Racism is a difficult subject for many to speak about, but cartoonist Ben Passmore is broaching that topic in Your Black Friend. Acting as an open letter to others about racism, friendship, and alienation, the minicomic recounts experiences and adds in humor to be less a tract and more an eye-opening conversation.
Originally published back in September by the small press outfit Silver Sprocket, AdHouse Books is giving Your Black Friend a wider release in the Direct Market this May. Newsarama talked with the New Orleans-based Passmore about the project, the inspiration and the effects it's had, and his other upcoming projects.
Newsarama: Ben, what made you want to do Your Black Friend?
Ben Passmore: I was reading some Frantz Fanon with a homie of mine, another black guy existing in the New Orleans punk scene, and comparing our experiences navigating various exchanges with our white friends and acquaintances. We were reading Black Skin, White Masks, which is largely about the psychological effects of colonization on black people. It wasn't the first time we'd had that type of conversation, it's the kind of thing black people that interact with some amount of white people on a regular basis have within five minutes of meeting each other. The only difference was that the context of the conversation was our sense of dysphoria, or how our social relationships with white people effected how we saw ourselves. Something about this particular conversation with my friend made me realize the extent we, black punks, live if a different world than our white friends. It's not like the concept of "subjectivity" was new to me, I've been both stoned and in college, so you know, I've had that "we're all so connected but also so disconnected" rant over nachos before. For the first time, I think I understood some of the basic blind spots white and black, people seem to miss there are things in Your Black Friend for black people too, have when it comes to race. CAKE in Chicago was coming up. I like making quick little comics for comic fests so I figured maybe I could fire this out and some people would think it was interesting.
Nrama: How much of this is pulled directly from real things you yourself have experienced?
Passmore: Your Black Friend wasn't really ever supposed to speak for all black people, I was coming from a very personal place. The title was a bit of a joke. An aspect of being black in the United States is being treated as a representative of your whole race, when you know that black people are far from a monolith. Some people haven't gotten the joke.
Most of what happens in the comic is from my life, but I also used a couple things friends shared with me. This comic was mad easy to write in one sense because I just made a list of things that had happened just that year. The only hard part was figuring out what not to include, there was too much. The main scenario, a white woman coming into the coffee shop and bragging about calling the police on an innocent black man, happened a couple years ago and went down a little differently in real life than in the comic. In the comic the protagonist is unable to call the woman out, but in real life I let the lady have it. I'm not nearly as afraid of seeming like an "angry black man" as the protagonist is.
Nrama: In your experience, is attempting to have this type of conversation about your perspective difficult for you or non-black people in person?
Passmore: That's hard to answer. It really depends on who I'm talking to. There is, of course, and internal conversation among black people about "blackness" in general and "blackness's" relationship to "whiteness." I don't buy into the notion that we can all just talk civilly about everything. Some people want to put me back in a cage and no amount of conversation is going to make them recognize my autonomy, so those people are my enemies. Straight up.
In general, I think explaining and making people understand are two different things. In any conversation, I have about blackness with a well-meaning white person I'm conscious that that person needs to appear to themselves to be understanding of my "black plight." Most of the time how they appear to themselves is more important than affirming, not that that's what I'm looking for, my own experience. That's an exhausting dynamic and makes me apprehensive to engage people in conversations outside of one's necessary to my own survival. And if my survival is on the line it's not really a conversation. In my own life, I only really talk about "race issues" with friends, I'm not invested in coming to an understanding with anyone that isn't already invested in my well-being. I have to prioritize myself and I'm not trying to teach anyone anything. Comics are a nice way to communicate without some of the tensions that make discussing race annoying.
Nrama: Has doing this comic as a means to communicate this without teaching someone changed how you view comic books? Has the process of doing it affected what you think about for future works?
Passmore: Before Your Black Friend I think I tried my own comics as an exercise for my own brain and I didn't really think about how other people were going to receive them. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from individuals and the comics industry, which is tight, but the thing I've enjoyed the most is how the book has engaged other black cartoonists. I feel like there's a burgeoning radical black comics milieu, which is right on time given the political environment. Now that I feel like I'm part of a national conversation I'm more excited to write with other people in mind. It's been nice doing pieces for The Nib because I get to do stories along that continuum of black struggle.
The part of comics industry I'm a part of still feels like it's stuck in a peripheral cultural ghetto and I think it needs to deconstruct parts of itself if it wants to engage different people. I'm not totally sure it does though.
Nrama: In the preview, you mention "white guilt" - how do you feel about that, and do you think it’s ever maligned against a more realistic objective?
Passmore: White guilt is very self-serving; it’s a distraction, it doesn't have anything to do with the material problems of black people. Of course, no one wants to feel culpable for innocent people's misery and people that feel some sort of inadvertent ownership of white supremacy inevitably feel guilty. But having white guilt is not that same as having race politics. When I criticize "white guilt" what I'm criticizing is a white person's preoccupation with their own existentialism over myself in the name of being my ally. No one asked for that. The history of black liberation movement is not characterized by black people asking white people to feel guilty, we've always been asking for very specific things. The end of white supremacy begins and ends with removing white people's primary preoccupation with their emotional discomfort with other people, or specifically me. Are there more pressing problems facing black people than white guilt? Sure, but why would I choose to focus on just one thing? I experience all levels of white supremacy simultaneously so why would I choose to respond to just one?
Nrama: You don't miss the opportunity to be comical at moments with this - why do you think that's important with delivering this story?
Passmore: I mean, if you're ever in a room with black folks talking about all this there's usually a lot of laughter. I think that as a people we're stronger than the systems or people that oppress us and one way we beat them is by clowning on all of it.
Nrama: What are you working on after this, Ben?
Passmore: I've been doing short pieces for The Nib that deal with people fighting different aspects of white supremacy. I'm not really a reporter type dude, I'm really into drawing mutants and people punching other people, but it's felt important to write about struggle right now when there are a lot of people looking for ways to push back again oppression. Other than the Nib pieces I'm going to be working on this series called Daygloayhole, which could not be more different than Your Black Friend. It's a lot more mutants and people punching other people, but there's still a lot of stuff about shitty cops, gentrification, art colonies, and other stuff that's both a bummer but also weirdly funny.
Nrama: Since you mention it, can you tell us about Daygloayhole?
Passmore: Daygloayhole is a series I started in 2012 while I was all depressed about this other graphic novel I was trying to do. I needed a clearing house for all these disparate interests I had like, punk, riding trains, anarchism, porn addiction/alienation, police violence, my daddy issues, and cultural appropriation in New Orleans. I was reading some old Conan the Barbarian comics and I was like, "what's my version of this?" So Daygloayhole follows two people wandering around a very contrived post-apocalyptic New Orleans and living two different lives. One is an insatiable killing machine and the other whiny introvert based on myself. I self-published two issues that are out of print but I’ve been talking to Silver Sprocket about reissuing the first two issues and publishing the last two, and I've got two spin-off books I'm trying to do by 2018.
Daygloayhole #1 and #2 should be reissued sometime this year, as well as #3. The series is only gonna be four issues probably. Although I'm doing a horror comic thru Czap books in 2018 set in the Daygloayhole universe, and I had plans on doing a 100-page sci-fi comic in the same universe for the Island anthology. I'd still like to do that one so maybe someone else will want to publish.
Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals with Your Black Friend?
Passmore: I don't expect a lot of people's minds to be changed by an eleven-page comic, at least not completely. I'd be satisfied if it's part of a patchwork of sources about race that people draw from. But you know, if Idris Elba or Donald Glover wants to make a movie version I'd take that meeting.