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The March Continues: The Subversive Rhetoric of John Lewis's Graphic Memoir

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While the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s is one of the most famous and celebrated parts of American history, rhetoric scholars have illuminated the ways

While the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s is one of the most famous and celebrated parts of American history, rhetoric scholars have illuminated the ways this subversive movement has been manipulated beyond recognition over time. These narrative constructions play a role in preserving what Maegan Parker Brooks calls the "conservative master narrative of civil rights history," a narrative that diminishes the work of activists while simultaneously promoting complacency to prevent any challenge to the white supremacist hegemony. This dissertation argues that the graphic memoir trilogy March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell challenges this conservative master narrative through visual rhetoric, in particular through the comics techniques "braiding" and "weaving."

Braiding occurs when authors create "webs of interrelation" (Miodrag 134) by repeating a technique throughout the text, which can sometimes involve a secondary narrative (Groensteen). Braids are associations in the network of panels of the comic that go beyond the parameters of strictly linear storytelling as panels echo those the reader has encountered before. The braids in March compare the past and present through a direct juxtaposition of January 20, 2009—the inauguration day of Barack Obama—with John Lewis' activism from 1959 to 1965. While this juxtaposition risks reinforcing a progress narrative that suggests racism is in the past, in fact, the braided inauguration scenes help the reader connect the moments of the past with their present, calling to mind the ways white supremacy endures in contemporary America. Weaving refers to the reader’s action of moving back and forth in the comics narrative to create meaning, and artists use techniques that facilitate this behavior, such as leaving out or minimizing significant cues and creating a sense of ambiguity that leads the reader to become curious about the events in the sequence. Weaving can disrupt an easy linear narrative of depicted events—such as Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony at the Democratic National Convention—as artists present several opportunities for the reader to interpret these stories in ways that challenge a conservative master narrative of the events in the trilogy.

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  • 2019