Though she's since relocated to New York City, Mariame Kaba spent her formative years as an activist and educator in Chicago. It was here that she organized around reparations for victims of police brutality, founded advocacy groups like the anti–juvenile incarceration nonprofit Project NIA, and started the widely-read blog and Twitter account Prison Culture.
But in all her years organizing, Kaba noticed something was sorely lacking: age-appropriate resources for children with incarcerated parents. So Kaba — also a prolific zine author — wrote one herself and sent it to Chicago-based artist bria royal to illustrate. Royal is known for Black Girl Mania, a graphic novel about climate disaster, and her series of “pocket healing zines,” animations on everything from organizing strategies to advice for navigating interpersonal conflict. Together, they created Missing Daddy, a tender story about a young girl who thinks of her father while he is away in prison. After initially circulating as a self-published project, Missing Daddy was published by Haymarket Books earlier this month and is also excerpted in Envisioning Justice, an exhibition on display through October 12 at the School of the Art Institute.
We spoke with Kaba and royal about what went into the book.
What informed Missing Daddy?
Mariame Kaba: It is a really needed book right now, both because of the scope of the problem and the lack of actual trauma-informed resources to support young people [whose parents or loved ones are incarcerated]. One of my frustrations over the years is that I kept being asked to recommend resources to people and I had a hard time identifying good [ones].
bria royal: I wanted to think about the design of each of the characters. I thought a lot about what types of characters I didn’t see growing up. Black characters — particularly darker-complected black characters — were important for me to highlight in a way that honored everyone and didn’t get into stereotypes. I also really wanted to think critically about what kind of tone and mood I set for the book [and] how I wanted young people to feel reading it, because it’s about something that can be very traumatic. I wanted to use the color palate of the story as this soother to help you get through it.
Can you say more about the look of the book, with the warmer tones and brown tones?
royal: A big barrier for me entering art spaces was just the cost of materials — I would start an art class and wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in it. Eventually, I started toying around with whatever I had nearby. Ever since those days of playing around with brown paper bags and Manila folders, I just got used to having a canvas that wasn’t a white sheet of paper. Even with Black Girl Mania, for whatever reason, I was like, “I want to work on pink paper!”
Were there any projects you’ve done in the past that shaped Missing Daddy?
Kaba: I’m a zine-maker from when I was a teenager. Before the DIY zine-making culture of the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was a highly political pamphleteering culture. I grew up with a socialist, pan-Africanist radical father, and he had tons of old communist and socialist pamphlets. Those informed both my politics and my sensibility about how information can travel.
It’s important to note that I’m going to be 48 in a couple weeks. I’m not a millennial — I’m a Gen Xer. Even though I use social media for my organizing, I came up in a time pre-internet and pre–social media. The tactile nature of transmitting information was really important to me [and] that has stayed true even in our current age.
I did a series of zines in 2011 during Occupy [Wall Street]’s rise about historical moments in police violence. It was good to have a pamphlet circulating so that those people [could have] a context for the violence they were experiencing that some of them were treating as brand new.
What would a discussion of Missing Daddy look like in a classroom setting?
royal: All of the characters in the book carry the motif of the light bug. Even the main character becomes a beacon of light for her dad. A component of the curriculum should be students taking time to sit and think: “If I were going through something, who are those beacons of light going to be for me?”
For me, storytelling is immensely important to healing, and children do that as well [with] fictional narratives. It’s important to create materials that can help them to be able to process their trauma, especially when they’re younger. We probably can’t get a whole classroom of students sharing their personal stories of [incarcerated] family members, but we can get a discussion going about a character in a book.
What actions would you encourage people to take up to support those who are incarcerated or whose loved ones are incarcerated?
Kaba: Everything begins with self-education. A lot of people like to act like, “Those people over there — those are the ones who are implicated.” But the numbers don’t support that. Even if you don’t have a personal relationship to somebody who has been criminalized, you are only [at most] three degrees separated from that person.
The second thing is that people can do direct work with people who are incarcerated or criminalized — mutual aid projects, books-to-prisoners projects, letter-writing to people who are inside. Seek these projects out in your own community and if they don’t exist, make them.
The third thing I would say is: be conscious of the political situation in your particular community. Who’s your district attorney? Who’s the chief prosecutor in your county? Make sure that you’re engaged. Also, have a redefinition of safety and then try to actualize that within your community. Safety actually means everybody has what they need to survive, and that means living wages, healthcare, clean air, economic opportunities, and all sorts of other things.
royal: We talk of these issues on the scale of entire systems — as these huge, unapproachable things — but it’s so easy to break them down into smaller and smaller pieces, like where cameras are placed around your neighborhood and where there’s more police versus where there’s less police. Let young people know that they should feel autonomy and ownership over the world. It can be as simple as going to your school’s meeting, going to your town’s meeting — they’re all public and required to be in accessible places — to just instill that sense that we have not lost our world. It’s still ours to do what we want.
Missing Daddy is now on sale. Haymarket Books, $16.95.