Owning Rights and Righting Wrongs

In the 1960s, the Fellowship of Reconciliation prepared a comic book about the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. It received high praise, and even a story (perhaps apocryphal) that one of the first participants in the Greensboro, North Carolina lunch-counter protests was inspired to action by it.

In 1989, FOR's youth and campus outreach coordinator, Jo Becker, solicited another non-fiction comic. She contacted well-respected comic author Joyce Brabner (Real War Stories) to write a story about young people involved in creative and nonviolent strategies for social change. With an aging membership, FOR decided an inspiring comic would be a good vehicle to reach out to a younger generation.

After an illness-based delay, the project began again in 1993. Becker, now FOR's executive director, continued to supervise the project. The result, Activists!, with art provided by Mark Badger (The Mask and Batman Jazz) and Wayne Van Sant (The 'Nam), went to print in February 1995.

The comic includes four stories: "What If?," a comparison of 1960s U.S. protests and the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia; "Reflections of a Rock Lobster," Aaron Fricke's 1980 experience of inviting a boy as his date to his high school prom; "Firebrand," a story of high school activism that played into the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision; and "Survivin' N Da Hood," which describes a conflict resolution program begun by two siblings in New Haven, Connecticut, when violence broke out in their high school.

As additional FOR staff people saw the project, concern rose. An April FOR press statement stated, "While Activists! was created in order to confront racism, violence, and injustice, many felt that the book actually perpetuated negative images and racial stereotypes." Interestingly, the racial divide in people's response was indistinguishable (a mixed response in all ethnic communities), but there was a generational divide (most younger people appreciated the project, most older people did not).

As I looked at the comic, being a person who "appreciates" the genre and sits on the generational bubble, I considered the storytelling stimulating and the artwork charming. If I were writing or editing the comic, I might have done some things differently, but I didn't consider any of it blatantly offensive.

FOR's agreement with publisher Stabur Press gave the group 7,500 copies of Activists! to distribute through their channels. The publisher would distribute the other 12,500 copies through direct-sale comics retailers, offering wider exposure for FOR. Not surprisingly, the artists and author were frustrated to find out that the approved project had stalled after printing, and FOR was negotiating with the publisher to buy back its issues, thus preventing public release.

At a May board meeting, FOR reaffirmed the decision not to release the comic. But FOR also decided not to allow anyone else the opportunity to print it either, even without FOR's association noted.

FOR rightly claims legal right to withhold distribution of a project they own. Becker explains, "[I]f we find this material negative and feel it may reinforce negative stereotypes, what business do we have facilitating its distribution in any form, even if FOR's name is not on it?"

FOR's decision not to allow anyone to print the material has added to the controversy. But now it's available over the World Wide Web, and FOR has been taking heat online and in the press for "censoring" the material. If the conversation on the Internet among young people-those they had hoped to draw in with this project-is any indication, the project backfired.

This is culture clash. Two groups of people-both with good intentions-are now in conflict, demonstrating once again the remarkable ability of progressives to eat their own.

POLITICAL ACTIVISTS and activist artists often experience conflict. Differences in approach lead to a significant level of distrust.

Political activists tend to be very linear in their thinking. Trying to appeal to the intellect, these folks want art to perform a functional service by directly addressing injustice.

Activist artists, on the other hand, are primarily expressive. They want art to be pleasing, beautiful, and challenging, thereby moving people emotively. Injustice is addressed indirectly by demonstrating the depth of beauty to strive for, or the depth of ugliness to resist.

Artists are normally comfortable allowing a project to speak for itself; activists would rather define the work to ensure no confusion. It is at this point that bowing to the throne of political correctness becomes a danger for the political activist (and cultural correctness for the artist). If the focus is to verify one's liberal credentials, then artistic expression's ambiguity is suspect.

Mark Badger, one of the artists on Activists!, says, "[P]eople on the progressive side of the fence have to understand [that] the ability to communicate is very important. They must stop trying to squash it every time someone speaks out in a voice that doesn't fit into their mold."

Free-lance activist artists must also respect the difficulty of sustaining progressive institutions, which are only as good as their reputations; each group must discern what is appropriate to be put out in its name. And artists who desire to contribute their gifts must be challenged to be disciplined and willing to be accountable when choosing to confront commonly held social values.

People of conscience can disagree over the quality and effectiveness of an artistic creation. But we all must be vigilant against tendencies toward self-righteousness. Even in matters of social values and personal tastes, it is best to leave stones on the ground.

To participate in this discussion on the World Wide Web: http:\www.digimark.netwraithactivists

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"Owning Rights and Righting Wrongs"
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