Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, April 13, 2023

Thursday, April 13, 2023: Maximum Shelf: The Talk

Henry Holt & Company: The Talk by Darrin Bell

Henry Holt & Company: The Talk by Darrin Bell

Henry Holt & Company: The Talk by Darrin Bell

Henry Holt & Company: The Talk by Darrin Bell

The Talk

by Darrin Bell

In his first memoir, The Talk, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Darrin Bell delivers an intimate, incisive depiction of coming of age as a Black boy in the United States. Since his work was first published in 1995, Bell has made readers think and feel, through his editorial cartoons and comic strips about politics, family, culture, and current events. This full-length graphic memoir about growing up, building a career in the public eye, and raising a family is no different. Bell begins and ends the book with "The Talk," the conversation during which parents teach their Black children about anti-Blackness: why the people and institutions they encounter will treat them differently, and how to try to stay safe in a racist world.

Bell opens The Talk with powerful imagery that he revisits in later chapters: Darrin and his brother encounter a pack of aggressive neighborhood dogs; he is told they'll leave him alone if he stands still and puts his hands out for them to sniff. This danger stalks him through his life. When Darrin is six years old, he wants a water gun to play with. His mother tells him no, and sits him down to have The Talk. Later, he sneaks out to play with the green water gun his mother eventually bought him. That night, he has a chilling encounter with a police officer as he's bent over a puddle, refilling the neon green toy. He holds his hands out so the officer--face melding into that of a dog--can see they're empty.

In a style quite different from Bell's syndicated editorial cartoons and comic strips, The Talk is illustrated with inks primarily washed with deep blue or tan. Color is employed strategically: the dark blue-gray initially seen on the dogs haunts Darrin through the pages, while occasional full-color images attract the eye. When Trayvon Martin is murdered, for example, the word "thug" is written in red over white text that reads "child." Color is also present in recurring images that tie the narrative together. In addition to the dog motif, close-up panels featuring eyes are a frequent feature. Usually in bright color, the images reflected in Darrin's eyes are an effective shorthand. Sometimes they call back to a previous scene, sometimes they're as simple as a flashing red siren. In one panel sequence, readers see several racist events in the eyes of former president Donald Trump.

Bell has mastered the art of distilling powerful messages into just a few panels. In one scene, Bell and his college girlfriend are pulled over in Berkeley while headed to dinner in a rental car. The author gives the officer the same face as the officer who confronted him when he was six years old:

"He asks us how we got into Cal. I tell him my high school G.P.A., my AP test scores, even the topic of my essay. He asks my major, and he asks how I could afford to pay for this rental.

"When I tell him I'm a cartoonist for the Daily Cal, and I've been published in the LA Times, he scoffs in disbelief. When I tell him I also work security for Cal Performances, he asks my supervisor's name. I tell him with no hesitation.

"That's when he tells us we're lucky we got in before Prop 209. He holsters his gun.

"I hadn't even noticed he'd been holding it."

Thirty years later, the incident is etched in Bell's memory. The danger and trauma of this traffic stop is memorable but not singular: it's the experience of driving as a Black man in the United States.

With the insight of an editorial cartoonist, Bell takes readers through many of the big events in the United States over the last few decades, including the 1991 beating of Rodney King, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, legalization of gay marriage in 2015, and the Covid-19 pandemic. He also focuses on some that were closer to home for him, such as the passing of the anti-affirmative action California Prop 209 the officer refers to when he's pulled over.

As Bell curates a collection of moments for the reader, he chooses many that don't cast him in a flattering light: he wants readers to know that not only has he experienced prejudice, he's been complicit at times. A white teacher tells young Darrin he's "one of the good ones," and while he interrogates what that means, he ultimately takes it as a compliment. He judges his mother for her "scenes," cringing as she takes a racist teacher to task. He even draws an editorial cartoon after the bombing of the Twin Towers that portrays the hijackers looking exactly like Osama bin Laden; a mother of a Sikh boy writes to Bell about the fallout of that cartoon, and Bell stops his editorial cartoons for two years.

Prejudice is so pervasive it's absorbed by everyone, even those who experience mistreatment. Bell assumes readers know objectively that racism is wrong, but not necessarily the bone-deep impacts of the daily, lifelong experience of a boy on the receiving end. This is a depiction of one man's journey to unlearn the Black exceptionalism programming installed in him by society and to find his authentic voice in the process. His confusion, frustration, and fear are palpable, but so is his determination.

Darrin has a life: he builds a career, falls in and out of love, has children. And then, no matter his achievements, he has to give his six-year-old son The Talk. Herein lies the heart of the book: it doesn't matter who Bell is, who his son is, who his beloved wife and daughter are, he still has to tell his son that his world will see him as a threat.

