a very real problem that I face and also many black people need to admit that we face: high blood pressure, lowered life expectancy. I can’t do the performative outrage with people every day — and it is literally every single day, racism does not take a holiday — while expecting to live long.

These people are literally going to kill me.

Shing Yin Khor

The violent and racist cops, the violent and racist civilians, the ambient racist atmosphere and last of all, the stress. The constant demands on the mind, the constant and quite literal demands to always be mourning, to Talk About the REAL Issues or risk being branded as somehow uncaring by our own people, as though somehow I don’t realize that this affects us all!

No more of that for me. I have to think of my own black life. My own survival. My own blood pressure.

I still get very carried away with my emotions and I think that people (black, white, etc.) enjoy and romanticize the hyper-verbal, continuous process of public response without taking seriously how much it costs.

Shing Yin Khor

Richie Pope: I’m always bouncing between cynicism and hope these days, trying to figure out what to say, how to say it and if I even should.

I’m glad you shared that status from Julian, Ron. I had to go back and fav/RT that joint and print it out and frame it, lol. How I felt as a child vs. an adult is so jarring. That racism aged our families with the quickness.

I’ve grown used to the killings too. It’s physical and psychological killing. I see it in my friends, my family, in the mirror. Living while black is more than just literally being alive. I’m not just grateful for the basic stuff I have. To even ask for more than the basic struggle narrative we get attached to is an act of social rebellion, so I’m trying to rebel for life.

Shing Yin Khor

I’m also with you, Ron, on the idea of grief as entertainment. Bad things happening to people is sadly entertaining, but especially when it comes to black people, like we’re all fictional characters. Like we all just live in a minstrel show and the audience throws tomatoes at our protests, bullets at our churches and slurs at our children. Like a jeering crowd and to have the consciousness about it is frustrating. How can I reach out to people without becoming something for people to oggle at and experience pain by proxy?

At the same time, I do feel like connecting to other black people I’ve never met has been the most fulfilling thing. With the mental and physical killing, I think we forget a lot of black folks of all ages need to feel like they deserve to be alive. Other people are just learning that there is even a problem, so excuse me if my immediate sympathies in this lifetime are not to save folks from their ignorance.

There was a white man who threatened a church here in Richmond Thursday night saying he was going to kill people and shouting all types of racist slurs.

It’s sad that I have in my mind various ways as to how I could die at the hands of racism. That shouldn’t even have to be in my thought process, but here I am. Literally threats of immediate death down the street from me.

I’ve been seeing people share Jon Stewart’s reaction video and I thought this tweet was very appropriate:

I don’t know. I’m just kind floating through all this and I just want black folks to feel like the can see the world and live as complete human beings in spite of this trash that we’re wading in as a culture.

I’m also really tired of people being so ignorant of racism and how it works that they think a white supremacist terrorist is just a little loony, like he wasn’t born and raised and bathed in it.

Ron Wimberly: Word. They like, “he crazy!” I’m like, “You’re crazy for thinking he’s just crazy.”

Whit Taylor

Richie Pope: Yea. Like, “Racism is a thing bad people do. I don’t think I’m a bad person so I’m fine.” Racism treated as accusation. Something you are or something you’re not.

Whit Taylor: As much as I use social media and appreciate its value, it’s often times like this when I have to step away to retain some sanity. MSNBC is on as I visit with family. I’m exhausted at the spectacle and lack of good journalistic practices I’m seeing (albeit, way better than Fox). More words, opinions, speculation, etc. is not useful in having a substantive dialogue or actually changing the dysfunctional structures of our society and government that allow for these things to happen.

Going back to social media, while I wholeheartedly support getting rid of the confederate flag, I get wary of online petitions and other “awareness” campaigns, as they often require little effort to support and no real behavioral or structural change.

Is he a terrorist? Yes, I think so. Is he mentally ill? I don’t know and it’s irrelevant. Did he do it because he was mentally ill? No. He did it because he was a hateful person.

Keith Knight

Shannon Wright: Whitney, I agree with you. I don’t think getting rid of a symbol of racism, the Confederate flag, is going to do much of anything because people will just find yet another object to serve as the embodiment of their hatred towards black people. It’s like, “OK, you took that away, here’s another thing we’ll use to hurt you.”

