Review by David Starkey
Darrin Bell’s The Talk joins James Spooner’s The High Desert as the second superb memoir published within a twelve month’s span about growing up African American in California. However, where Spooner focused on a single year in high school, Bell gives us his life from childhood to the present. Both books, though, are unstinting in their depiction of the indignities, small and large, Black men face every day.
Bell’s panels are mostly in black and white, with a bluish-gray wash for highlighting. Therefore, when color panels appear, you know they’re important. Among those images is one of the Challenger explosion; another renders the flashing lights of a squad car pulling over Darrin and his girlfriend; still another shows the toppling of a Confederate statue during a Black Lives Matter protest; and a multipage series recounts life as seen through demonic eyes of Donald Trump. Trayvon Martin is rendered heartbreakingly as he asks for directions: “Do you know how I can get home? I’m tryna watch the all-star game with my dad.”
The most terrifying use of color, however, comes early in the book, when Darrin’s mother gives him a green squirt gun. Darrin asks why it can’t look like a real gun, but he doesn’t listen to his mother’s response. Instead, he sneaks out of the house, pretending to be Luke Skywalker, the green gun glowing in his hand like Kryptonite. He’s bent over the curb, filling the gun with sprinkler water, when a white, mustached cop suddenly appears and orders: “Drop the weapon!” We know too well how this story goes, but as the cop reaches for his sidearm, Darrin closes his eyes, bends down, and reaches out his hands, as he’s been taught to do with the neighborhood curs. Amazingly, the cop does not fire, but simply drives away. Only then, after the crisis has passed, does Darrin recall what his mother told him, that the gun was green not black because “that’s what’s going to keep you alive.” She continues: “The world is…different for you and your brother. White people won’t see you or treat you the way they do little white boys.”
The irony of “The Talk” is that it comes from Darrin’s mother, who is white. His African American father prefers to avoid the topic, and his older brother has convinced himself that people treat him and Darrin differently because they are poor, not because they are Black. The ambiguity Darrin feels about receiving this information from his mother reverberates through the memoir, which is partly what makes the book so powerful. Bell, looking back on his life, is not given to easy answers. And so Darrin’s mother, who is usually drawn as blowsy and overweight and, frankly, a little out of it, is nevertheless clearly one of the heroes of The Talk.
The other main hero is, not surprisingly, the narrator. Yes, he makes mistakes left and right, but Darrin learns from them and grows into a strong and kind father who is honest and direct with his own children. In his version of “The Talk,” he asks his son to recall the time he told a lie and kept telling it, even after he was caught out. “That’s what happened to white people,” Darrin says. “They told a lie a long time ago to rationalize forcing black human beings into slavery. And they told lie after lie about how black people were dumb, dangerous, inferior savages, and that it was their duty to control us, and our duty to submit. They said we deserved that. They’ve lied to everyone, including themselves, for hundreds of years.”
How, Darrin asks his son, did he ultimately deal with his own guilt, and how might white people do the same? His son’s answer is simple and constitutes the last piece of dialogue in the book: “By not lying anymore.”
In the wordless Epilogue, Darrin’s son, as a younger child, is confronted by a snarling pit bull on the playground. The boy puts out his hands in deference to the dog, but Darrin grabs his son’s hand and lifts him to one shoulder. With his other hand, Darrin grips a massive stick, big enough to ward off the meanest dog, or cop. It’s a moving final tableau, an image of triumph and hope.