Reframing Police Brutality and Black–Asian Relations through Comics
Caroline Kyungah Hong, Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY)
My keywords were “pop culture” and “resistance.”
In the English Department at Queens College, I taught a senior seminar (the capstone course for our English majors) on the literary and pop-cultural form of Asian American graphic narratives. All of the course content is Asian American (see attached syllabus), but I especially wanted to incorporate an effective short piece very early in the semester (1) to help students get familiar with the form of graphic narratives (many of them had never read comics before) and (2) to start thinking critically, politically, and polyculturally about representations of Asian Americans, getting away from the kinds of stereotypical images and narratives that pervade pop culture.
I decided to use Ka Yan Cheung’s short comic “Dear Brother” (see attached or read it online at Colorlines), excerpted from the collection APB: Artists against Police Brutality: A Comic Book Anthology (2015). The anthology features contributions from more than 50 artists and engages ongoing conversations about police violence and the criminal justice system that have been brought to the fore in recent years by the Black Lives Matter movement. (All proceeds from the anthology go to the Innocence Project, an organization committed to helping exonerate wrongfully convicted people.)
“Dear Brother” was inspired by true events, in particular the killing of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man, who was shot in Brooklyn on November 20, 2014, by NYPD officer Peter Liang. Liang was convicted of manslaughter (later downgraded to criminally negligent homicide) and official misconduct, and he was sentenced to 5 years of probation and 800 hours of community service. Even though this was a local and recent incident, many of my students weren’t familiar with the details or the aftermath, so we spent some time talking about what happened. On our class blog, I shared different accounts of the case (from Buzzfeed, NPR, Mother Jones, and Reappropriate), and we talked about how it sparked very different responses from Asian American communities—from mainly Chinese Americans who protested on behalf of Liang, claiming he was a victim of racism, that he was unfairly prosecuted and made a scapegoat, to Asian Americans who took to the streets to support Gurley’s family and #Justice4Akai, as part of #Asians4BlackLives in support of the BLM movement. We also talked about the misinformed ideas circulating in the mainstream media that the pro-Liang protests were the first, largest, and/or most impactful Asian American protest movements, and how and why histories of the Asian American Movement have been erased.
One of the reasons I chose this specific piece is because it’s a great example of an Asian American graphic narrative that links both art and resistance, not only in content but also in form. Cheung’s Tumblr states, “Comics is her [Cheung’s] favorite medium, because she considers it an art for the people. Growing up as a young immigrant, visual storytelling was uniquely accessible to her in a way other literary forms were not. She was inspired by the way ordinary people can use the medium to challenge mainstream culture and dominant narratives.”
Talking about the comics form and Cheung’s style, by close reading specific panels, was really useful in getting students to talk about issues that are sensitive, complicated, and controversial. The comic is framed as a handwritten letter from the narrator to her younger brother, who grows up to become a cop and ends up fatally shooting a black transgender teen. In addition to the letter frame, the comic is in black and white, the panel borders look hand-drawn, the images look like they were created using different mediums (ink, watercolor, pencil, computer) to convey different emotions and messages—all of which contribute to making the piece feel really intimate and personal. We talked about how Cheung foreshadows what happens and infuses darkness and violence throughout the comic, whether it’s in depicting the games they played as children (which involved pretending to cut each other’s bodies) or in hinting at but not outright naming abuse by their father. We talked about how Cheung grounds the comic in history—emphasizing Black–Asian solidarity, rather than conflict, and making references to figures like Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X, not by naming names but by giving the readers visual and textual clues, encouraging us to look up these histories if we’re not familiar with them. We also talked about the narrator’s complicated position, in fighting for justice and condemning what her brother did on the one hand, and not totally giving up on her brother or even cops in general on the other. We discussed how we might see that reflected in the changing perspective of the comic, which shifts from first-person to third-person and then back to first.
Because it’s such a personal and accessible piece, the students really connected with it and were able to think from multiple perspectives about a specific issue relevant to contemporary Asian Americans. Thematically, it touched on a lot of the issues I wanted to foreground in the seminar—domestic and systemic violence and institutionalized racism; cross-racial relations and solidarity, especially between Asian Americans and Black Americans; and the mainstream erasure of Asian American histories and political movements. It also effectively demonstrated how the comics form can tackle really deep, tough, complicated issues, especially for my students who had never read comics or had preconceived notions about what comics can be about.
Overall, I think it went very well to use this piece. I paired it with another short comic, but next time I might devote a whole class to it, and also give them some time to chat in pairs or small groups about parts of it. I might also set up more of the background and context earlier and have us discuss it prior to doing the reading, as well as after, to get a sense of how the comic impacts what they know and think about these issues.
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