Once again Joel Christian Gill brings us the story of an important figure in Black history whose achievements are not well known. This graphic novel chronicles the life of Robert Smalls, an enslaved man from South Carolina who pulled off a most daring flight to freedom.
Despite growing up on a plantation Smalls’ early life was not as harsh as it was for most enslaved children. He didn’t understand the rules were different for him than for the white children from the ”big house” he was allowed to spend most of his time playing with. Eventually Smalls’ owner sent him from the big house out to the fields, believing once Smalls experienced the brutal reality of enslavement he would become he would become more submissive. However, Smalls never forgot those early feelings of freedom; instead of making him more compliant, experiencing the cruelty of enslavement made him more defiant.
Smalls’ owner realized he was smart but, since he couldn’t have a fearless slave on the plantation, he sent him away to Charleston. There he was given work piloting boats and became masterful at maneuvering through South Carolina’s waterways. He and the other enslaved men on the crew of the CSS Planter handled everything on the boats. They covered for the white captain and crew when they were drunk or off carousing on shore. Their recklessness inspired Smalls to plan the daring heist. By impersonating the captain – which he’d had to do before – he stole the boat, made it past confederate checkpoints and successfully took several enslaved people and their families north to freedom.
His accomplishments didn’t end there. He had successful careers in business and politics, including holding elected statewide and national offices.
Instead of a straightforward panel-by-panel telling of Smalls’ life story, Gill sets it as a conversation between two friends discussing great Black men. As one recounts the story of Robert Smalls’ life, the other asks questions that uncover more fascinating details about him. Gill’s images are powerful when expressing a range of emotions – readers will feel fear, anger and joy just as the characters do. The somber color palette evokes feelings of oppression and limited possibility. The bibliography contains sources for more information about Robert Smalls’ life. All told, this volume deserves a place in classroom, school and public libraries.
To learn about the accomplishments of other overlooked Black people, find Gill’s Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives From Black History, Volumes I and II.