Derryfield’s MLK observance on January 17 featured keynote speaker Joel Christian Gill, an accomplished author, cartoonist, and historian. Gill, who received his BA from Roanoke College and his MFA from Boston University, has dedicated his life to, “creating stories to build connections with readers through empathy, compassion and, ultimately, humility.”
Laura Russell, Middle School history teacher and Director of Equity and Belonging, opened the program by congratulating senior Sarah Naje, who had been awarded the Vanessa Washington Johnson Award in honor of her community service work at the January 17 Martin Luther King coalition event held at Memorial High School in Manchester. At that event, Naje and senior Josue Perez also participated on a panel that addressed, “What does a beloved community mean to me?”
At the Derryfield event, following performances by soloist Lane Daniels and the Upper School concert choir, Zora Brady ‘24 spoke of her connection to Gill as a family friend. Noting Gill’s professional career as an author, Brady observed, “stories are a way to connect across generations.”
Next, Joe Acone, Chair of the Visual Arts Department, introduced Gill as his former professor and continuing mentor. Acone talked about his own educational path, which eventually led him to the New Hampshire Institute of Arts. Until he met Gill, Acone commented that “school felt like something he was merely ‘surviving.’” He learned through his classes with Gill that there is “no judgment necessary in the study of art,” and the intention of school was to “build you up, not knock you down.” Acone ended by intoning, ”If not for Joel, I would not be here teaching today. Be humble and keep your eyes open for a mentor.”
A visibly moved Gill came to the podium and joked with Acone, “I need tissues, man.” After that opening line, a tether between two friends, the packed audience of students, faculty, staff, and visitors learned of Gill’s life journey through sometimes poignant, sometimes amusing, anecdotes.
He told the stories of how his parents met, how they chose his name, and how his peripatetic childhood culminated in the tragic death of his father. Despite the ensuing poverty that his family faced, Gill was introduced to reading, to public libraries—infinite access to books of all genres. He was especially intrigued by comics and the way those stories were told. After a “ten-year detour” in the field of portraiture, Gill revisited the concept of being a cartoonist, as he desired to tell stories through pictures, and especially through the stories of forgotten or unknown historical Black figures. Eventually, the “story” he would tell would be his own.
“My entire career has been about telling stories. Stories connect us. In your first interaction with someone, you tell bits and pieces–a story of yourself. When we tell stories, we build connections. When we tell stories, we build humanity.”
Gill’s works include his memoir, “Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence,” which was cited as one of the best graphic novels of 2020 by The New York Times. He wrote the words and drew the pictures for the children’s book, “Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride” and created the award-winning graphic novel series, “Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History,” as well as three volumes of “Tales of The Talented Tenth.” Gill most recently completed illustrations for the graphic novel of Ibram Kendi’s book, “Stamped From the Beginning,” forthcoming from Ten Speed Press in 2023.
Following his morning presentation, Gill visited with Upper School classes, met with the Multicultural Student Union, and lunched with middle school and upper school students.
The MLK Celebration was made possible by the E. Charles Sanborn Visiting Fellow Fund. Thanks to proceeds from this fund, distinguished lecturers, scholars, and writers visit the Derryfield campus for classroom visits, faculty workshops, and public forums.