Doctoral candidate of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
James Baldwin and Yoran Cazac’s Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood is Baldwin’s love letter to Harlem and to his nephew, Tejan, for whom the story was written. The illustrated children’s book, which was marketed as “a child’s story for adults” on its original jacket cover (1976), follows a day in the life of four-year-old TJ as he moves throughout his Harlem neighborhood with his friends WT and Blinky. While the story could be categorized as an illustrated book, I purposefully place it within a capacious definition of graphic narrative and, thus, in the purview of comics studies. The story places images in intricate spatial relationships, at times creating panel-like structures, that exceed the illustrative and become integral to how the text creates meaning. Through its visual form, Baldwin and Cazac’s graphic narrative make visible how political geographies of race, particularly architectures of surveillance and policing, contour TJ’s experience with space.
Power relations shape how space is allocated, the work it does, for whom, and to what end. At the same time, the way individuals navigate space and its limitations—from the intensely intimate and embodied to acts of political gathering and protest—make meaning and create place. Ruth Wilson Gilmore urges that “the territoriality of power is a key to understanding racism” (22). Gilmore’s “political geographies of race” theorizes space outside of narrow geographic or political boundaries by attending to the power dynamics and relations—both local and global, personal and political—that make meaning through, out of, and in response to space. For Gilmore, within this dynamic fluidity exists possibilities for “a radical activism” that “productively exploit[s] crisis for liberatory ends” (22). Benjamin Fraser argues that comics—in their subject matter, artistic form, and method of production—are a uniquely urban form that can bring into view how structural inequalities shape spatial relations, positing that “in the right hands, the visual structures of the comics page. . . becom[e] a way of exposing, questioning, critiquing, and perhaps even correcting this systematic urban imbalance” (6-7). Fraser examines how the visual strategies of comics invite new ways of seeing and inhabiting city spaces. Within the limited space of this blog post, I analyze a moment of police violence, not to elide the text’s engagement with radical, joyful practices of place making, but to highlight how its visual form critiques the way race and racism are written onto the city’s material structures, impacting how TJ comes to understand and encounter the neighborhood he calls home. This six-page spread is the longest moment of sustained-visual narration and one that relies significantly on iconic solidarity between panels. In The System of Comics, Thierry Groensteen theorizes “iconic solidarity” as the double characteristic of images that are simultaneously separate and interdependent (18).
In an intertextual description of TJ’s street through a hypothetical police chase, Baldwin and Cazac note how Harlem’s city space becomes a playground for racist police violence. TJ’s description of his street through the simile of the police chase suggests that this sort of police violence is not only commonplace but is also facilitated through the cityscape. TJ remarks, “This street long. It real long. It a little like the street in the movies or the TV when the cop cars come from that end of the street and they come from the other end of the street and the man they come to get he in one of the houses or he on the fire-escape. . .” (Baldwin & Cazac 12). While the police manipulate the space to enact their terror, the man they pursue sees that they are coming from atop the roof of a building, utilizing his own knowledge of the neighborhood to circumvent their efforts. As TJ recounts the places where the individual might run or hide as the police pursue him—“He might be on one of the fire-escapes, or he might be on the roof”—the visual narrative links individual panels showcasing separate locations that are connected through the stairs of a fire-escape (Baldwin & Cazac 14; see Fig. 1). These interdependent panels reveal how the police use the material form of city space—its streets and buildings—to enclose, contain, and ultimately enact violence, as the man falls from the roof to his “END,” portrayed as the final frame of a tragic film (17; see Fig. 2). Even in this children’s story, policing in Black communities ends in premature death.
As TJ is describing the street, the metaphor he reaches for is one that reveals a familiarity with spectacular images of policing in film and television and an embodied awareness of how police move throughout, surveil, and enact violence within Black communities. TJ describes the street chase as one out of “the movies or TV” and this likeness is emphasized in the visual narration as it frames separate but interconnected scenes first through the panels of a television screen and then through the squares of a film strip (14-17; see Fig. 3). TJ’s perspective as child narrator astutely comments on how popular media, such as television and film, help to shape harmful stereotypes that link Blackness to criminality. His perspective also reveals how this interaction reverberates throughout the community, as he describes it in relation to himself and his friends, saying, “The cops coming from the other end of this long street got to watch out for their man from the playground on TJ’s side of the street. . . He might be in the ice-cream parlor. . . He might be in Blinky’s house. . .He might be in WT’s house [. . .]” (16). TJ describes the police’s search in relation to the landmarks that he and his friends frequent, the playground, the ice cream shop, their houses. The chase seeps into the children’s intimate spaces, their homes, showing how the police might go anywhere in search or anyone or no one. While the detail and matter-of-fact tone suggests it might be a recollection of an experience TJ has witnessed, the hypothetical nature of the narration locates it in space but not necessarily in time. The conditional listing of the places the man “might be” comments on how police infiltrate all aspects of the neighborhood in search for a man that does not exist—in search of their own celluloid images of who a criminal is and what they look like.
The visual narration uses the spatial relations of the page—creating panel-like structures that are linked through the architecture of the neighborhood—to critique how police manipulate the material structure of the neighborhood to enact surveillance and violence. Little Man, Little Man not only visualizes how structural inequalities contour spatial relations but also, as Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody argue, creates a counternarrative to the notion that Black urban areas are spaces of only social death (xvi). Little Man, Little Man highlights the survival, community, joy, and multi-sensory pleasures within TJ’s Harlem community. As Baldwin described it, his children’s story for adults “dances along with the child’s rhythm and resilience, making it an unforgettable picture as it looks to those who are black, poor, and less than four feet high” (jacket description). The graphic narrative asks readers to picture not only the way that political geographies of race contour TJ’s experience but also the way that he is situated within a family and a community that is also a locus of joyful struggle for liberation.
Baldwin, James & Yoran Cazac. Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. Duke University Press, 2018.
--. Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1976.
Boggs, Nicholas & Jennifer DeVere Brody. “Introduction.” Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1976, pp. xv-xxii.
Fraser, Benjamin. Visible Cities, Global Comics: Urban Images & Spatial From. University Press of Mississippi, 2019.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Fatal Couplings of Power and Difference: Notes on Racism and Geography.” The Professional Geographer, vol. 54, no. 1, 2002, pp. 15-2.
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beaty & Nick Nguyen, The University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Maite Urcaregui is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her current research investigates how multiethnic American authors strategically employ visual elements in their literature to navigate and critique the visual politics of race, gender, and sexuality, particularly as they demarcate national belonging and who is seen as “citizen.” Her publications include “(Un)Documenting Single-Panel Methodologies and Epistemologies in the Non-Fictional Cartoons of Eric J. García and Alberto Ledesma” forthcoming in a special issue of Prose Studies, “‘A Revelation Not of the Flesh, but of the Mind’: Performing Queer Textuality in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home” in The Routledge Companion to Gender and Sexuality in Comic Book Studies edited by Frederick Luis Aldama (Routledge, 2021), and “Intersectional Feminism in Bitch Planet: Moving Comics, Fandom, and Activism Beyond the Page” in Gender and the Superhero Narrative (University Press of Mississippi, 2018).
Due to the ongoing pandemic crisis, ICAF was forced to cancel its events at the 2020 Small Press Expo. Over the next 16 weeks (give or take), we will be publishing