Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin
Émilie Plateau (Writer and Artist), Montana Kane (Translation), Cromatik Ltd. (Letters)
Dargaud (French), Europe Comics (English)
April 17, 2019
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Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin had done the same. She too was arrested, tried, and convicted. But her name is largely forgotten despite being the spark that lit a significant fire to the laws of segregation. Why is that? Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin gets to the bottom of this mystery and why we should all know Claudette Colvin’s name.
As one would expect from a book about such subject matter, Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin is a deeply disturbing read. The events portrayed here are relayed with a simplicity that intensifies the power of not only Claudette Colvin’s actions, but of those who came after her. You will find yourself shaking with rage and fighting back tears as you read this, and that is the point of this story. Because what Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, and so many others, had to suffer in a bid for their freedom is still being played out in front of our eyes today. We cannot afford to forget them.
Alongside being extremely critical of the white men and women in power, what I found interesting about Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin was how it took the men of the African-American community to task for their lack of action. The book highlights how, when Claudette Colvin was on trial, the women’s association stood by her, organised finances for her, and generally fought beside her, whereas most of the men made excuses not to help.
Later, when Rosa Parks found herself on trial, it was the women in the community who organised the bus boycott and made such strides that then instigated the men to sweep in and take over. Without taking anything away from the hard work of Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues, it is frustrating to read that even the ground-breaking Rosa Parks was turned into a silent spectator at her own revolution.
As much as I appreciate the way race relations and sexism is confronted in this book, I did feel that, at times, writer Émilie Plateau, and Tania de Montaigne, whose book Noire provided the basis for Colored, were trying to drag down the other female activists in an effort to build Colvin up. This is an unnecessary tactic and disingenuous to the combined efforts of all the women and men who worked ceaselessly to put an end to segregation. Everyone who participated in the movement showed an unbelievable amount of courage and conviction, and though it is unfair that Colvin has been left out of history, it was not a consequence of the deliberate actions on the part of the women involved in the fight.
Having said that, I have never so fervently wished for an alternate ending to a story, than when I was reading Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin. Because Colvin became pregnant soon after her trial, she was regarded as a liability by the men in the very movement she helped birth. The circumstances of her pregnancy are kept deliberately vague in Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin, but it didn’t hold Colvin back from her crusade for equal rights for her people. Despite her name being left out of flyers, and generally having to fend for herself, Colvin was a remarkable teenager with a passionate need to make a difference. Had circumstances been different, I wonder what Colvin could have become?
I am in two minds about the art. I like Plateau’s pared back style—similar to the 2-D games of old where all the characters move in a linear fashion—but I wish I could have got more of a flavour of the time and place. Having said that, the very basic line-drawing and tri-tone effect Plateau has gone for does bring out the stark reality of Colvin’s life, and in that sense, the art works brilliantly. Despite several pages having little to no background, when Plateau chooses to include houses and buildings in her pages, one cannot help but notice the exceptional amount of detail in those structures. The style of Plateau’s art may look simplistic, but the execution is anything but.
I’m glad that I got to read Colored, even if it did make me incredibly angry, and I really hope more people will read it. Too often we rally around one single figure as the face of a campaign, but world-changing events take more than an individual. Claudette Colvin’s is the kind of story that will make you never want to take a stand, while simultaneously making you want to start marching against injustice immediately. In another life and another world, Claudette Colvin would have realised her dreams, but in the disappointing world we live in, she is barely a footnote in a movement that she sparked and helped see to fruition.
Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin is a story about the atrocities of racism, but it is also an indictment of sexism. It is amazing, and unfortunate, that one teenager’s story from 1955 can hold so much relevance in 2019, but it is her determination and belief that will live on after the final pages of this book. And that is the true legacy of Claudette Colvin—to stand up for your beliefs even when others don’t.