In celebration of Black History Month, CBLDF has partnered with Black Nerd Problems to spotlight Black comics creators and cartoonists who made significant contributions to free expression. Visit CBLDF.org throughout the month of February to learn more!
One of the most complicated truths about Black History Month is this: while celebrating means being able to feel pride in our rich culture, it also often means discovering just how many important historical figures continue to be erased from public consciousness. For instance, although she was the first African American woman to publish a nationally syndicated comic strip, Barbara Brandon-Croft’s incredible impact with her all Black women strip unfortunately does not get nearly the recognition she deserves. Years before comics like Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks became one of the most recognizably Black comic strips with important political commentary, Brandon-Croft’s Where I’m Coming From reclaimed the funnies as a space where Black women’s voices could be represented and amplified.
Brandon-Croft’s story roots itself in progressing family tradition just as much as revolutionizing the comic strip art form. As the daughter of Brumsic Brandon Jr., a cartoonist made famous by his strip Luther which detailed the everyday exploits of a group of Black youth, Brandon-Croft began her career path at just 10-years-old by assisting her father’s work in order to earn allowance money. Both artists are even still considered the only instance of a father-daughter lineage in comic syndication history today. Despite this promising background, however, Brandon-Croft’s first attempts at publication in the 1980’s failed when the Black women’s magazine Elan shut down, pushing her instead to write for the magazine Essence instead.
Finally, in 1989 Brandon-Croft’s big break arrived when she published the first Where I’m Coming From strips in the Detroit Free Press. Two years later she acquired a signed contract with Universal Press Syndicate, a press syndicate whose previous distributions have included some of comics’ most popular creations such as Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Garfield, just to name a few. Eventually “the girls,” as Brandon-Croft referred to her characters, would not only span over 100 US cities but also stretch across the diaspora by appearing in Jamaican and South African publications as well.
Where I’m Coming From’s mission as a comic meant to affect change rather than just entertain was twofold. First, Brandon-Croft wanted white readers to fully grasp the struggles of Black Americans as people in their own right, not just characters that happened to be brown-skinned. As she later explained in an interview with the New York Times, “If mainstream folk understood the black perspective better, they wouldn’t be surprised at the rage we’re holding. We know white people because we’re exposed to them, but they don’t know us. If we’re going to have a peaceful existence, they have to understand our perspective.”
Arguably more important was the second part of Brandon-Croft’s mission, which was to speak on politically-charged issues through a Black woman’s perspective and create characters that Black women readers could readily identify with. In the same interview Brandon-Croft claimed that the simplistic style of the comic strip was instrumental in achieving this since Black women “are too often summed up by our body parts” and tend to be viewed as “at the bottom of the totem pole,” adding that her work sought to communicate “‘we have opinions,’ and ‘Look me in the eye and talk to me.’ ” From rape convictions to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the challenges of being a single mother, the diversity of Brandon-Croft’s characters’ conversations showcased a depth of feeling and sharpness of intellect that representations of Black women in media so desperately needed.
Although sadly the following for Where I’m Coming From dwindled before it ended its fourteen year run in 2005, Brandon-Croft continues to demonstrate her passion for marrying her artistic talent with strong activism. Her most recent contributions including illustrations for a guide for Black teen girls by Franchestra Ahmen-Cawthorne entitled Sista Girl-Fren Breaks It Down…When Mom’s Not Around, appearing on panels for the Women in Comics NYC Collective International, as well as publication in the recent Rosarium Publishing anthology APB: Artists Against Police Brutality.