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Darrin Bell's graphic memoir 'The Talk' references a shared experience among Black parents


Three years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Darrin Bell was at work on a biography about his grandfather. Then came the summer of 2020 and those massive Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. Bell had a long talk with his editor about changing the subject of the book entirely and happened to mention something.

DARRIN BELL: I'm having to grapple with whether my 6-year-old son is old enough for the talk. I wasn't planning on giving it to him for a couple years.

RASCOE: The talk as in the talk Black parents give their children about how the world will not be kind to them because of the color of their skin.

BELL: I mean, you look at your children, and you see innocence, and they're precious, and you - and they still believe in magic, and they still believe that the world loves them. And you don't want to take any of that from them. But at some point, you have to - if you want to prepare them for what's to come, if you don't want someone else to take it from them in a much worse way. And I told her, you know, it was ironic that he's the same - he was the same age, 6 years old, that I was when my mom gave me the talk. And, you know, she replied with three words. She just said, that's the book.

RASCOE: Darrin Bell stopped working on the biography and instead created a graphic novel about his own life called "The Talk." Bell, who's also known for his "Candorville" syndicated comic strip, joined us last week. I asked him about a time in the book when he describes his mom first giving him the talk.

BELL: I asked for a water gun. And she said no, and she told me why. She said that the world is different for Black boys and girls than it is for white ones. And, you know, I might see my white friends running around with water guns carefree because when police see them, they just see pure innocence. They see little kids playing. But when they see me, they might see a threat. They might think I'm older than I actually am. You know, I might even get shot.

Now, I didn't believe this at all. This made no sense to me. So as soon as I could, I snuck out of the house with my bright-green, translucent water gun shooting random things, imagining that they were stormtroopers and that I was Luke Skywalker escaping from the Death Star. And, you know, I bent down to load - to reload the water gun in a puddle, and I heard someone say, drop the weapon. He seemed like he was 10,000 feet tall. He was a grown police officer with his hand near his weapon. And for a split second, I thought, is he playing with me? But the look on his face told me he wasn't, and I was terrified. And I just froze. I just knelt down on the ground instinctively and closed my eyes and wished he would go away. And he eventually did.

RASCOE: But you didn't tell anybody, right? Like, you didn't tell anybody that this happened to you.

BELL: Well, I was ashamed of two things. I was ashamed that I hadn't taken my mom seriously, and I was ashamed that I didn't do anything. When I was 6, I thought I could have stood up to him. I could have said, hey, it's just a water gun. But I didn't do anything. I just froze.

RASCOE: Not every Black parent sits their child down and tells them about racism. And in your case, it was your mother, but your mother's white. And she was the one who gave you the talk and not your Black father. Like, what do you make of that or why that was the case?

BELL: I learned what to make of it in the process of writing this book because, you know, I had to go back in time and try to get in touch with where my father was in life at the time. He had a 6-year-old son just like I had a 6-year-old son. And maybe when he looked at me, he saw the same thing I see when I look at my son. And, you know, where I didn't want to take away my child's innocence, I think my father felt the same way. And he also was hoping that I wouldn't have to go through what he went through.

RASCOE: Another interesting thing about the book - like, you talk about dealing with microaggressions and being followed around stores, but it also seems like earlier in life and kind of like what you talked about - like, you didn't want to stand out, and for you at that time, it seemed like it meant not focusing on race. How did you reach that conclusion as a young person - like, oh, well, I'm just not going to make a big deal out of this race stuff?

BELL: Well, as a young person, I was trying to take my cues from my father. He could just simply decide that it didn't bother him, and he could just go about his business. And I got that from my dad. But every once in a while, you get a reminder - you get a rude reminder, a slap in the face - telling you no, no matter how you see yourself, this is how we see you.

RASCOE: Can you talk about some of those moments, those reminders? It seems like in college you had a reminder with a professor that made you start thinking differently about how you were going to approach race.

BELL: Up until that moment in college, I was young. So I was optimistic, and I was giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. And I thought that racism was just a function of ignorance, and I thought that if I worked hard enough and if I accomplished enough, if I spoke well enough and if I got good enough grades, people who were racist would - you know, would realize that they were wrong.

But then, you know, I found out that that's not the case. Even someone who watches your progress, who grades your papers, who realizes that you're actually intelligent and you're, you know, ambitious - even that person might single you out and try to sabotage you.

And I realized I should stop worrying about what the majority culture thinks of me. You know, I should just live my life how I want to, say what I want to, talk about racism if I want to, without fear of them saying that I'm an angry Black man.

RASCOE: You know, if you could go back to yourself as that 6-year-old boy and, like, give him a talk after that life-altering encounter with the police officer, what would you say?

BELL: I would tell him don't pretend it didn't happen and don't fault yourself for not stopping it 'cause it was not in your power. You didn't do anything wrong, and nothing you did provoked him. I think just knowing that would've - you know, would've changed everything for me.

RASCOE: That's Darrin Bell, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of a graphic novel, "The Talk." Thank you so much for coming on the program.

BELL: It was great. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM'S "CHARNSUKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.