by Lila Quintero Weaver
Last September at the Comadres and Compadres Writers Conference in Brooklyn, NY, I listened as Daisy Hernandez stated her belief that memoir writing arises from the unanswered questions a writer has about her own life. For me, by contrast, starting a memoir is what led me to realize I had questions.
Before beginning my writing journey, it had never occurred to me that there was anything remotely fascinating about my life. I’d grown up as an immigrant child from Argentina in Marion, a tiny dot of a town in the Black Belt region of Alabama, where for most of our 12 years in residence we were the only Latin@s. But then I realized that our isolation at this time and in this place was a story.
How big of a role did this cultural setting, with its legacy of racism, play in making me who I am? That was one of my biggest questions, and eventually, my outsider status and my awakening to racial inequity formed the narrative core of my graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White (The University of Alabama Press, 2012).
[Note: All the art in this post is from Darkroom. Click on images to enlarge the view.]
My family’s arrival in Alabama synched up perfectly with several hallmark events in the Civil Rights Movement. We first briefly lived in Birmingham, where within six weeks of our arrival, the Freedom Riders rolled up to the bus depot and into the hands of a vicious mob. Then we moved to Marion, where racial segregation ruled every conceivable setting. Most white people seemed perfectly at home with this arrangement, but it made me deeply uneasy, even at age six.
In 1965, African Americans across the Black Belt region were attempting to register as voters, but local officials obstinately barred the way. That February 18th, in Marion’s city square, a white mob clashed with a group of mostly local black protesters, while police stood idly by or participated in the beatings. My father witnessed some of these horrors and so did a host of other citizens, yet none of my teachers ever addressed these events. February 18th and everything surrounding it was quickly swept aside as if it had never happened.
I’d always known that a young black activist had been shot by a state trooper that night, but I’d never actually heard his name—Jimmie Lee Jackson. I did not know that his death—eight days later at Good Samaritan Hospital, in nearby Selma—had triggered Bloody Sunday, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
My father died in 1995 before I ever thought to press him for details of what he saw during the violent clash. Among other things, I would have asked how witnessing such brutality at close hand affected his view of America. For decades, the only reason his account of that night didn’t fade from memory completely was because of some home movies he’d taken around the same time. They showed peaceful protest marches in the days leading up to February 18th.
After the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, civil rights activists set their sights on desegregating public schools. This time, I was the eyewitness to history—not that any child understands federal court orders, states’ rights battles, or the long, embittered tug-of-war to sort them out. Those questions would come later.
In 2004, I went back to college to complete my degree. That’s when I started to make up lost ground on the history of my region. The last thing on the checklist before graduating was a senior project. The graphic memoir Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, gave me the idea to combine a written account with images, as an artistic exploration of my family’s immigration journey and the racially troubled times we encountered in our new homeland.
One of my goals was to find out exactly what happened that February night. I also wanted to pay homage to my father’s sideline work as a photographer and the crucial contribution that other photographers, as journalists, made to the Civil Rights Movement.
Grabbing the motif of photography helped me unify a complex story through metaphor and add a visual nod to the documenting power of the camera. So this is how my senior project looked: forty pages of drawings and captions, assembled in a photograph album. My drawings stood in for the photos.
At this stage, editors from The University of Alabama Press saw my work and offered me a contract for an expanded version. I said yes before I knew what I was getting into–a project that would consume the next three and a half years of my life.
To prepare, I dug down into family memorabilia and photos. I researched the current events of my childhood and gained a degree of perspective that wasn’t possible while the news reports were still fresh.
One daunting aspect of putting the book together was teaching myself the bare necessities of digital graphics programs. First, I created my drawings traditionally, on paper—more than 500 in all. Then I experimented with different ways of digitally layering the scanned drawings and combining them with text. The effect I was going for was a scrapbook of photos and ephemera.
When the book launched in 2012, people in far-flung places showed interest in my story, including a publisher in France and college instructors from around the country who placed my memoir on their reading lists. Although I didn’t write the book with young readers in mind, it has also received a welcome in some middle school and high school classrooms.
Throughout this decade, the nation has been celebrating the 50th anniversaries of civil rights milestones. The Selma march has come to life in a major motion picture, and in a graphic novel series co-authored by U.S. Congressman John Lewis. Many eyewitnesses have published their stories, forming a rich tapestry of personal accounts. Teaching Tolerance, a division of the Southern Poverty Law Center, recently produced an instructional film for classrooms about the campaign for voting rights. It’s entitled Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot. It features visual documentation from previously untapped primary sources, including footage from the home movies that my father shot.
Bloody Sunday lies half a century behind us, yet racial tension and violence continue. I sometimes ask myself: what has actually changed? I remember the days of Jim Crow, which are, thankfully, well behind us. Yet, it seems like the passage of fifty years would’ve brought us deeper, more enduring changes.
You may be left wondering: where’s the Latino component to my memoir? It’s there, in my initial struggle with learning English—a struggle that soon turned into a childish rejection of Spanish. It’s there, in my family’s generational divide on American culture and how fervently to embrace it.
It’s there, in the troublesome fact that my family was spared overt bigotry because in Alabama in the middle of the 20th century, Latin@s were an almost invisible minority that posed little threat. I see this now, through the lens of history. If our immigration journey had taken us to a different region of the U.S., one where Latin@s were openly reviled and denied equality, I would’ve experienced things from a starkly different perspective. I can’t begin to guess what my life’s questions would’ve been then. For that, I turn to the stories of others.
Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. She’s working on a second book, a middle-grade novel. If Lila’s name looks vaguely familiar, it may be because she’s a regular co-blogger on Latin@s in Kid Lit. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at her official author site.