(H)afrocentric Comics in Anthrodendum

by Matt Thompson
February 16th, 2018

Re-spawn. Its been on since dawn.
Illustrated Man check your king with a pawn.
Don’t know where but I send ’em
Make my posts now on Anthrodendum

Hey, ya’ll its been a minute but now I’m back with another installment of Illustrated Man, my semi-irregular series where I discuss comic books and illustration from an anthropologist’s point of view. I had ten posts at our old place Savage Minds, now here’s my first in our new home.

We’re starting things off with a piece I received through my work with the Virginia Library Association, (H)afrocentric, written by Juliana “Jewels” Smith and illustrated by Ronald Nelson. A trade paperback collecting the first four issues was published by the reliably righteous PM Press in 2017. Ask for it at your favorite independent comic or book store, or order a signed copy straight from the publisher.

Following the trials and trevails of a multi-complected crew of outspoken west coast undergrads, (H)afrocentric does an excellent job of tackling serious issues without taking itself too seriously. The star of the show is habitual line crosser Naima Pepper, her habit of getting up on a soapbox (will it be one high heeled boot… or two?) becomes a reoccurring sight gag. Rounding out the loyal crew is her grumpy brother the musically inclined Miles and gender bending best friend Renee. Comic relief comes from Miles’ boy, El Ramirez, whose Latinidad offers a consistent counterpoint to black perspectives and priorities, and entrepreneurial duo Kwame and Rahsaan, who just want to sell you some herbal tea and preach on ancient Egypt.

Set in Oakland, California, in and around the fictional Ronald Reagan University, our story opens with the (H)afrocentric crew facing the reality of rising rents and gentrification. Not unlike Selma Jezkova, Bjork’s character in Dancer in the Dark, Naima is prone to flights of fancy where the otherwise straightforward, realistic fiction of the narrative breaks down into alternate realities and imagined futures. In one of these moments of inspiration Naima rallies her friends into taking action, here to organize a block party to fund the creation of an anti-gentrification website,

Throughout the reader is treated to comic commentary, witty one-lines, word play, silly gags, and Naima’s romantic day dreams, all of which genuinely calls to mind the deep hanging out and playful bullshitting of college students. At the end of their escapade, as the cops close in turning their block party into a “blockade party”, it becomes clear that Naima and her friends haven’t really been able to achieve their lofty goals. They have not single handedly stopped gentrification in Oakland. Reality crashes the party and the crew has to find solace in the partial, the incomplete.

In the fourth issue, for which Julianna Smith won a 2016 Glyph Award for best writer, things take a turn towards magical realism, the madcap, and the zaney, with the addition of a fairy godmother character. In this story each member of the crew has easily set up sweet summer internships, with Naima struggling to reconcile her political passions with her professional and academic needs. POOF! The fairy godmother appears to grant her wish and Naima finds herself interning at an organization specializing in “racial translation.” Her job: to explain blacks to white people. Several soapbox moments later and its clear that things aren’t going quite as smoothly as Naima hoped.

The story ends with the introduction of a time machine and all crew piling on board to cries of “Get on the bus!” before zapping off the page.

Like many, many other comics, the first book of (H)afrocentric starts off a little rocky as it lays out the origin stories of the team members. The art is also a little inconsistent as the creators experiment with how best to express the characters’ diversities in a black and white printing. But by the fourth issue much of this has been ironed out leaving me very optimistic for the future of (H)afrocentric, especially given the change in tone to include more cartoony elements like time machines and magic.

Blurbs and blogs have frequently drawn connections to the Boondocks but I’m not really sold on that comparison. Here I’m not talking about the TV show, but the strip as captured in “Because I know you don’t read the newspapers” and “Fresh for ’01… you suckas”. Those were fish-out-of-water stories with two kids from inner city Chicago transplanted to the suburbs. They were more topical and focused on satirizing current events. While there is a weekly (H)afrocentric strip, this graphic novel length work is brainy and subtle, more radical in its politics than the Boondocks, and, at times, a little more uneven in its quality than Aaron McGruder’s early books. However, I am very, very interested to see where this story is going next and/or what other works these creators will share.

(H)afrocentric should be of interest to anthropologists seeking to learn from marginalized peoples about how they are taking control of their own representations. With the first story about gentrification and the second about the impossible task of the translator I could see this being used in the classroom in some contexts. A little further afield into cultural studies, this would be a good way to teach students to read creative works as embedded in social material processes.

Back to Juliana “Jewels” Smith’s Author Page