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Author Presents Keynote at MLK Celebration

Elaine Loft
Joel Christian Gill, an author, cartoonist and historian, was the keynote speaker at the January 17 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observance at The Derryfield School. This program 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. 

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.” His own 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.

Laura Russell, Lower 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. Additionally, Naje and senior Josue Perez participated on a panel which addressed, “What does a beloved community mean to me?” Russell then spoke of Dr. King’s work.

“We recognize the debt we owe him and those who worked with him. They did not let us forget the past. They did not let us forget the promises in our founding documents that laid out the why and the how of the “American experiment,” which include the ideals of equality and justice. These were and remain noble ideals, but Dr. King and those many others of his generation also could not let us forget the breach of those promises in the horror and suffering forced on millions who were enslaved, and other millions who, in his time, lived under the grinding oppression of Jim Crow. King and those he worked with had the audacity to bring this complicated past right up to our face as a nation. They demanded that our nation acknowledge that the promises of those founding documents of the past belong to everyone, and so did the breach of those promises.”

After Russell’s opening remarks, soloist Lane Daniels and the Upper School concert choir performed MLK. Then Zora Brady ‘24, in a moment of personal reflection, spoke of her connection to Gill, who is a family friend. Noting Gill’s career as an author, Brady reminded the audience that, “stories are a way to connect across generations.”

Next, Joe Acone, Chair of the Visual Arts Department, introduced Gill, 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 observed 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 was transported during the next sixty plus minutes by Gill, who intoned, “I don’t give arts talks–mostly because I think arts talks are boring–I am a storyteller and I am going to give you my origin story.” 

And so he did, starting with how his parents met, how he ended up with his name, and his peripatetic childhood, culminating in the tragic death of his father. Despite the ensuing poverty that his family faced, Gill was introduced to reading, and public libraries, and access to piles of books. He was especially intrigued by comics, and the way those stories were told. After a “ten year detour” in the field of portraiture, Gill came back around to the concept of being a cartoonist, because he wanted to tell stories in pictures, the stories of forgotten or unknown historical Black figures. Eventually he came back to telling his own story. 

Gill offered this conclusion:

“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.

After his morning presentation, Gill visited with Upper School classes, including English, history and art, met with the Multicultural Student Union and had lunch with students from both the Upper and Lower school.

The Derryfield School

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