Been a while, folks. How ya makin’ it?
Last night’s beer: St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
Last night’s books: March, vols. 1-3, written by John Lewis (D-GA) and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell
Last night’s music: Eddie Higgins Trio, Christmas Songs, vols. 1-2
Been sitting on Lewis’s March opus for a year, and I’m not sure why. Congressman Lewis is a hero of mine, one of the Big Six organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, a key architect of the modern Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968, roughly), and a man who continues to fight the good fight today. He is my congressman, serving Georgia’s fifth district (basically, Atlanta), in which I proudly live. And March is his story, in comics form—three volumes telling how he grew from a Alabama farm boy into a brilliant (and very young) activist and strategist, working with a who’s-who of the Movement, getting jailed, beaten, spat on, and yelled at in the process. Somehow, though, I guess it would be comics of the “eat your spinach” variety, despite all the praise and awards heaped on it. In fact, the accolades worked against it; I have a knee-jerk aversion to comics that everyone seems to love.
Boy, was I wrong. Powell’s jagged, high-contrast, intensely inked art—down to frayed panels and expressively loud lettering and page design—matches perfectly with the violence Lewis faced, and faced down. Lewis’s way is nonviolence, both as political statement and moral philosophy, and we see how this develops internally (for him) and externally (within the organizations in which he works) during the 1960s. Despite being a reverend of-sorts, Lewis’s narrative isn’t preachy but instead driven by persistence, fury, and an ever-tested sense of hope. It’s largely a memoir, of course, but it’s also the biography of a southern movement, and so Lewis, Aydin, and Powell are brave enough to slow things down at times to show how grassroots organizing worked on a granular level—the meetings, the indecision, the political maneuvering, the disagreements, the meetings, the actions, the revisions of the actions upon contact with racist governments and policemen, the tactics, the meetings, the disagreements.
Did I mention the meetings and disagreements? Lewis doesn’t shy away for portraying Movement activists as flawed people, and some of the actions as being misguided and/or needing correction. Though Lewis ultimately disagrees with both the tactics and vision of groups less inclined toward nonviolence than he was (and is), he lets Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X have their says without lampooning or diminishing them. Lewis was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick,” y’all), which was one of the groups that eventually fostered the phrase “black power” and which splintered into the Black Panther Party, so he’s a guy used to fierce internal conflicts. SNCC was considered the more radical wing and youth-led—Lewis was chair of it, essentially, in his early twenties—part of the Movement, the firebrands in the streets compared to the cooler (and older) heads of NAACP, and Lewis tells his story within it with verve, passion, and occasional pitch-black humor.
Throughout, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell weave Lewis’s reflections of the 1960s within a frame story of Lewis attending President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Because Lewis is insistent on giving credit and naming names, I actually learned a lot about specific organizers (Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, James Forman, and Bayard Rustin, in particular) and specific actions (sit-ins, Freedom Rides, Freedom Votes) that I didn’t know, which is impressive, given that I acquire books in civil rights history as part of my job. It’s a story of fury and insistence, told gracefully and with dynamic visuality. Powell shines—which shouldn’t have surprised me, as he’s drawn a comic about civil rights in Texas prior to March. It’s a portrait of political righteousness inked in blood, smelling of shoe leather, tasting of tears.
Oh, the beer: God bless the Trappists. St. Bernandus makes my favorite beers. I swear by the Abt. 12 but smile like a fool when the Christmas Ale is released in winter to this bleak land devoid of the source. Malty and semi-sweet on the tongue, with hints of cinnamon in the aroma, it’s delicious beyond compare on a cold December night.
And the tunes: I’ve written before about my antipathy toward Christmas music. There are exceptions, of course, but I stand by that post from (gulp!) 2005. But I keep trying to open my ears, damnit, which means that I turn Pandora to the “Linus and Lucy” station every December as I’m writing Christmas cards, downing too much spiked eggnog, and gorging on homemade sugar cookies. As I wrote, my eyes perked up at the piano-trio tunes that Pandora sent my way, initially confusing them for Vince Guaraldi arrangements that I had somehow missed. But no. The song, inevitably, would be by the Eddie Higgins Trio. After this happened six or seven times, I decided to dig a little into Higgins. A Chicago player, Higgins has the light touch of Guaraldi when doing snow-flurry runs of fast notes but his chords are more grounded and resonant. Jay Leonhart (bass) and Joe Ascione (drums) swing harder than Guaraldi’s boys, giving the hymns and American Songbook confections a sense of grit and swagger that’s lacking in most Christmas jazz. Beautiful stuff.