There are books for young people that I happily recommend for adults, and there are books for adults that I happily recommend to young people. I’m not entirely sure which category John Lewis’s March falls into. Like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, it’s frequently considered YA, and also like The Book Thief, I’m very happy when I see that a bookstore has it on the adult shelves as well. Unlike The Book Thief, I frequently recommend March to kids as young as twelve.
I frequently recommend it to pretty nearly everyone.
March is a memoir in three graphic novels (March: Book One and so on) about John Lewis’s work as a young man in the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others. The series is co-written by Rep. Lewis and Andrew Aydin and drawn and lettered by Nate Powell. It includes landmark events through the late 1960s, many of which John Lewis witnessed and participated in firsthand, and frames everything with Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
It’s vivid and evocative, beautifully drawn and extremely well-written. I’d recommend it on those grounds alone.
But one of the most fascinating things about March is the way it plucks a piece of the civil rights movement from its place in a sweeping historical timeline and sets it down as a specific story made up of people, groups, and ideas. It firmly puts aside some notion of an inexorable move towards justice to show us the work, which was long and slow and certainly didn’t have a preordained outcome.
Partly the series accomplishes this feat through the direct, personal nature of the narrative—the story that’s told—but there’s also a large part of it that has to do with how that story is told, and that’s maybe the most fascinating thing of all. At least to me.
The quiet, unassuming, deeply effective strategy is this: while March relates each of its plotlines—the historical one with young John Lewis, and the more recent one with Rep. Lewis on inauguration day, which is a different kind of historical—in largely chronological order, it jumps back and forth between the two, and in its chronology it includes events that John didn’t see in person but found out about on television or through friends. There were marches that happened while he was in jail; murders like those of Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X; and other triumphs and other deaths, far too many of the latter. This jumble of scenes could become confusing in less capable hands, but the books’ creators know what they’re doing, and the story never feels disjointed. The strong black ink wash drawings keep a cohesive flow to the work in spite of the jumps in time.
And the payoff for their strategy is significant. The non-linear narrative breaks the spell of implicit cause-and-effect-and-cause-and-effect that is so seductive in relating history. This thing happened, and then this thing happened after, and so the one must be linked to the other—we know it’s not always true, but when we read everything on one long run, it can be hard to shake the feeling that events snowball into each other and gain momentum as they go. March shakes that feeling for us by drawing its connections between past and present, among people and places, instead of between one event and the next.
The cumulative effect is that where our history books tell us what happened, March reminds us with striking clarity that it didn’t have to happen that way.
No one had to pass the discriminatory laws that became the system of institutionalized racism that we’re still untangling to this day. No one had to stand up to those laws. No one had to march from Selma to Montgomery in the spring of 1965, and God knows, no one had to organize the segregationist gang that attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. No one had to do any of those things. They only happened because people chose them.
And even when those people followed through on their decisions, the outcomes weren’t guaranteed.
They never are.
We tell ourselves that history is on our side. We tell ourselves in stories and in songs that one day we’ll be vindicated—that what we do today will have the outcome we want tomorrow, or if not tomorrow then in days to come. We have to believe it, I guess. We have to believe that what we do matters. And it does matter, but not because history is on our side. There’s not some kind of grand, shining arc of fate we can follow if we’re just strong enough or brave enough. There’s only the claustrophobic fact that we exist here, now, in this precise moment, and that have to make the most of it. We choose a direction to walk without knowing what’s coming up the road. We can always look backwards, but we can’t see what happens next.
We never can. We speculate to no end about what’s coming and what we’ll do, but until we live it—and we will live it, because time moves forward and doesn’t stop, regardless of our opinions on the subject—until we live it, there’s no way to know for sure.
And whatever we live, doing the best we can in our given circumstances…that becomes history. All of the messy decisions we make; all of our mistakes; all of the steps we take down roads where we have only the haziest idea of what lies ahead; these will become our history. Some of it will be recorded, and some of it will be lost to time, but it will have happened anyway.
We don’t get to abdicate our role in that. If we try to stand still and close our eyes and pretend that the air around us is still and the path is clear and bright, if we lie to ourselves and say that believing in a goal is the same as pursuing it; well, those are steps like any others, and they can become our history just as easily. More easily, sometimes. Time marches on and doesn’t much care if we wish we could turn it back.
John Lewis took step after step after metaphorical step even when he couldn’t see what was coming. He took physical ones even when what he could see was a line of state troopers out for blood. He hasn’t stopped walking today.
We don’t know what happens next. We never do.
Read these books. I don’t say that very often. Stories are deeply personal things, meaning different things to different people and different things to the same people at different times in their lives. Context matters. Individual people’s contexts matter.
So, keeping in mind that I completely respect your right to ignore or disagree with anything I say for any reason:
Read these books.