Richie Pope: The Confederate flag is a tangible thing for “good guys” to rally against without really thinking about themselves. There’s not enough introspection about racism. It’s often a game of Find The Racist and if they can’t find the evil villain, then where is the racism? So I get why people want the flag taken down, but it’s not like it’s the life force of racism. Americans get a tiny tangible victory and then claim racism is over. Seeing small progresses of basic decency as the deathstroke against racism instead of being in spite of it. Like a whole group of Americans have been weight-training and the rest are like, “Damn, this five pounds sure is heavy, but I lifted it! Aren’t we both equally strong?”

Ron Wimberly

Shannon Wright: Besides the way they’ve been trying to humanize this terrorist, notice how they have been treating him in terms of arrest and handling of the situation. The man was given a bullet proof vest while being escorted, with no handcuffs in sight or a gun to his head or bodily harm. Can’t say the same for all the black victims wrongfully handled by police.

Richie Pope: Obviously the way police handle us at times is wildly different, but I personally find the comparisons a little reaching for me. Eric Garner is man who just sold some loosies from time to time and got choked on the street. Dylan is a literal white supremacist terrorist. The police were not about to shoot him without a case. I feel like if they shot at him, they would’ve probably killed him? I keep seeing this comparison and I don’t think it’s as poignant as people think it is. I don’t have a better analogy off top either.

You’re so used to the internet and getting real firsthand accounts of things live that you forget a lot of people aren’t hip to that. They’re still on that TV news and then joining the conversation with talking points they’ve heard all day with no analysis. Sometimes just straight up misinformation. This muddies the whole conversation. Like, it’s not a gun control issue. This dude would’ve found another way to hurt black people if he didn’t have a gun.

All this is like a bully just relentlessly coming at you and school administration demanding you be the person to respond with grace and class. You hit the bully back and you get suspended too.

Chris Kindred

It’s weird. Like with the Confederate flag thing, I’ve found that a lot of bigotry gets wrapped up in whiteness and identity. Like, “My identity is what I’m not. I’m not those Blacks or Asians, or — ” so if you get rid of the flag, that’s a slight against “heritage” and “identity” which gets tied into parts of whiteness and supremacy. At the same time, I do think that socializing people the other way by saying, “this thing right here is wrong and here’s why” does have an effect. Not nearly enough to dismantle all this trash but, I don’t know. I’m still a bit optimistic.

Keith Knight: I’ve got a writer friend who spends a lot of time interviewing and writing about these loons who are stocking up on weaponry and preparing for the upcoming “race war.”

Some whites see three blacks at the public pool, and suddenly we’re taking over.

Richie Pope

Shannon Wright: I am tired, and a part of me doesn’t have the strength to be around my friends and colleagues who aren’t the least bit aware of what’s going on or care. I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it and I’ve laid in bed a good portion of the day asking myself and no one in particular, “Why do so many people hate us?”

Chris Kindred: I’ve been realizing the psychological toll Charleston has had on me, as well as another facet of being Black in America. The culture of sharing pain and the hurricanes of recounts of violence against our people and seeing ignorance and having that constant expectation to educate others or retell or reread the trauma. It’s exhausting, I’m sure you all here know that too well.

Darryl Ayo: I feel strongly that the push toward public performance of pain and grief is a re-traumatization which increases the burden on the psyche of black people. It seems that we are expected to express grand gestures of outrage, sadness and eventually forgiveness; at the same time, we are are denied by much of white America the validity of our thoughts, feelings and responses.

It all functions in concert in such a way that prevents us from solving the issues. Not only solving but even processing these atrocities.

Shannon Wright

I’ll close with a little thing:

I’m an atheist but I used to be a dedicated Christian when I was a kid. I was raised that way and so I was. I had a bad habit, an obsessive-compulsive habit, of praying whenever I found out that a person, any person, had died. I would watch the nightly news and I would twist myself into anguished contortions because it’s difficult to allow oneself to go to sleep when one has absorbed the pseudo-responsibility of asking god to watch over the soul of every person who dies in New York and nearby New Jersey. I fortunately pulled myself from that and pulled myself from Christianity (for other reasons) but this tendency toward performative grieving, even to oneself is self-destructive. It becomes impossible for people to be people when we are constantly demanding a compliance of proper and sufficient outrage and displays of sadness.

Ron Wimberly: An emphatic amen to both of your sentiments.

Whit Taylor: I’m also in agreement with what all of you are saying. I’m emotionally exhausted from this.

Actually it’s cumulative exhaustion.


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The Response

Cartoonist collective on race, class, gender and culture

The Nib

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The Response

Cartoonist collective on race, class, gender and culture

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