Long, Mark and Jim Demonakos; illus. by Nate Powell. The Silence of Our Friends. New York : First Second, 2012. 200 pages, ages 14 and up.
This has been a really strong year for Civil Rights literature for young people. In the non-fiction field there was We’ve Got a Job : The 1963 Children’s March, for fiction there was The Lions of Little Rock, and blurring the line between the two was the very unique and completely engaging "documentary novel" No Crystal Stair. And now to round this group out, the beautifully drawn and richly told, The Silence of Our Friends. Semi-autobiographical, the story is a glimpse of how two families, one black and one white, deal with the prejudice, racial tension and violence of 1968 Houston, TX. Told through the sympathetic eye of the author’s father, a local news reporter, the book never falls into the in hindsight trap of, oh yes white people helped too. I call it “The Help” syndrome and it has become all too common lately and you know what I’m talking about. It’s the stories of a struggling black character(s) who is looking for justice and equality but they just can’t do it on their own without the help of an angelic white lady/powerful white man. Could also easily be called “The Blind Side” phenomenon. It’s this weird reverse on the old “Magical Negro” trope (a subverted version strangely worked in Django Unchained but that’s a topic for a whole other blog) and its just gross. Happily, this book avoids that, even though it is mainly from the perspective of the white news reporter and the white author.
A personal and detailed account of the court case against five black college students wrongfully accused of the murder of a police officer during what began as a peaceful protest is at the heart of the book. Long’s father was present at the event, filmed it and was called to testify in the case. Alongside these monumental events its the little daily moments, like the author and his sister watching the Saturn V launch late at night, that round out the book as a whole. Long does a wonderful job creating historical context, especially the frustration of day-to-day racial hatred which is clearly depicted in a memorable scene at a convenience store and the KKK flier left rubber banded to the Long’s door. The title comes from a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the book ends with his death. The last scene is a march of mourning citizens, both white and black that slowly start rising up from the street. It is a beautiful closing image that honors King and all of the people who were lost in the struggle for equality. My one qualm is that I wish there was more source material at the end. There is a letter from the author but I had to seek out interviews and discussions about why this book can't be cataloged as a non-fiction memoir. This book is definitely for an older crowd though, more appropriate for late middle-school and high school. There is quite a bit of language - not just the N word although it is frequent and used accurately, and depictions of alcoholism. A great resource for an American History class to get a personal look at the events of the late ‘60s.