Tommie Smith is the subject of one of the most iconic images from the Civil Rights Era, of two black men holding gloved fists high in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics. In Victory. Stand!: Raising my Fist for Justice, Smith tells his story behind that moment. The graphic memoir, co-written with Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile gives an account of Smith’s life leading to the Olympics, his choice to make the political statement, and the aftermath.
The book opens with a race, specifically the 200 meter sprint finals. Despite a sharp pain in his thighs and a whirlwind of thoughts, Smith leaps at the sound of the starter pistol. We then immediately flashback to his childhood, 1949 in Texas. Throughout the next few chapters, Smith flashes back and forth between the story of his childhood and school years in the segregated South with his iconic race at the ‘68 Olympics.
Smith and Barnes juxtapose his pain and resiliency during the race with the harsh realities of living and growing as a Black boy surrounded by racial injustices. His parents were sharecroppers who were hardworking and kind, but treated in a way that was obviously cruel and unfair, even through the eyes of a young Smith. He talks about the ways he perceived these inequities, and the moment when he first came to the understanding that this was all about race. In college, Smith begins to realize that his voice matters. It is with that knowledge that he makes the decision to run in the Olympics and raise his fist to the sky. The last chapter details the trajectory of his life in the aftermath. Unfortunately, it felt rushed and included details that were not relevant to the theme of sports and the Civil Rights Movement. I also wish that the parallels with the 200 meter race and his life extended further into the story. However, these are small imperfections in an otherwise fascinating book from an important voice from history.
Anyabwile’s illustrations in gray, black, and white, are filled with texture, movement and emotion. Throughout the book, the illustrations add depth to the story. Much of the emotion and drama comes through in the backgrounds with textures, shadows or expansive black. Anyabwile also did a notable job capturing Smith’s growth from child to adult, sublely adjusting looks and style as time goes on.
At pivotal moments in Smith’s life, Anyabwile steps away from Smith’s story to illustrate more striking images reflecting the reality for Black people in America. When Smith’s family eventually moves to Southern California in hopes for a better life, the very next page features a haunting two page spread with a mother and her young children screaming in pain. In the background a Black man hangs from a tree next to a burning cross. Other images include references to such events as the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing and Martin Luther King’s Assassnation. Smith came of age at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, as he was finding himself and his place in the world, these moments and realities helped to shape who he became. Anyabwile deftly illustrates these pages. They are awash with black and expand beyond the panels typical of most pages in the book. These events are monumental and his illustrations reflect their importance.
Victory. Stand!: Raising my Fist for Justice is a notable addition to the graphic memoir genre. It is a definite purchase for my high school collection. Tommie Smith is an important voice from the Civil Rights Movement and I think this book will appeal to a broad range of readers.
Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice
By Tommie Smith and Derrick Barnes
Art by Dawud Anyabwile
W. W. Norton & Company, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: African-American, Black, Character Representation: African-American, Black,