Feminist Hour: (H)afrocentric Book Launch with Jewels Smith
At the end of September, Juliana “Jewels” Smith stopped by Ryerson to talk about two of the best things, in my humble opinion – comic books and feminism. As she talked about her journey to becoming a published writer, the story quickly turned into an insightful discussion of how we use creative tools to explain academic language. Comic books have always been a source of entertainment to me, as they have been for many others, but to view them as a possible way to break through barriers of difficult topics has changed my perspective on them entirely.
Jewels told a story of when she worked in a community college where she was excited to teach her students about feminism and eager to introduce them to the work of bell hooks. She said she was stunned that she was warned against talking too much about feminism, and disappointed to see that none of the students were doing the assigned readings. Then, when she challenged her students to study the prison system by reading a comic book about it, her outlook on teaching and learning changed. “A student came up to me and told me that the assignment really resonated with her,” Jewels says, “And that changed everything for me.”
This instance persuaded Jewels to change her strategy and focus her attention on different outlets for learning – specifically comic books since they had been so effective with her students. So she simply started to write, not worried about the illustrations since she knew they could come later. Rather she was focused on getting a script out – a script that was knowledgeable and informative but also revolutionary, not only in the topics that she addressed but how she was addressing them. Once Jewels met an illustrator at Wondercon and began Volume 1 of (H)afrocentric, her confidence in her storytelling began to grow because she could actually start visualizing her work coming to life, and the topics that she so desperately wanted to talk about were now embodied in rounded out, dynamic characters. “I loosely based characters on my brother and myself and the issues we faced in our upbringing,” Jewels explains, as the comic book primarily deals with gentrification striking the neighbourhood surrounding Ronald Reagan University. In (H)afrocentric, Naima Pepper recruits a group of disgruntled undergrads of colour to combat the onslaught by creating and launching the first and only anti-gentrification social networking site, mydiaspora.com. Other characters are based off people Jewels met while she was doing activist work, as well as historical figures that inspired her.
(H)afrocentric is primarily designed to challenge students and readers about the presumptions around race, class, gender and sexuality through character dialogue. As Jewels talks about the relationship between comics, humour, racial justice, and gender equity, it’s clear that she’s found this medium as a force of power in getting her thoughts across in an effective yet comfortable way. “These aren’t easy topics to discuss,” Jewels admits, “But I wanted to approach these heavy topics with humour. Let’s find the joy and humour in things that are ridiculous.” More importantly, in finding the courage to find humour and share her views on such difficult topics, Jewels says the experience of building a community from her comic books has been the most rewarding aspect of all. “You think you’re the only one that thinks something until you release your art, and then you find that so many others have the exact same anxieties.”
While humorous, the comic is undoubtedly defiant and bold and filled with hard-hitting statements of realization, such as when she has her mixed character Naima work as a “racial translator”. “This storyline was very much about how to survive in a white supremacist world,” Jewels states, “As Naima points out to her boss that “any black person could do this job.””
Many historical figures are also reimagined in the comic. A certain part of Naima’s journey to social justice shows her fighting with her fairy godmother who is based on Fannie Lou Hamer, famous for being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” As Naima develops her anti-gentrification website, she debates with her fairy godmother over what it means to be a revolutionary like her idols George Jackson and Angela Davis. In an especially moving section of the comic, Naima pleads with a large crowd of students and quotes George Jackson’s “Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation…” speech word for word. She also noticeably wears a John Brown shirt – a man who was determined to abolish slavery in the 1800s. As Jewels explains who is on Naima’s shirt it is clear that not many of her audience know who he is, but this is precisely why she has included him. She’s aware of the potential education that every one of her comic’s illustrations provides, and subtly places some of her favourite historical books in the background of her strips, as well as some QR codes which allows for even further interaction for her readers. There is also a scene that she specifically designed around the “Pretty Hurts” music video from Beyoncé, as Naima stands in her bedroom surrounded by awards and trophies.
When it comes to designing her characters, Jewels tells us that “Marketing plays a huge part in how they’re shaped. I have to know my characters so well, and it wasn’t something I realized until after volume 1 was released. I went back and really thought about my characters and asked myself questions that I would never answer in the comic, such as “What’s their favourite book, or a childhood story?” I need to know more about them than what’s shared in the story in order to be able to create an accurate depiction of them.” These characters are noticeably important because of their representation, which Jewels acknowledges; “People see themselves represented.” One of her audience members points out that “It’s a disruption of whiteness in an academic space,” which makes her characters so essential.
Another aspect of why the comic book has become such an effective teaching tool is because of its accessibility, according to Jewels; “[Comics] allow you to see and read simultaneously which you can’t with phenotext. It’s one thing to read something but another to visualize it. I remember being in grad school and feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t vocalize important issues to my parents, because they didn’t understand my academic language.” Not only has writing comic books helped Jewels articulate her thoughts to the world, but it has also become a cathartic release for her. “I’ll write down my frustrations and anxieties and put them in my comics, and it’s become so therapeutic for me,” Jewels explains as she shows us this compelling strip on sexual harassment.
“I believe everyone is creative,” Jewels says as a final remark, “You just have to find what drives you.”
To find out more about (H)afrocentric, click here, and let us know what you think! How do you channel creativity in academic spaces?
Ryerson Feminist Hour was pleased to host Jewels for her talk. The next Feminist Hour is October 18th in the Ryerson Career Centre Resource Library, POD-60. We’ll be joined by Andrea (Andy) Villanueva, a 21 year old low income Mexican and upcoming female director. Andy will lead a discussion on clothing policing and slut shaming. Join us!