Before Congress, before the civil rights movement, before Selma, there was just teenager John Lewis, living and working on his family peanut farm in segregated Alabama.
“’I got this comic book about the [Montgomery] bus boycott, and it was about Martin Luther King, and it was edited by Martin Luther King,’” Lewis told artists Mark Thomas Gibson and William Villalongo, curators of “Black Pulp!,” a vivid exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia for a run through April 29.
Recounting the story, Gibson said that Lewis, now a Democratic U.S. congressman from Georgia, was amazed by King’s involvement with a comic book.
“Can you imagine that Martin Luther King, who is getting harassed by cops, getting thrown in prison, forming marches, boycotts, writing, giving sermons, took the time to sit down at his coffee table to edit a comic book?” Gibson wondered. “And from that comic book, John Lewis ended up writing to Martin Luther King and Martin Luther King writes back to him and sends him a bus ticket, and that’s how John Lewis joined the civil rights movement.”
Gibson paused for a moment to let that sink in.
“That’s what comic books can do,” he said. “It’s an amazing story, and that’s why [Lewis] made the book, March.” Lewis, now an icon of the civil rights movement, is the author of the three-part graphic novel, March, which tells the story of the movement through his own eyes.
The story is an ideal analogy for “Black Pulp!,” the exhibition. In the March books, published between 2013 and 2016, Lewis speaks in his own voice, shows what he sees, and describes his own life and struggles. He possesses himself and presents himself.
“Black Pulp!” explores that exact effort by African Americans throughout the 20th century and up to the present — the effort to seize their own story, to tell it themselves, to depict themselves in a genuine way, to obliterate the racist stereotypes so present in white-dominated magazines, books, printed matter of all kinds.
It is not an exhibition of comic books, although comic book imagery is critical, beginning with All Negro Comics (1947), the nation’s first comic written and drawn entirely by African Americans (all based in Philadelphia, to boot).
Not to mention Black Panther, the first black superhero in mainstream comics, who debuted in the 1960s as a character in Marvel’s Fantastic Four.
Black Panther appeared as a guest in several issues from the 1960s and early 1970s, until he achieved solo star status in the Marvel Jungle Action books beginning in 1973.
“Black Pulp!” features a vintage 1975 Jungle Action Black Panther – “The Black Panther leaps directly into the center of the holocaust…,” one bubble next to a powerful, vengeful Panther reads, “… and he doesn’t stop there!”
How could he, stretched across two pages of glorious mayhem? This is not the stereotypical black Stepin Fetchit figure of old, the “laziest man in the world,” so beloved in popular white culture in the 1930s.
Dejay Duckett, the museum’s director of curatorial services, said there is no need to present the familiar racist imagery in the exhibition – it’s everywhere in different forms in the culture.
“It’s still very much prevalent today,” she said. “We only have to look at TV and social media to see that negative imagery. Being Americans, it’s unfortunately in our fiber, in our DNA. We’ve all seen that now. We’ve digested all of that, and now we’re really defining our own narrative from the inside out.”
That redefinition has been going on for some time in the mass media and popular culture. For instance, there are a number of books exhibited that represent major milestones on the way to a more authentic, open black identity.
The 1927 edition of James Weldon Johnson’s seminal The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man features a silhouetted black man seated on a rock gazing at massive white towers. It is instantly recognizable as the work of Aaron Douglas, whose graphic work dominated commercial printing for a time. Johnson’s novel, originally published in 1912, dealt with such explosive issues as passing for white in a country that countenanced lynching.
This older archival material rests in glass cases in the exhibit, while on the walls are contemporary works.
Here is Ellen Gallagher’s Afro-Futurist photo-based etching, Abu Simbel (2005), which speaks to a Sun Ra album cover on a wall nearby.
Here is Felandus Thames’ I’m Neutral (2010), a literally caustic satirical image of a performer in blackface whose features are obliterated by a thick layer of rock salt; it looks out onto Charles White’s 1962 lithographed image of a black man squatting beneath an umbrella in the pouring rain, intensely reading a newspaper on the ground.
Artists Kara Walker, Robert Colescott, Renee Cox, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Kerry James Marshall, and others, including several comic book artists, are represented here. Cumulatively, they present an ongoing retaking of identity that is over a century long, with artists drawing on the work of earlier artists bringing the definition of blackness ever closer to home.
“It’s important for people to understand that this work does not take place in a vacuum, so there is a real call and response in this exhibition,” said the museum’s Duckett.
“When I started making books, I started thinking about ways in which we do not know how our imagery or how our creativity will touch others,” said artist-curator Gibson. “For that reason we should try to be as clear and honest and as vulnerable as possible when we’re actually creating our work. The artists in this show do that.
“Some people have this thing: ‘Oh, it’s a black show,’” Gibson continued. “No. It’s culture. It’s history. It’s people finding ways to define themselves when others, if they were to define them, would define them in a negative light.”
Through April 29 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Weds.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $14, adults; $10 students with I.D. and youth ages 4-12. Information: 215-574-0380 or aampmuseum.org