Friday, October 14, 2016

Review of Two Graphic Histories

[Edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paule Buhle. Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]

[Robert Kristofferson and Simon Orpana. Showdown! Making Modern Unions. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]

How do you do history in ways that allow it to move, travel, and engage people in non-university contexts? I've thought about that a lot over the years, and I still don't feel like I have any firm answers, but I think it's possible that these two graphic histories point towards at least one possible way of thinking about doing that.

The first books is Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle from the Graphic History Collective. It features nine different stories of working-class struggle drawn from Canadian history and presented by a range of different historians, writers, and artists. The content goes from the Knights of Labor in the 19th century to much more recent history, like the Days of Action in Ontario in the late 1990s and the struggles of migrant domestic workers. Some are about specific conflicts, like a 1935 coal strike or a battle by dock workers on the west coast; others are more biographical, like the one about iconic trade unionist and feminist Madeleien Parent (who is famous in Quebec but little-known in the rest of Canada) and itinerant radical Bill Williamson (whose name I'd never heard, but who cropped up in many important radical contexts in Canada and internationally in the first half of the 20th century); some focus on a particular organization, like the small socialist-feminist union that did some important work in British Columbia in the 1970s and 1980s; and some on particular groups of workers, like the story of Indigenous workers in the west coast fisheries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each comic had a short introduction, mostly written by left historians, labour studies profs, social movement scholars, and so on. And the book itself has a great intro written by the Graphic History Collective that situates their work in the history of activist comics.

(I should also add that I was surprised and pleased to see my own name included in the acknowledgmenets sections -- one of the first episodes ever of my radio show, Talking Radical Radio, featured a member of the Graphic History Collective, back when this book was still early in the planning stages, and I'm touched that they thought that worth mentioning. Thanks, GHC! :) )

The other book is Showdown! Making Modern Unions written by Rob Kristofferson and illustrated by Simon Orpana. It is an in-depth examination of one particular strike that rocked the steel industry in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1946. This conflict merits a full book's worth of attention because of the context: There was a wave of strikes in Canada that year that played an important part in establishing the power of organized labour and cementing a new labour relations framework in the post-Second World War era, and this strike was one of a handful that were absolutely crucial to that process. The book, while in one or two places feeling a little over-the-top in its declarations of the strike's historical significance, makes great use of it -- it draws readers in through its wonderful portrayal of the drama of the strike itself, including direct use of voices and images that emerged from it directly, while carefully including the broader historical context in which this year and this strike were key turning points.

Beyond my interest in the content and the quality of the work, it is that potential to engage people who otherwise might not pay much attention to history-from-below that really excites me about these two books. I've done grassroots history-from-below work myself, and am just embarking on a new project in that vein, and I'm feeling particularly conscious that just doing the work is not enough. We are entering the project with a wide open sense of what we might produce the other end, depending on what will be most useful to movements and communities, and to those engaged in related struggles today, but even at this early stage of consultation, I'm beginning to think there isn't a clear answer to that. Generally speaking, lots of people who are involved in movements and communities-in-struggle agree in principle that we need to know more about movements of the past and that which movements have faced, but that rarely translates into creating space for such thinking and learning to happen. Most of us, most of the time, take up knowledge about the world via practices that are habits -- yes, our media consumption practices change over time, and in specific circumstances can even change abruptly, but mostly we learn about the world today in much the same way as we learned about it yesterday. And given that most movements have no deliberate collective practices of learning from the past, and most individuals (whether active in movements or not) do not have such practices either, an ungrounded good will towards remembering past movements does not easily translate into doing anything about it.

I don't really know what the answer to that problem is. I have a sense that part of it involves creating collective proccesses or events or mechanisms for engagement -- mechanisms that are not too onerous; mechanisms that are perhaps arranged by people friendly to but not necesarily in the movements or communities themselves, so the work doesn't detract from pressing organizing; and mechanisms that are appealing in their own right, and don't count on "should"-based sentiments to generate participation. But artefacts are important too, not just processes and events, and I think these books seize on that last principle to experiment with the kinds of artefacts that might be useful -- that is, ones which are engaging and entertaining in their own right, and convey grassroots historical knowledge via that engagement.

When I think about what all of that might mean for my own work, I remain quite uncertain. But as myself and my collaborator continue to puzzle that out, in consultation with other folks in the community, I hope that it will be possible to keep tabs on these two books, to get a sense of the ways in which they are engaging people, the spaces that they are reaching, the excitement that they are generating, so that we might learn from that.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here]

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