On the heels of Black History Month comes The Silence of Our Friends ($16.99, First Second Books, ages 14 and up/YA), Mark Long’s fact-based account of his family’s complicated relationship with a crosstown black family in 1968 Houston, Texas. Co-written by Jim Demonakos with artwork by Nate Powell, Silence seeks to find the cultural and political common ground of the black/white experience during the hotbed era of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, when neither side could afford to be allies.
Television reporter Jack Long strikes up a friendship with the brash, intelligent professor/activist Larry Thompson, a union that will be tested by the combustive, violent events at a campus protest. Silence of Our Friends depicts the institutional indifference, abject human cruelty, and questions of ethnic loyalty that have been requisite to stories of race and racism. Could an umpteenth interpretation of that savage time hold much weight in 2012?
What sets Silence apart, though, is its insistence on exploring the murky issues that lie between the black and white lines: When Thompson stealthily abets his two kids in celebrating “Go Texan Day”– a decidedly deep-rooted, white Southern fried tradition– just after his wife vociferously prohibits it, the reader feels the push/pull dichotomy of cultural and social change. The arrival of a down and out army buddy of Long’s, culminating in the drunk’s venomous accusations of racial disloyalty on the part of Long and his family, has a similar effect.
Also on Silence’s side– the punk, Mad magazine-inspired aesthetic of Nate Powell; it manages to evoke two landmarks of 1960s socially-conscious filmmaking: the sweat-tainted In the Heat of the Night and the ethereal To Kill A Mockingbird. The Silence of Our Friends is something to talk about.