In Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History Joel Christian Gill collects nine snapshot biographies of exceptional, yet largely uncelebrated, black men. The stories are situated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and predominantly focus on black experiences in New England, where Gill felt the need to stay out of neighborhoods in Boston after growing up in the South. Gill’s explicit goal is to “cut the rope” off of the lynching tree and harvest the strange fruit referenced in the title by shining a spotlight on stories of black excellence under highly oppressive circumstances. Gill’s mission is sorely needed in the U.S. History classroom that has a tendency to portray sweeping universal narratives that lack human complexity.
Gill’s book is essential material for any U.S. History class due to its overall mission and the highly accessible presentation of material. This would be useful for any class working in the time period, or on the black experience in America more broadly. The comics medium allows students of varying reading abilities to jump right into the stories and Gill makes the stories extremely poignant without removing the narrative’s clarity. Strange Fruit also broadens the story of black experience during slavery, reconstruction, and early Jim Crow eras. Gill’s work acts in direct opposition to history’s tendency toward the single story; a highly valuable resource for the classroom.
It is easy to tell stories of oppression in black history. There are innumerable resources, but oppression alone is too simplistic to be an accurate representation of human experience. We need stories excellence and defiance alongside stories of oppression and Gill provides that much needed complexity by helping readers explore how black people excelled despite systematic oppression, thus adding strength to their already remarkable feats. It is incredible to be a dominant cyclist, even more so as a black man in the 1890’s like Marshall Taylor. This complexity is further highlighted in the story “Richard Potter’s Greatest Illusion” in which a mixed race man presents himself as an Indian magician to great commercial success, bringing up issues of skin color and the concept of “passing”. Other success range from mastery in chess, excellence in law enforcement, and the recovery of a man’s daughter during the Civil War. By exploring a range of successful of black experience, Gill also brings humanity to the narrative of black experience, something often lacking in the U.S. history classroom’s focus on great men and great wars.
Gill’s work on New England’s black history, much like Jack Jaxon’s work on Texas History, stands as a strong example of comics as a serious historical product. Gill is not out to tell children’s stories or invent fictions. Gill and Jaxon both explicitly identify their motives and intentions through the introduction and afterwards as well as by providing a bibliography. Gill sets a strong example that students could easily follow by creating snapshot biographies of their own. There is strong educational research on the power of summary to help students understand material, and creating an illustrated snapshot biography, that is highly accessible to many audiences, would take a great deal of research and summary to produce. With appropriate structure and support students should be able to produce highly engaging work that requires the development of research, narrative writing, and historical analysis skills. There is no shortage of potential subjects.
The structure Gill presents could also be easily extended into a research project for other groups of people and other historical time periods. What would it look like for students to actively research stories of how Native Americans excelled despite consistent oppression? How powerful would it be for students to investigate the myriad of experiences involved in the Tejano experience in the American Southwest to overcome the narrative of all those of Mexican descent as being immigrants? This could even be focused to a very narrow time period and location to provide much needed depth to U.S. History and an excellent vehicle for local history projects. Time constraints and curricular guidelines can often lead to teachers covering history in broad brushstrokes and leaving details aside, but by including more individual stories students can better understand the complexities of history and marginalized groups can be brought into more deliberate focus.
If there is any major fault in Gill’s work, it would be that he includes no stories of women. There is one story that focuses on a community off the coast of Maine, but the other eight stories are all stories of black men. This does not at all take away from the qualify of Gill’s stories and I’m hopeful that in following volumes Gill spends time with stories of black women as well.