Michael Cavna, Washington Post, June 6, 2023
Darrin Bell plays with three of his young children as the family heads to the dinner table. As they sit to eat, though, Bell’s 6-year-old son looks up and asks out of curiosity: “Who’s George Floyd?”
It is 2020, and Bell and his wife, Makeda, have wondered for several years when to have “the talk” with son Zazu. It is the conversation about how, as Bell writes in addressing his son, “The world is different for George Floyd, for your mama and papa, for you. And for everyone who’s Black … because of something called ‘racism.’”
Zazu soon hears that his youth provides no sure protection, either. In Bell’s words: “When police see little White boys with toy guns, they see innocence, but they would look upon Zazu as a menace. As a thing. As a threat to be dealt with. They might even shoot him. I know this makes no sense to him … because it shouldn’t.”
That passage propels a poignant scene from Bell’s first graphic memoir, “The Talk,” arriving this week as a riveting and intimate journey from innocence to experience, as we see the author mature from kindergarten to being a Los Angeles-area teenager in the Rodney King era to a parent of four Black offspring younger than 10 in the Black Lives Matter era.
That 2020 conversation is similar to “the talk” that Bell listened to in the ’80s, when he himself was 6. The author knows: It connects generations.
When Bell was 6, he had a traumatizing encounter with a police officer. He was gleefully playing with a neon-green toy water gun — pretending he was a Star Wars character — when an officer suddenly commanded him, “Drop the weapon.” The officer began barking orders Bell did not understand before saying the words “warning” and “go home.” He then took Bell’s water gun.
Before that encounter, Bell had asked his mom why the brightly tinted toy didn’t look like a real gun. Her reply: “Because, son … that’s what’s going to keep you alive.”
Bell calls his mother brave for how she parented him with truth and protected him when he was a victim. The author, however, could not understand why his dad never had the talk with him. In the book, Bell imagines a scene in which he confronts his father: “Why couldn’t you have just told me the truth, like Mom did? Why did you have to make me doubt that she knew what she was talking about?”
“The Talk” is punctuated by dramatically formative moments in Bell’s life. His first traumatizing event happens even before the toy gun incident, when he feels terrorized by neighborhood Dobermans. Other kids learn to put their palms up to signal submissiveness to the dogs; young Darrin runs away instead, but he remembers that lesson when dealing with the police. In a “Maus”-like visual touch, he even imagines police officers as vicious snarling dogs. “I felt the same exact same way when that cop confronted me,” he says, “as I did when those dogs were chasing me.”
Other “Talk” scenes centering on race and identity unfold in high school, after Bell’s family has relocated from East L.A. to the San Fernando Valley. He depicts the images that flash through his mind as a teenage driver shortly after the 1992 video of police beating Rodney King made the news, heightening Bell’s sense of potential peril. The author also confronts racism while attending the University of California, Berkeley, when a professor accuses him of plagiarism, doubting the perceptive depth of his written insight; and when a police officer during a traffic stop questions how Bell even gained admission to Cal.