THE FIGHT for rights keeps coming to Nate Powell’s front door.
Powell hails from Arkansas, where Jim Crow long resided, and where the Little Rock Nine and the Little Rock Crisis became powerfully stitched into civil-rights history well before Powell was born. One reason that Rep. John Lewis chose Powell to illustrate his graphic-novel memoir “March,” in fact, was because this gifted young Southerner understood the ways and mores below the Mason-Dixon Line.
For more than a decade now, Powell, an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist (“Swallow Me Whole,” “The Silence of Our Friends,” the forthcoming “You Don’t Say”), has lived farther north, making Bloomington, Indiana, his adopted home. Yet amid the fresh controversy over the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Gov. Mike Pence signed yesterday, Powell finds himself again shamed by the laws of his terrain.
“I’ve lived in Bloomington for over 11 years now,” Powell tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “As a resident of Indiana, I feel shame and embarrassment, but I don’t feel any special allegiance or identification with this state. I identify much more strongly with my home state of Arkansas, and perhaps the most shameful reality is that these two homes of mine seem to’ve been in competition lately for who can bring the most extreme far-right rhetoric and legislation into the public eye.”
Pence’s signing of the “religious freedom” act has brought a rapid backlash, as critics say it will allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers at the least, and potentially against all customers.
“Everyone I know is equally angry, ashamed and embarrassed, but I also live in an oasis of relative human decency in the state,” Powell says. “I don’t necessarily expect that kind of kinship too much outside of this town.”
Indianapolis’s biggest convention, the gamers gathering known as Gen Con, threatened to take its event out of state earlier in the week if Pence signed this legislation. Gen Con reportedly has a contract keeping it in-state for the next five years, but numerous business leaders were saying Friday that they boycott Indiana because of discriminatory legislation.
“I’ve only heard of Gen Con in the last few years, and it’s very interesting to see such a thriving parallel subcultural event nearby — a good sign!” Powell tells Comic Riffs. “I fully support their recent statement, threatening to pull the event from Indiana. They bring money, and that’s an appropriate language of power when using leverage against lawmakers and businesses.
“Bring it on.”
Although being raised in Arkansas made Powell aware of certain racist realities in his midst, he says relocating to the Hoosier state gave him a new viewpoint.
“I, and many Southerners of my [Gen-X] generation, were certainly raised to internalize that the South holds a trademark on being backwards and racist,” Powell says. “It wasn’t until settling in Indiana that I realized large sections of the traditional Midwest were exponentially more racist and backwards than anywhere I’d ever lived in the South.
“Generally speaking, the Midwest is much more culturally homogeneous, and certain layers of cultural or skin privilege feel more pronounced to me here,” Powell continues. “The South’s history carries impenetrable layers of violence, oppression, and darkness, but I feel that the Midwest is able to capitalize off that spotlight to brush off the reality of its own hundreds of still-active sundown towns, its being the national center of white supremacist activity, the fear pervading much of the fabric of its existence.
“Power, privilege and violence are not, and never were, strictly Southern issues in America.”
On social media and in conversation, Powell says he’s tuned in to the blowback to the legislation But as an artist and musician, Powell also acknowledges that his circles of discussions may not mirror prevailing sentiments in his state.
“I do hear encouraging buzz that a substantial portion of Hoosiers are outraged by the bill, but I also feel my perception of that opposition may be skewed by the visibility of comments online, and by people I know here,” Powell says. “I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to find that a majority of Hoosiers support the bill, and that’s really disappointing, but I really have no way of gauging what the actual public sentiment is at this point.
“Then again, activism moves forward only by amplifying a vocal opposition, allowing it to pick up steam and move from a [possible] minority to a majority opinion,” says Powell, who in recent years has labored passionately in bringing Rep. Lewis’s heroic civil-rights trilogy to the illustrated page. (“March: Book Two,” from Top Shelf, was released in January.)
“It is my sincere hope that this legislation lives a very short life, and that people are further empowered to push back against such authoritarian and proto-fascist gestures as they emerge — because they will emerge,” Powell tells The Post. “I am filled with uncertainty and fear when thinking about how my two daughters will grow into this world as Hoosiers, as Americans, as women and free thinkers.
“Everything I do at this point is to ensure that they, and their generation, are aware of one’s responsibility to fight against people in positions of power in order to maintain something resembling a humane and open society.”