Lila Quintero Weaver, Darkroom: a memoir in black and white. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: U of Alabama P, 2010. 264 pp. ISBN: 978-0817357146
Lila Quintero Weaver’s first graphic novel, Darkroom: a memoir in black and white, presents a personal narrative of childhood and adolescence as an Argentinean-American in the deeply segregated town of Marion, Alabama during the 1960s and 1970s. Darkroom begins when Lila immigrates to the United States at the age of five and ends, rather abruptly, with a condensed narrative of her life after high school and her return to Argentina, forty-four years after her departure. The coming-of-age story, dramatically set during the civil rights movement, directly links the protagonist’s personal experiences of immigration with the escalating national crisis, attempting to focalize this tense historical period from a child’s curious but not fully cognizant perspective. The adult writer/illustrator, in contrast, maintains a more mature understanding of the racial tensions in which she grew up. In this way, through both content (as a young immigrant’s tale that depicts societal change in addition to personal development) and form (as a graphic text), Darkroom remains a unique example of the bildungsroman.
The graphic novel traces the young protagonist’s odyssey as she copes with discrimination, struggles to find a place within movements for racial justice, and gradually comes to terms with her identity as a Spanish-speaking immigrant. At times the author’s deliberate use of a child-like perspective and naïveté read as such. Weaver’s overt, even exaggerated, metaphors and visual symbolism of “black and white” or “dark and light,” especially when connected to the development of photographic images and the setting of her father’s darkroom in the context of a deeply segregated society, risk bordering on cliché. Given that a child’s perspective propels the narrative, however, these somewhat simplistic renderings might also be read as innocent if not tender and endearing.
In other instances, the author/illustrator more successfully takes advantage of the graphic medium to denote racial difference and condemn prejudice. When depicting racist white characters, Weaver frequently utilizes thin gray contour outline with sparse facial detail and little or no infill shading. Extreme close-ups exaggerate harsh facial expressions when white townspeople utter racist sentiments, e.g. “Nigras? You invited Nigras?!” (97) and “...the coons're gonna march down to the jail” (146). Weaver's visual style not only highlights the speakers’ whiteness but also visually connotes the severity and two-dimensionality of their thinking. In contrast, Weaver consistently depicts African American characters with more complex shading and frequently includes their hands (or feet) with expressive gestures within the frame, adding more personality and depth to these images.
In the citations above, colloquial speech further underscores the uneducated biases of the speakers; in other words, text and image function together to depict ignorant bigotry. Likewise, the author/illustrator exploits the balance between text and image to portray segregation and the narrow-mindedness of white townsfolk. In one example, the text fits subtly around a gathering of African American church-goers, allowing the characters’ visual physical presence as a community and their individual facial expressions to dominate the frame; on the following page Weaver depicts a group of white church-goers with text in large speech bubbles that span outside of the frame, activating the edges of the image and drawing attention to their words rather than the characters,: “It’s those outside agitators! They’ve got the nigras all stirred up!” “This is serious! If they get the vote, they’re gonna have the majority, and they’ll take over!” (138-140). This technique effectively highlights collective prejudices and fears.
In contrast, by portraying herself as a child immigrant with an educated middle-class background, and as a light-skinned Latina whose identity slips in and out of whiteness, Weaver positions herself as a subjective outsider whose non-whiteness allows her to see racial injustice. Yet non-blackness, inclusion in white society, and childhood naïveté protect her from gaining a more intimate or experiential understanding of racism. Weaver takes advantage of this position and, in her role as adult storyteller, guides the reader through her gradual realization of racial segregation and violence. In this way, the graphic novel becomes a teaching tool, capitalizing upon a youth’s perspective and providing a gentle introduction into violent racial conflict. The incorporation of sketched re-creations of historical documents such as textbooks, literacy tests for voter suppression, and newspaper articles enables a persuasive blending of childhood memories and adult comprehension. Such a dual narrative perspective allows a certain naïveté regarding racial discrimination and further permits the protagonist to confront instances in which she was complicit with racism and segregation (200, 247).
Weaver traces the protagonist’s recollection, reflection, and gradual realization of racism by overtly repeating certain compositions or scenes, and, occasionally, by repeating text. Throughout Darkroom, imagery and narrative structure—intricately linked –mimic the circularity of memory. For example, the snapshot of her last view of Argentina (introduced at the text’s onset) appears again at the end of the graphic novel when Weaver returns to her native country (30, 249). Similarly, Weaver illustrates a close-up of young Lila’s eyes after she witnesses segregation in a local health clinic; this same frame appears again much later when she begins to understand the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in her classroom, church, and neighborhood (68, 183). Visual and textual circularity combined with focused attention upon the protagonist’s eyes not only provide insight into Lila’s evolving comprehension but also invite readers to acknowledge their own gaze and “see” the South for themselves.
In short, with Darkroom: a memoir in black and white Lila Quintero Weaver nostalgically represents the experience of racial difference through childhood memories. At times the graphic novel suffers from its attempt to converge numerous if not competing narratives: an immigrant’s tale, a coming-of-age story, and a chronicle of the civil rights era. Weaver’s personal memoir as a Latina and an immigrant slowly dissolves and ultimately disappears into the historical narrative of the civil rights movement until, in the end, the protagonist decides to literally return to her roots. Although this may disappoint readers specifically interested in the interaction between Lila's latinidad and the stark segregation of the South, such a representation may be true to Weaver's personal experience. The graphic memoir gives the impression that as she assimilated into white American culture, civil rights struggles were critical to personal growth and a sense of self. For these reasons, Darkroom will appeal to students and scholars of the bildungsroman, narratives of the Jim Crow era, and Latina literature. Weaver’s visual text will be of particular interest to those engaged in graphic representations of racial and cultural identity.