Last spring, I assigned a graphic memoir project in my Literature and Composition Graphic Memoir class. As part of the class, I constructed my own graphic memoir alongside my students. For this post, I want to share with you my finished project and my artist statement, a brief discussion of some of the choices I made when creating the graphic memoir. In a future post, I will go into more detail about the layout and design choices I used in the project.
From the beginning of this project, I knew that I wanted to do a graphic memoir on Lillian E. Smith. Given the time and the length of the project, I knew that I could not do a long book on her entire life, and there were certain aspects of her life and work that I had to leave out. Initially, I wanted to focus on her work with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement; however, when I started working on the graphic memoir, that focus shifted some.
I begin with Smith talking about her birth, specifically where she was born, on the border between Florida and Georgia. I use images from this region (and one from Louisiana) to highlight the landscape she describes, then I juxtapose those with images of the mountains in Northeast Georgia on the next page, the region to which her and her family moved permanently in 1915.
I chose to have Smith narrate the text instead of using a third person narrator. For this, I pulled, mostly, from her own words in various letters, speeches, and other writings. (A list of these is below.) By doing this, I let Smith speak for herself, allowing her voice to come through in connection with the images and the narrative. At times, I had to alter some of her words for tense and pronouns, but I maintained, in each case, the meaning of what Smith conveyed in her writings.
In regard to images, I kept thinking about only using landscapes, and at first I thought I wouldn’t have any panels with Smith or others. Ultimately, though, this changed when I decided to focus part of the graphic memoir on Laurel Falls Camp. I wanted images from the camp, with campers, not images of the camp in it present state. So, I had to have campers in the panels. In doing this, I present the camp as a living thing, something tangible and not abstract. If I just presented the current space, then the words would be detached, in ways, from the image. They would carry a more haunting, echoey feel as they do in the panel where Smith stands next to the chimney.
I didn’t want to incorporate images of Smith either; I wanted her off stage, as if she was looking at these scenes, but that perspective changed with the panel of Smith next to the chimney. The chimney itself is a large symbol in the narrative, recurring at the end, and it connects Smith to the camp and to her work.
When I moved to the questions of campers, specifically the questions about the victims of the Moore’s Ford Lynching, I made a deliberate choice not to specify the lynching or to show the victims’ bodies. I did this for two reasons. One reason was because I wanted the panels to represent the countless victims of lynching in the United States, having the campers’ questions resonate with the contemporary moment in which they asked it and with the other violent acts.
The other reason is because I did not want to show violent images of victims being lynched, attacked, or victimized. This is why I chose to only have an image of the bus on fire on one page to represent the violence against the Freedom Riders in 1961 and the image of the Greensboro Four at the counter looking at the camera. This, as well, is why I chose to show the funeral of the victims lynched at Moore’s Ford. I did this because we have seen images of violence, again and again, the burial, the men sitting at the counter, and the burned wreckage all contain the same connotations as those other images. The only difference is while they evoke feelings, they do not necessarily evoke the same visceral feelings of seeing murdered individuals or individuals being attacked.
I had to skip over a lot of Smith’s life, namely her time in China, her relationship with Paula Snelling, the publications of the literary journal and her books, and the countless speeches and essays she wrote. I could not fit all of this into the 15 pages of the graphic memoir. As such, I condensed, into only a few pages, two of her publications (Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream), her activism, her cancer diagnosis, and her death.
I was able to condense these moments by pinpointing specific quotes from Smith that would drive home multiple points. That is why I chose her line “The book made quite a blaze-but the blaze practically destroyed the author and her writing career” and the two reviews of Killers of the Dream. These quotes, accompanied by the covers of the book, the fire pit, and Smith, condense reactions to her work. As well, the page with her speaking is mightily condensed, but it showcases her work.
Her connection with King only comes at the end where we see the chimney, changing angles, and the text from the telegram that King sent to Smith’s family after she passed in September 1966. I wanted to zoom in with three panels on Smith’s desk where I captured her typewriter, an image of King speaking at the March on Washington, and a notecard in her address box that had King’s home address. However, the chimney worked better with the change in the narrative. I wanted these shots in the text from the beginning, but using them with King’s words proved more poignant than my initial idea of having wordless panels.
Overall, I want this graphic memoir to introduce people to Smith and her work. I hope that it provides an overview of what she stood for and what she did throughout her life. Like I said, it does not cover everything. That would take a much larger book. However, I hope it serves as a good starting point.
- Page 1 “Trembling Earth” (1966)
- Page 5–6 “Letter to Mr. Hartley” December 1, 1959. Also known as “Bridges to Other People” in Redbook
- Page 7 “Children Talking” and Laurel Leaf letter to parents mid-Summer 1946
- Page 8 letter to campers’ parents March 21, 1949
- Page 9 “untitled note” (February 18, 1950) contains excerpts from reviews quoted
- Page 10 typed quote from “Ten Years from Today,” speech Smith gave at Kentucky State College commencement in May 1951
- Page 11 letter to Lewis Gannett December 10, 1953
- Page 12 “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way” speech written for one year anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts someone else delivered speech for her December 5, 1956
- Page 13 “Letter to Mr. Hartley” and the prologue to The Journey
- Page 14 telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Smith’s family September 22, 1966
- Page 15 Smith’s grave, next to the chimney. The quote is from The Journey.