Despite difficult times, hope is in the work we do together.
Today’s existential peril, felt most by the young, echoes the sentiment of kids growing up in the 1950s. Those were times when society lived constantly in the shadow of nuclear war—the mushroom clouds of atomic bombs draping the sky, its white dust gathering around us. For many, it was a time of dread. Hope for a different world, a better world, was fleeting. Then came the civil rights movement and the clouds cleared. For the moment, it seemed like we had a chance.
I started a couple of eclectic leftwing journals during the 1960s and 1970s. They were notes on the historical, political, and cultural maladies that plagued a generation, and an attempt at “shattering forever the walls between activist and intellectual members of the New Left.” Others were better at nailing the sins of the system. My efforts, and those of my writers and artists who collaborated with me, was more toward finding moments of possible redemption in struggles over race, class, and gender. However, we were also interested in how those struggles could make possible certain creations deep in popular culture, going back generations and up to the present. We often asked: How did popular artists deliver a better message? For those interested in an answer, our Radical America and Cultural Correspondence, are digitized and free to study on the Web. As writers, we sought to “transform the world”, to “change life”, to help create a society of freedom and exaltation. For many of us, little could distract us from this important work.
After many projects—books, oral history archives, labor support and labor history among them—I came back to comics. Comics were the playful and mundane means of communication that taught me how to read in the first place. My angle is nonfiction history, still in pursuit of those same impulses that drove me to letters and activism years ago.
In collaboration with twenty-some artists, I’ve worked on Wobblies! (On the Industrial Workers of the World), A People’s History of the American Empire (an adaptation of Howard Zinn’s famous book), The Beats and Bohemians (stories of the cultural rebels), graphic biographies of Emma Goldman, Che Guevara, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Robeson, Eugene Debs, W.E.B. Du Bois and still more…to come.
Doing this work gives me hope. And hope, some sixty years since my first civil rights picket line in my native Champaign, Illinois, is still something to strive for.
PAUL BUHLE is a retired senior lecturer at Brown University, and author or editor of more than three-dozen books. Buhle is also the founder of the Oral History of the American Left archive at New York University and a co-editor of The Encyclopedia of the American Left.