The Talk speaks to a wide audience. It's funny: Bell learned early to use humor as a form of self-defense. It's a how-to guide: Black families will see themselves in the pages and be able to discuss it with their children. It's a compelling life story and a letter to his son. For readers of Between the World and Me and graphic memoirs like Fun Home, The Talk is an essential conversation. --Suzanne Krohn

Holt, $29.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781250805140, June 6, 2023

Henry Holt & Company: The Talk by Darrin Bell

Darrin Bell: You Can't Wish This Away

Darrin Bell received the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, the 2016 Berryman Award for Editorial Cartooning, the 2015 RFK Award for Editorial Cartooning, and UC Berkeley's 2015 Daily Californian Alumni of the Year Award. He began his career in 1995 at the age of 20. While serving as the Daily Californian's staff cartoonist, he began freelancing for the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Oakland Tribune. In 1997, he co-created the comic strip Rudy Park, and launched his comic strip Candorville in 2003; both are still in syndication. Bell is also a contributing cartoonist for the New Yorker. His first memoir, The Talk (Holt, June 6, 2023), captures the experience of growing up with pervasive anti-Blackness in the United States, framed through the lens of receiving, as a child, and giving, as a parent, "The Talk."

You were working on a different story, one about three generations of men in your family. What led to publishing The Talk first?

George Floyd's murder and the summer of protest. My editor felt that there was an immediate need for this story to be added to the national conversation, and I agreed with her. I think what went unsaid between us was that we knew there would only be a brief window in time when white Americans would be paying attention to this topic. We knew a backlash against it was coming (a harsh anti-Black backlash, followed by exasperation with the whole matter, has followed every brief moment of awakening since Reconstruction), and we wanted this book to arrive sooner rather than later.

I began working on it [that summer]. Originally, I didn't mention the looming backlash, because I'd hoped this time it would be different. But by the time it was nearly finished, Ron DeSantis and the rest of the Republican Party had a "demonize CRT and wokeness" machine up and running. America's right wing was working overtime not just to bury its head in the sand and ignore race, but to whitewash history and make the discussion of racism feel as if it's taboo. So I revised the page where my son and I were watching the protests together, and he asked me what it all meant. I acknowledged on that page that I'd been hoping against hope that this time it would be different, and that I was being naive.

Most of the book is in inks with a blue wash, but you've made strategic color choices on some pages. Police car lights are in bright red and blue, but you've highlighted everyday items, too: Mr. Potato Head, televisions, the water gun. Can you tell us about your treatment of color in the book?

I used color to represent indelible moments that were burned into my memory, either as moments of refuge or moments of terror. I was what we called at the time a "latch key kid." My parents both worked, so Steven and I let ourselves in after school and had a couple hours to kill before our parents got home. Steven usually did his homework during that time, but toys, TV, and comic books usually filled my time. Robotech, He-Man, and G.I. Joe were more vivid to me than reality was. They were definitely more reliable; at the end of every episode or story arc, there was something that was missing from reality: justice.

It's early 2020, the world is shut down and you're trying to summon the courage to give your son The Talk. You remember your dad turning away when you tried to talk to him about racism. Your white mom was the one who sat down with six-year-old Darrin. Throughout the book, you highlight the ways women stood up for you, or didn't, and helped you form your views. How does gender play a role in the conversation at large?

Gender plays a role in the experiences we can relate. There are a whole different set of concerns, and threats, and ways of responding to them, depending on what gender you are. We know that instinctively, even when we're small children.

When my mom gave me the talk, I had no questions for her because I wanted to know what my father's experiences were. Likewise, when they took me to visit my grandfather, it was my grandfather's experiences I most wanted to hear about, not my grandmother's. Because I could imagine myself in his shoes, but not in hers. If my father had been the one to give me the talk, I would've immediately understood that I was going to face an echo of his experiences. But because my mother gave me the talk, I instinctively knew that this was second-hand information she was giving me. Just like I know that if I try to tell my daughters about sexism, they're going to instinctively know that I'm only telling them what I've witnessed, not what I've experienced, and they're not going to value it as much as when it comes from their mother.

Over time, though, my father continued to deflect every serious question (about any topic) while my mother tackled them head on. I began to see it differently. I saw her advice as more trustworthy, precisely because it wasn't clouded by personal experience or personal hang-ups. She was thinking about things logically, telling me what she'd witnessed and what she'd learned, not hiding things from me because they were too difficult to talk about, or because she knew how hearing those things would affect me.

I want my son to learn that women's opinions are valuable early, so I made sure the talk came from both of [his parents], not just me.

Another turning point is when a professor accuses you of plagiarism with no grounds. After years of excusing racism as ignorance, you had to face it from someone who really knew you. The panel reads, "It's as if I'm opening my mouth but my MOTHER'S voice is coming out." How do you feel as an adult about her "scenes"?

I understand them now. When I was small, I thought she was being unfair. I thought that racism was just a function of ignorance. I thought those people didn't know any better and didn't deserve to be yelled at. I felt humiliated to be associated with someone who would castigate people instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt. But now I know she was old enough and wise enough to recognize malice--not just ignorance--when she saw it. And malice should be called out for what it is, not ignored in an effort to be the bigger person.

There's a panel late in the book in which you look into a shop window and see Trayvon Martin's face, round with youth, looking back at you from his hoodie. On the same page, you say you won your Pulitzer not for saying how to fix what's wrong, but for "pointing out what's broken." What are your hopes for this book?

My hope is simply that people will stop pretending it's not broken, and admit that it needs to be fixed, not ignored and wished away. --Suzanne Krohn

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