In March: Book Two by John Lewis, recurring images of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration interrupt the central narrative set within the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. I’m interested in how these images function, what message they send, particularly in regards to the ending of the book, where such an image is quickly followed by images of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of September 1963.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander argues that the “colorblind” nature of modern America allows the system of mass incarceration to operate, creating racial caste divisions through assigning the permanent second-class status of felon to millions of black Americans. She writes specifically about the role of Obama’s presidency in promoting the damaging myth that America is a nation of full racial equality:
“Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.”
It does not seem to me that the use of inaugural imagery in March: Book Two supports this narrative exactly. However, the underlying message takes a similar form. Lewis’ graphic novel argues that through deliberate, well-planned nonviolent civil disobedience, an oppressed group can overcome, reform, and then succeed within their oppressive state. Because it was the only modern event represented in the book, there is still the underlying notion that Obama’s inauguration singlehandedly signifies the success of the Civil Rights movement and the liberation of black America.
The ending of March: Book Two complicates this reading in some ways. The final inauguration imagery is sandwiched between the August 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that occurred two weeks later. In the abrupt and jarring final pages of the novel, the bombing is framed as a sort of backlash against the powerful march. The placement of the inauguration imagery between these events in some ways connotes the strong backlash to Obama’s inauguration. This reading makes it less clear whether Lewis believes that America is free from racial injustice.
March: Book Two was published in 2015, by which time the Black Lives Matter movement was making frequent national headlines and over 700,000 black American men (a number that has only grown since) were incarcerated. Next to the plentiful inauguration references, Lewis’ relative silence in the novel around modern issues of racial violence seems significant. A stronger graphic novel would more fully draw the necessary connections between the past and the present to make real to modern readers the unresolved and urgent issues of the present.