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7 Seiten, Note: 2,0
Graphic Narratives of Black History
June 30, 18
“A picture is worth a thousand words“, says a famous English proverb, pointing out that a complex idea can easily be conveyed with just a single still image, or that an image conveys its own meaning more effectively than a description does. By referring to Michal Chaney and Consuela Francis, this essay shall demonstrate that Kyle Baker draws in his visual narrative Nat Turner an image of the unspeakable. The target readers are helped to understand the torture and suffering of African Americans who were brought to the USA by the Middle Passage and Baker also visualizes the depression and misery of enslaved people. In order to show how this visualization works, three different panels will be described and analyzed. In the first section we will discuss how exactly Baker depicts the anxiety, horror and panic of the characters. Afterwards, it will be shown in which manner despair and gloom are portrayed, and the last section will treat the ideas of hope, optimism and faith in Nat Turner. This paper will also show how the reader gets involved into these different emotions and how he is meant to conceptualize the content of the different panels. The analyzed panels can be found in the appendix of this essay.
The first panel can be found quite at the beginning of the visual narrative and the reader learns before that a African woman has been hunted by white men until she was captured. Immediately after her capture she gets shaved and Kyla Baker provides background information by explaining that all slaves were shaved and branded in order to be distinguishable, if there were more than one owner using one and the same cargo. The actual panel is a close shot and shows how the enslaved woman, whose body is pushed to the ground, is branded by a white man, who is simultaneously seizing her head. The victim is in chains and her face is contorted, with her mouth wide open as though she were shrieking while the fiery w-formed branding iron is branding her back. The reader immediately starts to feel pity for her and since Baker claims that both female and male slaves were not only shaved, but also often branded by their masters, he reinforces this effect of feeling pity. The powerful display of the woman’s suffering under this horrible torture is meant to arouse the viewer’s empathy, to make them feel as though they were being branded themselves. Baker uses here a pars pro toto with the close-up making the reader focus on that single woman, while due do the background information provided through the panel, the viewer feels pity for all Africans watching this individual suffering. However, Baker also leads the viewer to feel antipathy towards whites, who are represented as violent, heartless and harsh. Francis states that “the violence happens without words to explain it”, meaning that the panels alone express the agony and suffering of that people and she claims that the lack of a narrator also reinforces the fact that the reader shall feel that torture, because there is “no narrative respite from the horror”(2012: 125). One could argue that Nat Turner would not have been that successful, if Baker had used text as in any other comic book, because the image would not have been as expressive as it is without words. Concerning this method, Chaney states that “Baker’s reader-viewers must become the auditors of an absent community of the ancestral dead, whose pictorial monologues cry out for our affective responses in the present” (2013: 28). The reader realizes that this kind of misery and misfortune is still existing, but not as overt as depicted in the narrative that it is everyone’s duty to fight for the abolishment of such mistreatment.
The second panel we will analyze here to depict Baker’s way of drawing the unspeakable, is in the second part of the graphic narrative where the readers become witnesses to a moment of depression and misery of African American slaves. Before, it can be seen that an African father has decided to surrender his baby to the sharks rather than letting him become a slave. Without hesitation the father throws him out of the cargo and a shark already starts snapping hungrily at it from the water below, when eventually a white man saves the baby. The actual panel portrays again a close-up where the sorrowful father is biting the hand of a man who has just saved his child. His contorted face shows again the violence with which he is biting this hand, while in in the background we can see both a white and a black spectator who are shocked, but very differently: The white man might be angry about a future slave that may have been lost, while the black man is shocked due to the tried infanticide of the father. It is important to say that the teeth of the father are clearly visible while biting the white hand that has just saved his son’s life. It leads the readers to see the anger of the father who just wanted to ‘save’ his baby from a life in slavery and again is drawn in a way so as to make the viewers feel as though they themselves were receiving the bite, feeling the pain. The powerful display of emotions makes it clear how much the father wants the infant to die rather than to live as a slave. Baker is confusing the audience in this serial of panels. In the first part of the visual narrative, they were persuaded that the whites were villains and they were lead to feel pity for the blacks. Now it is the other way around, because a black tries to kill his own baby and a white person fights to save it. However, it is also important to be aware of the fact that this panel represents a hyperbolic view of the despair and misery of African slaves. The father here is persuaded that life as a slave is worse than death and he tries to liberate him of them gloom and agony. The bite also shows the readership how serious the father is and how far he would go to ‘save’ his child. After the infant has been captured, he is still convinced that it should rather die instead of living a life as an enslaved servant. Baker also wants to put his viewership in a moral dilemma and asks them whether the father’s conduct is ethically justifiable or not, which he does successfully. The viewers cannot decide if the father is a monster who commits infanticide or a hero who saves his child by committing infanticide (cf. Francis: 126). In the next panels it can be seen that the white man accidentally drops the infant, who then falls to the shark. The readers do not see how the shark devours the baby and neither do they see a corpse of the infant. It is not necessary that Baker illustrate these panels, because first of all, everybody knows what is going to happen and secondly, it also shows that some atrocities of the Middle Passages cannot be even shown pictorially (cf. Chaney: 25).
