by Ari Robin McKenna
Three years ago on Orcas Island during the first-annual African American Males Weekend — while pretending to be asleep on one of the Camp Orkila bunk beds — Chukundi Salisbury overheard the innocent chatter of his son’s bunkmates take a turn as they thought their cabin leader had fallen asleep. Though he knew all the boys’ parents, he was troubled by the eleven- and twelve-year-olds’ need to stretch the truth in order to seem reckless, and by the way that they all fell in line with whoever stretched the truth farthest. Even his own son, Chukundi Jr, said things that seemed out of character to his dad.
Salisbury eventually dozed off feeling like the boys in his cabin needed representation, they needed … to see themselves in stories that deal with the complexity of their lives. The next day, while almost 200 Black boys mingled around a bonfire, Salisbury could imagine them reading high-interest texts or comics in their cabins, then coming out to the amphitheater bonfire to share their reactions and to sort through tough issues together. He tried to imagine the same thing happening in their classrooms. He tried to imagine Black boys reading stories written with them in mind, in classrooms where they feel appreciated, being comfortable sharing their actual feelings in front of others. But he knew that this is rarely the case.
Chukundi Salisbury didn’t just ruminate on this conundrum, he decided to address it. And so at the inaugural African-American Males Weekend in the San Juan Islands, The Adventures of Lil Bigfella was born.
“A lot of urban kids, especially Black kids, they have this duality that they exist in, where they got to be one way in the streets and at school, and then they got to be another way with their family, and then there’s just all these different pressures of what’s going on.” says Salisbury from his Seaspot Media office in the International District. Recently converted from being the campaign headquarters for his impressive run for a House seat in the 37th Legislative District, the office now serves as the distribution hub for the launch of the Lil Bigfella series with thousands of copies of issue #1 in boxes ready to ship.
Photos by Ari Robin McKenna.
This series centers around Lil Bigfella and his three friends Gilbert, William, and Carla — who are all on a basketball team together and in middle school. Chukundi chose this age because, he says, “Middle school is just the season of conflict, as you move on in life you start kind of finding your own lane. Middle School is when you start having to break out and say, ‘Okay, well, I’m gonna be myself’ or ‘I’m gonna just fit in.’” Levelled at this age-appropriate ambivalence is the series theme, “It’s always the right time to do the right thing.” Fortunately for readers, this is often much more complicated than it sounds.
The conflict in the first issue revolves around Gilbert, whose father is a police officer and also co-coaches their basketball team along with William’s dad. While the kids are eating pepperoni pizza and getting psyched for their upcoming championship game, William’s dad leaves the Rainier Sports facility to grab a box with their finals jerseys in it. Only, when he reaches into the trunk of his car to get it, a police officer accosts him. Though he’s done nothing wrong and offers no resistance, he quickly ends up with his face pressed against the pavement by an officer who’s straddling his back. Hearing the disturbance from within the gym, William wonders out loud if it’s his dad and the team runs outside to find their beloved coach underneath a cop who has his weapon drawn. The kids demand he release their coach, and after initially turning his gun on them, the officer decides this is the best course of action. After he leaves, Lil Bigfella eyes the aftermath: one of his coaches shaken just before their big game and all his teammates in tears. He looks off and cryptically repeats the officer’s parting words with scorn, turning them into a question, “I apologize for the inconvenience?”
The intensity of this incident bursts into a conflict amongst the team and another one between its coaches, and cleverly teases out a host of themes relevant to our country at this moment. The idea of the Black community being any kind of monolith promptly shatters as believable emotions rage on all sides and adults and teenagers alike try and sort out how to address what’s happened. Should Gilbert’s dad handle it, since he’s a cop? Should they file a police report? Should they take some sort of action? Should they even play in the championship game they’ve worked so hard to reach?
Issue number one of Lil Bigfella is born of Chukundi’s own complex feelings about police. Before running for political office, Chukundi was a world-renowned DJ and event host. His birthday parties, called the Virgo Party, have for 29 years running drawn crowds of up to 2,000 people, and have taken place at venues such as the Seattle Aquarium and Centurylink Field. Events this size required security, and most large venues prefer off duty cops to serve that function, so in these instances, Chukundi needed police officers, “for the safety and continuance of my event.”
What Chukundi found was that the way the police guild was set up, he’d have to hire police high on the “duty list” — who were inevitably white. Yet if a situation arose at the Virgo Party, these cops were unlikely to effectively deescalate. But they were very likely to call for backup, shut down the party early, and still get paid as though they had worked all night. So what the situation required was that Chukundi hire however many cops the police guild required of him for the event, and then he could select his own cops beyond that number.
So even though he was miffed about this 20 years ago, Chukundi has long since gotten used to paying double to account for a system that doesn’t serve his needs. He simply tells the white cops to hang out in the squad car, and the trusted black cops he also hires take care of event security. Chukundi clarifies that a cop is not useless to him for these events solely on account of being white, but that black cops have thrived in this role specifically because, “They had a love of seeing black people having a good time, they had the requisite skills to deescalate, and our event would go on.”
Seeing these black officers for years deal effectively with potential conflicts and even stay past their paid time in order to ensure the safety of his event is not something Chukundi is willing to forget for the sake of political expediency. Chukundi seems to think that the right people, policing in the right way, can be effective. “Some people say that there’s no such thing as a good officer. Well we have to agree to disagree. I’m gonna let you have your truth because you’ve never witnessed it.”
Chukundi’s comic also includes the idea of activism, and even though his feelings about police may not be perfectly flush with the views of many activists’ involved in the Defund the Police movement, this comic lionizes activism. After all, if your community is harmed by a police officer who clearly doesn’t have your best interests in mind, and “It’s always the right time to do the right thing,” then the heroes of this comic book certainly won’t be sitting idly by.
The Adventures of Lil Bigfella issue #1 is suitable for grades two to nine, and is perhaps best suited for students who are coming of age, in grades four to eight. You can order this first issue, a Lil Bigfella sticker or poster, or a Collectors Edition Pack on The Adventures of Lil Bigfella’s website.
The morning after Chukundi Salisbury lost the election for the 37th Legislative District House seat to Kirsten Harris-Talley, he was the first guest on his brother Omari Salisbury’s Morning Update show. Chukundi got over 25,000 votes, and in a heartfelt moment between the brothers worth watching, Omari summarizes why his brother’s campaign was so important. “You should know, the whole community is so proud of you. Do you know how many people never voted … they never voted in their whole life? They never believed in this system at all, but they saw you on a ballot, and they went and they registered to vote. There’s so many people [who tell Omari], ‘Yo man, your brother inspired me to vote for the first time!’”
Although Chukundi Salisbury has worked to develop the Lil Bigfella idea for much longer than he has been a politician, there is a certain similarity between what was effective about his campaign and what he hopes to accomplish with this comic series. In a city where progressive values are thought of as an umbrella “covering” the disparate views that Black people express, Salisbury was able to inspire hope of better representation and turned out droves of new voters. In an educational landscape with a dearth of engaging, complex stories starring young Black people, The Adventures of Little Bigfella hopes to turn out new readers, and to inspire important conversations about coming of age — whether around the campfire or in the classroom.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). Currently, he writes about issues relating to the South End. You can contact him here.
Featured image by Carlos Imani of Elite Collective.
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