Book Review: Three-Fifths a Man: A Graphic History of the African American Experience by Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colón (2018)

January 16th, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Essential Reading

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from the publisher, Hill & Wang.)

– 4.5 stars –

This is actually the second graphic novel by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón that I’ve read in as many weeks – though it didn’t quite register until I was several chapters in. I won a copy of their previous book, The Torture Report: A Graphic Adaptation, in a Goodreads giveaway; and, while I ultimately recommended it, this was due more to the book’s Very Important subject matter than its successful execution. Heavy on text and with a flow that proved hard to follow, The Torture Report was a bit of a slog.

While Three-Fifths a Man: A Graphic History of the African American Experience is similar in style and form to The Torture Report, the narration is infinitely more succinct, engaging, and intuitive. I can count on one hand the number of times I got lost between panels; and, though this still isn’t ideal, it’s a huge improvement over The Torture Report, which led me astray on nearly every page. The chronology also makes more sense, with fewer time jumps; when Jacobson and Colón do flit back and forth in time, it’s in a way that feels natural and doesn’t confuse the reader or disrupt the narrative.

Don’t get me wrong: Three-Fifths a Man is still pretty heavy on text, but given the breadth of the topic, it never feels tedious or repetitive. This sits in stark contrast to The Torture Report, where everything after the first third of the book felt like a bad case of déjà vu.

The title perfectly encapsulates the content of Three-Fifths a Man: from the beginning of African slavery in the so-called “New World” to the birth of the Movement for Black Lives, this is a graphic history of the African American experience. Jacobson and Colón cover a pretty stunning range of events in a mere 179 pages, including but not limited to the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the Civil War; Reconstruction; the rise of the KKK and other white nationalist hate groups; Jim Crow; WWI and the great migration; the Depression and FDR’s The New Deal; WWII, and the (gradual) opening of the US military to black soldiers; the rise of the Dixiecrats; the New Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era; Reagan’s War on Drugs and the advent of the New Jim Crow; the beating of Rodney King and the focus on police brutality and racism; and ending with the election of our first black president, Barack Hussein Obama (and I absolutely do not include his middle name as an insult here).

I really love the idea of using non-traditional media to engage kids with difficult or “boring” topics. Three-Fifths a Man is more honest and thought-provoking than any high school text book I can remember reading. This should be in American history classrooms and public school libraries across the country. If I’d been introduced to texts like this as a child or young adult, I think I would have developed an interest in history and politics at a much younger age.

Also, Hollywood should take note: Three-Fifths a Man includes a number of historical figures and events that are all but screaming for their own scripts, television shows, and film adaptations. From the West African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai (History Channel, can you hear it? That’s the sound of your next Vikings calling to you!), to black soldiers who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, as well as in World Wars I and II and the Civil War, and people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Denmark Vesey, Colonel Tye, Zora Neale Hurston, and Josephine Baker (So much Josephine Baker!), there’s a world of potential here.

As much as I loved Three-Fifths a Man, I found it somewhat skewed toward the men. I feel like the authors expended a little less effort undoing the erasure of women (specifically, black women) from history than they did on whitewashing. For example, while the Fifteenth Amendment is rightly described as “male suffrage” – women, including black women, would not be granted the right to vote for another fifty years – the Nineteenth Amendment doesn’t merit a single panel.

In particular, the final page on the Black Lives Matter movement felt like it was tacked on at the last minute, like an afterthought. Nowhere is it mentioned that the BLM founders are women of color (some of them queer), let alone single them out by name. This seems inexcusable, given the importance of BLM (quite possibly the new civil rights movement). That said, I received an early copy, and it’s possible that the final pages will be redrafted prior to publication. This seems even more likely given the 2016 election and the resurgence of white nationalism Trump’s “victory” ushered in. Likewise, I wonder whether the finished copy will end on the same cautiously optimistic note.

Yet if Three-Fifths a Man makes one thing clear, it’s that we must never take our rights, or social progress, for granted: from the ascendancy of Andrew Johnson after the assassination of President Lincoln, to Reagan’s undoing of FDR’s New Deal, history is unfortunately brimming with incarnations of modern events. As Junot Díaz writes in Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times, “This is the joyous destiny of our people—to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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