Center’s Graphic Novel Series, Featuring Terp Artists, Showcases Local Pandemic Stories
Graphic novel images courtesy of the Barbershop Storybook Project
From an unvaccinated man struggling to find a job to a little girl feeling overwhelmed at school by the pandemic, the people at the heart of the Barbershop Storybook Project feel like friends, neighbors and family members.
That’s the goal of Jasmine Mitchell ’20 and Marcus Ford ’20, the artists behind the new comic book series from the School of Public Health’s Maryland Center for Health Equity. The graphic novels build on its work in barbershops and hair salons through the Health Advocates In-Reach and Research (HAIR) campaign, including offering COVID-19 testing and vaccines.
“When the pandemic hit, we had been in these shops for over a decade. We were able to quickly pivot to addressing the misinformation going on in the community,” said center Director Stephen Thomas. But once people left those shop chairs, it was hard to reinforce the information they were getting—so he decided a graphic novel would be an accessible way to reach a broad audience.
He hired Mitchell and Ford, collaborators since their time at the Jiménez-Porter Writers' House, who used the CommuniVax Team of Prince George’s County report, part of a national effort to understand the needs of Black and Hispanic communities during the pandemic, as their primary resource.
“We realized there were so many stories—there’s no way we can accurately depict everything in one graphic novel. There were so many stories about crowded housing situations, missteps in the vaccine rollout, like technology gaps for older people,” said Ford. “We wanted to do justice to the nurses, barbers, teachers, people without housing, elderly people, highlighting experiences that people might not think about often.”
They mapped out a six-book series, which loosely follows the journey of Antoine, a Black resident of Prince George’s County, from COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy to vaccine confidence.
“There’s a deep history of Black people being hurt in this country by medical institutions and being treated like guinea pigs,” said Mitchell. “Folks were really hesitant about the vaccine and how quickly it came about and the changed messaging. Instead of meeting people with hostility—‘Why don’t you just get the vaccine?’—we’re saying, ‘Let’s ask more questions and begin a dialogue,’ knowing it won’t fix all the problems but is a step forward to safeguarding our bodies.”
They’ve finished books one and two, and are now printing them for distribution at local barbershops. To reach as many people as possible, they’ve gathered a team of young artists of color from the area to help tell these stories through live readings, such as one staged for more than 100 audience members at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in early September; a dramatized podcast; and a puppet show for elementary school students. The books will be translated into Spanish as well; book one, “The Jacksons,” is already done.
At an early reading at The Shop Spa, a barbershop in Hyattsville, client Alim Kamara, who helps shoot videos for the project, said, “This book is more than a book. … These are life lessons right here, for real … I’m learning to be more compassionate about these experiences with people who don’t understand what’s going on in the world.”
“It’s great to see these come into a physical copy, where we can read this and people don’t feel like, ‘I’m alone in this thought process.’ It feels good to not be alone,” he said.
That feedback inspires Mitchell and Ford, who aim to complete the series next summer. Thomas envisions future iterations that will bring in the perspective of scientists, as well as address issues like peripheral artery disease and flu shots.
“If we don’t keep going into the Black and brown communities that are most likely to suffer negative consequences, we will once again see our communities live sicker and die younger,” Thomas said. “We have to keep them encouraged to hold the line, to protect themselves from COVID and beyond.”
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