Lately I have been thinking a lot about the word “intersectionality” and how it has been used. It seems like, for better or worse, a term that is only gaining in popularity in the popular consciousness. The term was first used by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the experiences of black women. Later, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins built upon Crenshaw’s work by reintroducing intersectionality in her discussion of black feminism. The relative newness of this activism and scholarship might make it seem that intersectionality is dealing with issues that have never been tackled before. However this assumption would be wrong. Though Crenshaw was the first to coin the term, she is not the first to describe the intersection of multiple identities. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech spoke of her multifaceted identities, her experiences as a woman, a mother, a black person, and a former slave.
Currently their is growing mainstream and scholarly attention on autobiographical comics written by women of color. Cartoonists like Whit Taylor, Lynda Barry, and MariNaomi have centered their work on autobiography, frequently engaging with issues of gender, race, and identity. These comics are often thought of as embodying a new, intersectional aesthetic. While these cartoonists are creating work from their unique subject position, I argue that that women of color autobiographical cartoonists have had a much longer legacy than the existing scholarship indicates. Similar to how Sojourner Truth’s speech anticipated the intersectional feminist work of later scholars, these historical antecedents of contemporary graphic memoir were also interested in depicting the complex, interwoven aspects of identity as experienced by women of color.
Many comics scholars consider the genre of autobiographical comics as beginning with the underground comics (or “comix”) movement of the 1960s and 1970s. These comics championed subversive topics and embraced countercultural narratives. Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) is widely considered the first long form graphic memory. Binky Brown chronicled the creator’s neuroses, specifically his struggles with obsessive-complusive disorder. However, examples of autobiographical or semi autobiographical comics existed prior to the underground comics movement. One of the earliest examples of autobiographical comics were the early 20th century newspaper strips of Fay King, who frequently drew herself as a character within her comics. Several significant examples of autobiographical comics were created by women of color. African American newspaper cartoonist Jackie Ormes created several comic strips, the earliest debuting in 1937, with female protagonists that were at least partially based on her own life experiences and engaged in critiques of social issues such as racism and pollution. Also missing from most discussions of autobiographical comics is the first autobiographical comic written by an Asian American, Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (1946) which chronicled her experiences in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Therefore, autobiographical comics created by women of color have always been invested in the political and interested in engaging with traumatic narratives.
While much has been written on the impact of underground comics, it is still difficult to find analysis on individual issues, particularly on specific examples of the female subject and trauma. Another issue is of erasure. While Lynda Barry’s comics explore her Filipino identity, most scholarship on these works does not focus on issues of race and identity. Similarly (and frustratingly) mixed-race Latina underground cartoonist Roberta Gregory is not usually discussed as being a cartoonists of color. As I continue to research the work of autobiographical cartoonists it is important to keep these things in mind.