Telling histories of struggle through posters and comics

On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Julia Smith and Sean Carleton of the Graphic History Collective. They talk about the group’s decade of work with comics as a means to tell histories of marginalized people and of struggles for justice, and about their current Remember Resist Redraw poster project.

The stories we’re told about the past shape our understandings of ourselves and the world in the present, and therefore our relationship to struggles for a better future. And of course the stories that most of us get a chance to learn usually silence the voices of anyone outside the elite, erase important struggles, and make it very difficult to understand how we ended up with the world that surrounds us today. This, in turn, gets in the way of building collective efforts to fight for change.

Intervening in this can take a lot of differnet forms. Indeed, you could argue that any time we take action for justice in the present, we are disrupting these settled stories of “all is well” and “there is no alternative” and “that’s just how it is,” and all of the erasure and silencing they rest upon. But, even so, one important element of undoing the harm of these inaccurate and oppressive histories is doing the work to address them directly — unearthing those struggles, amplifying those voices, and telling those stories in ways that as many people as possible can hear and learn from.

The Graphic History Collective is no stranger to doing that work. The grouping of scholars, artists, educators, and writers first came together almost a decade ago to produce a graphic novel-style history of May Day in Canada. Since then, they have worked on multiple projects that bring together historical research and art — the history focuses on the experiences of people who are marginalized and on struggles against exploitation and opression, the art has usually been in a comics format, and the goal in combining them is to popularize this history-from-below and make it accessible. Over the course of this work, they have built relationships with a network of creators and collaborators far beyond the collective itself. Their most recently completed major project was the edited collection Drawn to Change, published by Between the Lines in 2016, which features nine short graphic histories of diverse working-class struggles in the Canadian context. Drawn to Change won both the Wilson Book Prize of the Wilson Institute for Canadian History and the Public History Prize of the Canadian Historical Association in 2017.

The Graphic History Collective’s current project is called Remember Resist Redraw. Starting in January 2017, each month they have been releasing a poster that graphically presents an aspects of history-from-below from the Canadian context. Topics covered so far include the political past and present of Pride, the Metis resistance at Batoche in 1885, Chloe Cooley’s resistance to enslavement and its role in challenging slavery in Upper Canada, the racialized and gendered history of caregiving work in Canada, and much more. From the group’s website, you can download all of the posters for free for personal, educational, and activist use, and you can also read the short write-up that accompanies each.

In describing Remember Resist Redraw, the group writes, “In order to change the world, we need to be able to imagine alternative ways of living and organizing to bring about social change. We combine art and history because it helps us fuel our radical imaginations and dream of what might be. Activist art encourages us to remember, resist, and redraw our world with an eye to changing it for the better.”

Julia Smith is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at Rutgers University and a visiting professor in the Department of Hisotry at the University of Calgary. Sean Carleton is an assistant professor in the Department of General Education at Mount Royal University in Calgary. They talk about the Graphic History Collective’s trajectory, about the Remember Resist Redraw project, and about the importance of challenging dominant narratives of Canadian history as one part of supporting struggles for justice and liberation.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post was created by Jerry Thistle, with accompanying text by Jesse Thistle, and is used with permission of the Graphic History Collective.

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