The last panel discussed in this essay is the only horizontally extended panel in the whole graphic narrative. It can be found towards the middle of the book and is subscribed with an extended extract from the confessions of Nat Turner. Here, the protagonist is imagining that he witnesses a revelation from God and thinks himself to be a prophet, chosen by God to end all the injustice in the world. The background is extremely full of clouds which leave a circle in the middle free to allow the viewer to see the heaven. Moreover, there is a tremendous lightning and it is raining. Nat Turner’s face is contorted, with her mouth wide open as though he were shrieking and raising his fists as though to make a violent gesture towards the heavens. The viewer is confronted with a lot of visual elements: For instance the immense spectacle of nature represented as a thunderstorm. Additionally, the peace of heaven that is visible may lead the viewer to be convinced of a celestial revelation instead of only thinking that Turner is hallucinating. The readers can really hear Turner’s shriek and the thunder with the effect that they feel closer to him. His hope and optimism become clear and by reading the extract of his confessions, the reader learns that he thinks of himself as a sort of Messias who shall rescue his people from the evil. Turner thinks that he is communicating to God and that God has chosen him. This panel also shows a turning point in the visual narrative, because in the previous panels, everything you could associate with blacks was suffering, agony, torture, evoking pity, while this panel is the first one to provide a more hopeful perspective on a slave’s situation. The magnificence of the image also shows how important this panel is in relation to the whole story, and combined with the fact that the readers are provided for the first time with some utterances from Nat Turner, they are overwhelmed, overpowered and overtaken (cf. Francis: 131). His words are also extremely relevant, because they demonstrate Nat Turner as a rebel who wants to liberate all enslaved people by referring to Christianity, which also evokes another important aspect, namely that of Christian fanaticism. It is obvious that Turner incarnates Christian fanaticism and in the end, the reader learns how many innocent people die due to his religious convictions (cf. ibid.: 135).“Baker’s Nat Turner never lets us forget that this violence is a direct result of the original violence of slavery“ (ibid.).
There are also other possible interpretations: Due to the fact that these words and images do not stand alone and come immediately after the harrowing sequence of Turner’s wife and children being sold from him, one could also read the storm as a reflection of Turner’s anger and great pain (cf. Francis: 131). This panel can hence also be interpreted negatively, but because of the extract inserted by Baker, one is bent to follow the first interpretation.
To sum up, it can be seen that even though there are nearly no words used, Baker achieves to tell us the awful story of the Middle Passage. However, it is also visible that this visual narrative represents how the violence that was exercised on African slaves is transformed eventually into a violent respond on the part of the slaves. This visual narrative is a valorization of the violence in Turner’s insurrection. The panels provide the content for the readers and tell the story of a famous character in the history of slavery and the lack of words in most panels has a substantial advantage, because the reader can interpret better without any words. On the other hand, Baker’s drawings also contain sounds of screams or violence, which do provide the viewer with some sort of guidance as to what they are supposed to feel and in what way they are meant to enter the place of action. Baker’s Nat Turner shows us impressively that an image is worth a thousand words and presumably it would not have been such a success if more words were used, because the Middle Passage symbolizes agony and torture for contemporary African Americans and most of them cannot talk about this topic without being sad or remembering all the horrible instances that took place. This graphic narratives can tell us a story whose misery no words could describe.
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