The Nib, home of political cartoons and nonfiction comics, approached comics artist Ron Wimberly in late 2014 about contributing a series of illustrations to their site for Black History Month in February of 2015 - “Black History in Its Own Words.” The primacy of the idea - illustrations of black Americans with a brief, punchy quote - sparked immediately with Wimberly, who overdelivered on his commitment and repeated the assignment the following year.
This February, again timed for Black History Month, Image Comics collects those twenty-four illustrations, complemented by fourteen new drawings fans have never seen before. In total, “Black History in Its Own Words” showcases 88 pages of Wimberly’s graphically striking portraits and strikingly chosen quotes, featuring luminaries from James Baldwin and George Herriman to Kanye West and Serena Williams.
CBR: When you were first approached about the idea of drawing the “Black History in Its Own Words" series on The Nib, what was the concept’s main appeal to you?
Ron Wimberly: It was simple: All I had to do was choose black luminaries who said great things and draw them. That was enough. Maybe the ease of the concept was part of the draw. I tend to challenge myself usually, but this was very straightforward; there’s no complex formal elements to the project.
You chose a wide variety of people, from all walks of life and across American history, for this series. What criteria went into your choices - and not only the people you selected, but the quotes you spotlighted?
I essentially just chose folks who popped out in my head. It wasn’t very difficult, I could probably do one a day for a year straight without repeating a person. I had only two criteria. I wanted to balance heady, iconic historical figures with figures who maybe had something to say or for whom their visibility was its own statement. My second goal was to show the richness of different walks and identities.
When you started the series and went looking for quotes, did any of the people involved surprise you? By that I mean, you weren’t expecting to include a certain person until you came across a quote that really resonated for you?
No, I haven’t done this long enough to be surprised. I have yet to get past the obvious choices. Some of these quotes I had remembered, and in cases where I hadn’t, I remembered that the figures had said interesting things. There have been a few figures whom I looked to quote who had quotes that I liked that weren’t succinct enough for the chosen format.
Is this series something you plan to continue?
“BHiOW”? Quite possibly.
When did the notion to put them together in a book first occur? How did Image get involved?
It was actually Eric Stephenson’s idea. It had never occurred to me; I was excited by the idea.
Race is, and has always been, a hugely contentious subject in this country. These drawings were all created prior to this year’s election, but what manner of impact does a moment like the 2106 election cycle and conclusion have on how you pursue race in your art?
Actually, I finished 14 of these during and after the election.…so before I answer your question I need to clarify. I don’t pursue race in my art. Race pursues me inside my life and career, and maybe I retaliate within my art on occasion, but, with rare exception, race is the dominant aspect of the lens with which people in comics view my work. This project started out no differently, for better or worse; it was a Black History Month job. I took it as an opportunity to celebrate exceptional people who are excluded from history eleven months of the year.
But to answer your question, in what manner of impact does a moment like the 2106 election cycle and conclusion have on how I pursue race in my art?
None at all.
I been on this. If any at all, it’s just a matter of degrees.
A lot of the gains recently made in rights for women and LGBTQ are at stake. Also the anti-Muslim rhetoric is alarming. But anti-blackness is a constant, the intensity ebbs and flows. So if it means anything to how I’ll deal with race in my art, maybe I will give more bandwidth to black women and to those who are both black and queer or Muslim. For some people it may seem like now we’ve crossed some major threshold in the conversation of race here in this country, but if you are black you have witnessed a constant onslaught on black bodies since you were born. Trump ain’t nothing new.
Last year, Image had announced two upcoming series from you - “Sunset Park” and “Slave Punk: White Coal”? Are those projects still being developed?
What else do you have upcoming?
Stela still has “GratNin” comics from me that have yet to be released. I did some design for an animated project with LeSean Thomas.
Outside of that “Sunset Park” and “Slave Punk” are plenty to keep me busy. There will be little things that drop here and there, but I ain’t talking about anything else until it’s in the can.
I'd also like to shout out my signing events in D.C.: Fantom Comics on 2/15, 7-9pm; Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Museum of Art on 2/19, 1-4pm; Pittsburgh: Copacetic Comics on 2/22 from 6-8pm; and Rhode Island: RISD on 2/24 from 1:10–2:30pm(?).
“Black History in Its Own Words” is currently available from Image Comics.