This year's selection is graphic memoir 'March'
FARMINGTON — For eight years, San Juan College officials have been trying to promote community dialog and literacy through their One Book One Community program, in which a single book is designated for reading and discussion by students, faculty members and local residents.
Over that time, the books chosen for the program have covered a variety of subjects, including the dystopian suspense novel "The Circle" by Dave Eggers in 2015 and last year's selection, "The Emerald Mile" by Kevin Fedarko, a nonfiction account of a record-setting rafting trip down the Grand Canyon in 1983.
But it's safe to say this year's selection, the graphic memoir trilogy "March" by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydi and Nate Powell, is an outlier among all the books that have been chosen for the program. The book features a comic book format, but its content is anything but frivolous, charting Lewis' story as a civil rights activist, as well as the victories and defeats experienced by the movement over the course of American history.
"We've been tossing around the idea of a graphic novel for quite a while," said program director Danielle Sullivan, an assistant professor of English at the college. "It was a little bit controversial — 'Is it literary? Is it not?'"
Ultimately, she said, committee members decided "March" was more than worthy of inclusion in the program, which features several accompanying events each year that are designed to engage the public and promote discussion of the book.
One such event took place today when the One Book One Community committee presented a re-enactment of the famed lunch counter sit-ins that took place across the Jim Crow South during the early days of the civil rights movement. Approximately 150 people gathered in St. Mary's Kitchen, the college's cafeteria, to watch as student re-enactors posing as nonviolent civil rights protesters endured verbal abuse and intimidation at the hands of the other re-enactors posing as white southerners who opposed desegregation.
The experience was intended to be as authentic as possible, and the individuals posing as white southerners did not mince their words to be politically correct, Sullivan said.
"There were a lot of N-words and F-bombs to help people understand the anger and vitriol protesters had to ignore," she said
Unsettling as that may have been for the targets of such abuse, the re-enactment was intended to help young people understand what civil rights demonstrators endured in order to help desegregate America's public spaces in the 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan said. That, in turn, may give them a greater appreciation for what they read and see in the book, she said.
While Farmington has never had a sizable African-American population, the area has had its own civil rights issues because of historic conflicts between the Anglo and Native populations — most notably the 1974 murders of three Navajo men by white teens that sparked a series of marches and protests involving thousands of Native people.
San Juan College librarian Barbara Billey recalled growing up in the Farmington area during that upheaval. She said reading "March" and watching today's re-enactment reminded her of those tense times.
"It's very emotional," she said.
She said she was pleased the committee had chosen the book for the One Book One Community program and explained that she already had ordered copies of it for the school's library even before that decision was made.
Also present at today's event was Frances Vitali, a Farmington resident and a faculty member in the University of New Mexico's College of Education who has taken part in previous re-enactments that were staged at Farmington and Piedra Vista high schools. She said as a member of the small African-American community in Farmington, she often has wondered what the atmosphere was like here during the civil rights movement.
"It's events like this that bring it to the forefront," she said, explaining that the re-enactments also provide a jarring illustration that students can learn from.
"This is not mentioned in their textbooks," she said.
Sullivan said the re-enactment and the reactions it sparked among those who witnessed it made it much more than just a relic of the past. A sharp increase in racial tension in the United States in recent years, led by the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Chalottesville, Virginia, illustrates why the lessons of the civil rights movement remain so valuable, she said.
"It really emphasizes the danger of forgetting history," Sullivan said.
A display located one floor above St. Mary's Kitchen in the student center challenges students and community members to consider how they would react to injustice by posing the question "What would you march for?" Responses are posted on all four sides of the display, which will remain up for the next several weeks.
Numerous other One Book One Community events are scheduled at the college in October. For a schedule or to learn more about the program, visit sanjuancollege.edu/onebook.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.