By Brandon Yu
San Francisco Chronicle
August 25th, 2017
Juliana “Jewels” Smith’s “(H)afrocentric” began in community college classrooms, when she attempted to use the comic book form to challenge and engage her students — a fitting origin story for a work itself focusing on a group of young university students organizing a movement as budding activists.
Composed of four volumes from an ongoing comic series, “(H)afrocentric” follows four students at the fictional Ronald Reagan University in Oakland, where gentrification has taken hold of the city surrounding the predominantly white campus. The reluctantly political crew is led by Naima Smith, a half black, half white student plotting her way into the ranks of her revolutionary idols like George Jackson and Angela Davis.
Smith has described her comics as a feminist version of “The Boondocks,” but if “(H)afrocentric” is a sister companion, it might be alongside Netflix’s TV show “Dear White People.” Both portray Millennial black students taking on racial injustice, from large-scale, systemic forms to quotidian ignorance, on a largely white campus.
But the strong suits of “Dear White People” — the more nuanced interrogation of black identity and the inner conflicts of how black activism ought to take form — lack the same dimension in “(H)afrocentric.”
The first three volumes focus on Naima’s attempt to fund her idea for mydiaspora.com, an “anti-gentrification social networking site, for black folks.” Like many other lines, it can be hard to tell if Smith is being self-indulgent in her social justice leanings, or slyly self-deprecating. The fourth volume, however, takes a fuller shape and sharper satire. Naima struggles to deal with her new job as a “racial translator” and fights with her Fannie Lou Hamer-looking fairy godmother over what it takes to become a revolutionary.
Alongside nicely detailed illustrations by Ronald Nelson, Smith sets up promise for a deeper picture of an ultimately new type of comic.
Even if the execution is not as satisfying, the very existence of something like “(H)afrocentric” — a comic with a black heroine at its center whose fight against injustice reflects pressing realities — is enough to be a welcome presence, and one a long time coming at that.
Brandon Yu is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]