Thursday, November 4, 2021

PROPHET AGAINST SLAVERY: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel is a stark work of art about a forgotten radical egalitarian

PROPHET AGAINST SLAVERY: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel
Beacon Press
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The revolutionary life of an 18th-century dwarf activist who was among the first to fight against slavery and animal cruelty.

Prophet Against Slavery is an action-packed chronicle of the remarkable and radical Benjamin Lay, based on the award-winning biography by Marcus Rediker that sparked the Quaker community to re-embrace Lay after 280 years of disownment. Graphic novelist David Lester brings the full scope of Lay’s activism and ideas to life.

Born in 1682 to a humble Quaker family in Essex, England, Lay was a forceful and prescient visionary. Understanding the fundamental evil that slavery represented, he would unflinchingly use guerrilla theatre tactics and direct action to shame slave owners and traders in his community. The prejudice that Lay suffered as a dwarf and a hunchback, as well as his devout faith, informed his passion for human and animal liberation. Exhibiting stamina, fortitude, and integrity in the face of the cruelties practiced against what he called his “fellow creatures,” he was often a lonely voice that spoke truth to power.

Lester’s beautiful imagery and storytelling, accompanied by afterwords from Rediker and Paul Buhle, capture the radicalism, the humor, and the humanity of this truly modern figure. A testament to the impact each of us can make, Prophet Against Slavery brings Lay’s prophetic vision to a new generation of young activists who today echo his call of 300 years ago: “No justice, no peace!”


My Review
: In today's world, Benjamin Lay woud be a firebrand and a demanding moral force. IMAGINE how he came across in the slave-owning times of the early eighteenth century. A uncompromising, flinty, arrogantly sure of himself and his rightness, public speaker with a real gift for propaganda.

He would be literally inescapable in this media landscape.

We are the poorer for the absence of someone like him, taking on the horrors of international capitalism. The export of jobs has meant the export of problems like labor relations and environmental regulations, which no one can ever convince me was serendipity. Author and Artist Lester (The Listener and The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism are some of the other titles he's created) clearly understands the value of theater and public perception in the winning of the culture wars:
He's got the entire subject of the Quaker dwarf with an outsider's grasp of the social and moral corruption around him in the economical monochrome of these spreads. Things *are* black-and-white when one reduces them to lines drawn in the sand. Using the palette he chose makes the starkness of Benjamin Lay's moral universe simply part of the experience of learning about him.

It is unsurprising that, in this twenty-first century of information overload, we're needing to learn about Benjamin Lay. His brand of vegan, animal-rights activism, his uncompromising adherence to his moral understanding of the world, reminds me of Greta Thunberg. Only louder. While he had less command of the broader public's attention than she does, he used his voice, his mind's single focus on The Greatest Good, and his unique viewpoint as she has. His unswerving opposition to slavery was so broad in its intellectual base that he refused to ride horses or eat slaughtered animals. In the eighteenth century.

After the Confederacy won the US Civil War in the courts, and gifted us with the Jim Crow laws and the voter suppression laws that they're succeeding in re-installing, the life of a man like Lay would've been deeply threatening to their agenda. A shining moral example? And one who took it to the extremes that Lay did...throwing fake blood on slave owners?! writing angry screeds filled with passion and yet based on reason?! blasphemy to the Capitalist Elite!...well, best to bury him again.

They did; it worked. I'd never heard of him before I was granted this graphic novel's DRC by Beacon Press, that monadnock of Unitarian probity in publishing. The graphic-novel format has never been my favorite among publishing choices. I'd say that, despite this one's five-star rating, it still isn't. I've also given the full five stars to Nationalist Love, and the same reason obtains here: The only effective tool to use in bringing this story to a broad audience is the one used here. There's no way most people would pick up an all-text biography of Benjamin Lay, eighteenth-century dwarf; marry it to this format, they're more likely give it a shot.

What Lay accomplished, in practical terms, was to change the hearts and minds of younger people...which is what the Ruling Elite did in the 1970s and 1980s with rampant consumerism and cheap, disposable goods. This long-buried story will make the effectiveness of that trick very obvious. Ray Bradbury, a true autodidact, famously said, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." The books by and about Benjamin Lay aren't widely read today, and there's a good reason for that: Their message is still resonant, and still damaging to the System's actions and inactions.

Before anyone says it to me, let me say now that I am no Benjamin Lay. I'm a meat-eating cheap-goods-buying 21st-century consumer. That does not make me insensible to the man's message; it merely means that my inner struggle, to reconcile the way I live with the way I understand the world, is apparently endless. It's never a comfortable place to be. I exist because modern exploitive capitalism created medicines that prevent me from dying. I eat because of factory farming and cheap electricity. I am not naked because the supply chain includes vast quantities of cotton goods. The chemical industry has gifted me power, shoes, soaps and shampoos and tooth-cleaning goop.

I am the problem Benjamin Lay railed against: I exist inside a system that requires others to be outside its benefits in order to function. He chose the morally superior course of opting out. He chose a lifetime of rejection and excoriation and outrage heaped upon him, in the name of standing up to be counted for his beliefs. I admit: I lack that courage.

That does not impair my ability to see his message and know its rightness. It makes me more willing to shout and point and wave my arms at this simple, beautiful expression of a simple, beautiful soul's purpose on this Earth. We can all aspire to be celebrated Home as was Benjamin Lay.

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