Teaching Trauma: Narrative and the Use of Graphic Novels in Discussing Difficult Pasts

Roy Rogers kicked off yesterday’s 4-day roundtable with a review of the graphic novel, Rebel. For day two of our roundtable on graphic novels and history, I will discuss the use of graphic novels in teaching traumatic histories.

51m-NxiSLdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As anyone who has taught the history of slavery knows, it can be challenging. It is an important, but also emotionally loaded subject that can provoke spirited responses from students. Some students are resistant to discussing what they view as an ugly event in the past. Others may become defensive. And, for others, the history of slavery may be personal. The challenge becomes presenting the history in a thoughtful way that will engage students, but does not whitewashing history. Other traumatic events—genocide, war, etc.—can present similar pedagogical challenges.


On the surface, graphic novels may seem like an odd choice for teaching a more sensitive historical topic. Those who are familiar with the work of Art Spiegelman may know his 2-volume graphic novel Maus, in which he uses anthropomorphic characters to narrate his parents’ experience during the Holocaust.[1] The graphic novel is, in many ways, Spiegelman’s own deeply personal effort to come to terms with a traumatic family past. Although rendering the Holocaust in cartoon form was not without controversy, few would disagree that Spiegelman succeeded in engaging an audience that might not have otherwise picked up a book about the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s narrative art became a sort of public history in its own right.

I have taught Maus in a couple of contexts: a Race and Ethnicity course geared towards survey students and a World War Two seminar. In the first instance, my goal was to get students thinking about not only genocide and ethnic cleansing, but also the meaning of being Jewish in post-war America. The graphic novel was paired with other materials, including propaganda posters and clips of the documentary, Kitty, Return to Auschwitz. More than mere infotainment, the personal nature of the narrative made an emotionally challenging topic more accessible to students who are often uncomfortable confronting historical traumas, and opened them up to broader discussions about the meaning of ethnicity in modern America. Many students were initially skeptical at being told to read a comic book, but found themselves engaged in thoughtful discussion not only about genocide, but also about the meaning of ethnicity in modern America. The graphic novel helped make what seemed like distant past seem more tangible and real.


The narrative style of graphic novels can also make them useful tools in teaching about slavery, in a couple of different contexts.  As historian James Oliver Horton notes in his article on slavery and public history, those who teach about slavery in public settings are “asked to educate a public generally unprepared and often reluctant to deal with a history which, at times, can seem very personal.”[2] The popular Twitter account Af-Am History Fail demonstrates in practice, just how difficult teaching slavery can be.

Kyle Baker’s recent treatment of the 1831 Nat Turner revolt offers wonderful pedagogical opportunities. What makes this graphic novel so powerful in a lot of ways, is that the drawings are rendered in black and white, and there is little-t0-no text. The reader is left to process the event through pictures. Baker is masterful in his use of imagery, space and positioning to subtly convey ideas. His model for Nat Turner comes from a satirical Independence Day cartoon he published, depicting a hungry slave child peering in at Thomas Jefferson, as he writes the Declaration of Independence. The window, as Andrew Kunka observes, serves as comment on the accuracy of historical record.[3] The images are treated as equal to, or greater than text. In the hands of someone like Baker, the images can convey layered and multiple meanings.[4] Almost wordlessly, he weaves into the narrative of a slave revolt, the trauma and violence of slavery.

Graphic novels like Nat Turner can be used in both surveys and public history courses to get students to think about historical representation and memory without necessarily delving into a complicated historiography that may not be suitable for all levels of students. It can also help students to look at a traumatic history that is presented powerful way, that can help open them up to further exploration of the topic. If I were teaching Nat Turner in the context of a public history course, I would probably pair it with the Af Am History Fail Feed, and an article or two, or chapter on public history and slavery. In a survey course, I would likely pair it with some primary sources, such as Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July speech, and excerpts from  Nat Turner’s Confessions, and from David Walker’s Appeal, the text said to have inspired Turner. All have potential for lessons about slavery, abolition, and freedom.[5]


And finally, war is another area of historical trauma; particularly when one delves into the war experience. Few wars have ignited more controversy recently than the Civil War and Reconstruction. Tomorrow, the Junto will run an interview with Bancroft Prize winning historian Ari Kelman, who co-authored Battle Lines: a Graphic Novel of the Civil War with illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Battle Lines is a complex, layered treatment of the Civil War that begins in 1808 and runs through Reconstruction. It involves a series of connected mini-narratives, dissecting the causes and consequences of the Civil War but also to unpack the complexities of why soldiers on both sides fought. The novel includes not only vivid history, but also the careful character development. A soldier’s heartache becomes the reader’s: the loss, the destruction, and the devastation. [6]

The Civil War was deadly, claiming approximately 620,000 lives and over a million casualties total. But numbers alone can be hard for students to process, beyond instinctively know that’s a large toll. Combining Battle Lines’s narrative treatment of the war with battlefield photographs (like Matthew Brady), letters, and journal extracts can help make the human cost of the war painfully real. This combined approach can also help open students up to the nuances of the Civil War.

Graphic novels are certainly not the same as a scholarly monograph or journal article, but when paired with other things (articles, lecture, books, primary sources, film), they can be powerful tools. Abina can be used along side other sources to talk about the broader implications of colonization or the multiple legalities in abolition and the slave trade. I have combined Persepolis with a lecture on U.S. foreign policy during the Carter and Reagan administrations. John Lewis’s March trilogy might be used alongside Selma, and primary sources, like Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In some ways, they are not much like other pedagogical tools, in that a layered approach can help improve information literacy and really let the material sink in. They can just be particularly helpful in approaching traumatic, controversial, or otherwise sensitive topics….especially in the age of trigger warnings.


[1] Spiegerman’s own anthropomorphic treatment of ethnicities came from a prior effort to draw African-Americans, using the old racist tropes to void them of their power. He realized that he could apply what he learned to his own family experience.  See Art Spiegerman, “Why Mice?,” The New York Review of Books. For more on racial tropes, see Michael A. Cheney, “Drawing on History in Recent African American Graphic Novels,” MELUS, Vol. 32, No. 3: Coloring America: Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative (Fall 2007): 175-200.

[2] James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America’s Racial Story,” The Public Historian, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Autumn 1999): 20.

[3] Andrew J. Kunka, “Intertextuality and the Historical Graphic Narrative: Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner and the Styron Controversy,” College Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3, Visual Literature (Summer 2011): 169-170.

[4] Amanda Gluibizzi, “The Aesthetics and Academics of Graphic Novels and Comics,” Journal of Art Documentation, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring 2007): 28-30.

[5] There are two outstanding graphic novels that can add global perspectives on slavery. Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men (Oxford, 2011 ) narrates the 1876 West African court case of Abina Mansah, who was illegally enslaved, ran away, and then challenged her master in court. Marcelo D’Salete, Cumbe chronicles the experiences of African slaves in Brazil. The text is in Portuguese, but the story line is still clear.

[6] As I noted in my review on H-War.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Graphic Novels Roundtable Q & A: Ari Kelman, Battle Lines: a Graphic Novel of the Civil War « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Graphic Novels in the Classroom « The Junto

  3. Pingback: Toe to Toe: Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass versus Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave | Welcome to Pedagogy & American Literary Studies


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