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CARPE LIBRUM: New coloring book makes superheroes of African-American trailblazers

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Wilmington N.C. in Color, Part 2: History in Action Superheroes!

By Cedric Harrison and Support the Port

Illustrated by Haji Pajamas

2019, 26 pages

“I’m working on volume two,” Cedric Harrison said with a grin and excitement. “This one is an activity book with superheroes!”

We ran into each other at an event and were doing the usual cocktail chatter and catching up on our respective projects. Unlike the rest of us, who putter through life, Cedric always has a worthwhile project—and somehow finds time everyday to make his work count. Where he gets those extra few minutes from is a mystery. Frankly, I wish I had his dedication and drive (also, his energy—because, wow, that man leaves the rest of us in the dust).

A couple of years ago Cedric put together “Wilmington N.C. in Color,” a coloring book of locations significant to African-American history in our port city. Using it is a great way to give more context and significance of both private homes (Sampson House, Bellamy Mansion) and public buildings (Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church, Williston High school). But it is the people who live, work and grow within a building or a home that give it meaning.

Wilmington has been home to many important African-American history-makers over the last 300 years. Cedric’s new book shines a light on the accomplishments of 10 hometown heroes. Each two-page spread depicts the subject as a cartoon superhero, ready to be colored in by the book’s owner. Accompanying every image is a one-page biography. I can imagine the process of selecting the 10 people to honor was fraught. We have so many who have incredible stories and connections!

Cedric put together a great mix of women and men, including pioneers: people who broke barriers many years ago and who persevered in the face of injustice. There are contemporary honorees as well—those making the case that the work continues today. In addition to Althea Gibson (superpower: telekinesis), he includes Michael Jordan (flight). Alongside Dr. Hubert A. Eaton (precognition), the medical doctor and civil rights crusader, are Robert Taylor (intelligence), the first African-American student to attend MIT and the first accredited African-American architect in the United States, and Bishop Herbert Bell Shaw (immortality) of the Shaw funeral-home family and the AME Zion Church. 

Perhaps my favorite entry is the United States Colored Troops of the Battle of Forks Road (superpower: endurance). Rather than focusing on one person’s accomplishments, this entry looks at what a group of people who put the collective good of many above desires of a few can accomplish. It is a wonderful testament to a brave group of men who rarely have received credit they deserve.

After the coloring pages and biographies, activity pages allow users to apply the information learned. I love the invitation to draw your own superhero. The subtext of the entire book comes from the idea that we possess superpowers with a little focus and determination. Real superpowers are not necessarily accompanied by a John Williams soundtrack, but can nevertheless knock down walls and reshape our world. 

It’s clear Cedric conceived this book to work in tandem with a school curriculum about North Carolina history. As such, it is very accessible for elementary school-aged children. Still, it is just as accessible for adults. The book is packed with information that creates a beautiful, powerful context for many lives that have shaped our city. 

It is interesting the Manleys are noticeably absent from the group selected for this book. Maybe Cedric has something different planned with their story. Frank and Alex Manley owned the Wilmington Daily Record, the African-American newspaper that was at the center of the massacre of 1898. Alex’s wife, Carrie Manley, was born into the Sadgwar Family, who were very influential in the African-American community of Wilmington.

I am looking forward to volume three, which hopefully will include artists such as opera singer Caterina Jarboro and playwright Willis Richardson. There is so much rich history in ILM that if Cedric kept going, he could easily put out 10 volumes before he started having to stretch for material.   

Do not assume these books are exclusively for children. Though the material is written to be easily compressed, it is historically accurate. More importantly, it’s presented in a conversational manner so it’s also approachable. As an adult and a scholar of local history, I find it intriguing, and regularly gift volume one to friends and visitors. It would make a great stocking stuffer, too, and could be followed up with a date to walk around town and build a deeper connection with our town’s past and present.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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