by Minister of Information JR Valrey
Hally Bellah Guther and Michael James are two of the people helping to organize AfroComicCon, a festival on Sept. 17 in front of Oakland’s City Hall, celebrating literacy, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, animation and more from a Black artistic perspective.
The imagination, being creative and innovative, is a beautiful part of the human experience that has to be cultivated and not suppressed to create healthy people and a healthy society. This new wave of young people’s interests turning towards graphic novels to quell their literary appetite is a positive change in the Black community where a staggeringly low literacy rate has been consistently common. AfroComicCon is an annual hub for Black literary creatives and literary lovers to connect in Northern Cali. Pull up and read up on what Michael James and Hally Bellah Guther have to say about the history and this year’s activities.
JR Valrey: What is the history of AfroComiCon? Who founded it? When and why?
AfroComicCon: AfroComiCon is an annual event that celebrates and showcases Black excellence in the fields of art, media, tech and entertainment, as well as the realms of Black speculative literature, fiction, comic books, graphic novels, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, animation and related media. The event provides a platform for creators, artists, writers and fans to come together and engage in discussions, panels, workshops, art exhibits and various forms of creative expression.
The history of AfroComicCon dates back in part to 2016 and Jaida Pinkett Smith, declaring the “Oscars so White,” demanded a call to action: “Let’s do our own thing!” As the creator, James felt the lack of representation and recognition for Black creators and their authentic cultural expression was being denied within the broader landscape of popular culture.
AfroComicCon was initiated to provide a space where diverse voices and stories could flourish. Attendees could find a community that resonated with their experiences.
Michael James, a graduate of UC Davis in Environmental Studies, created AfroComicCon in 2016 with his co-founder, Hally Bellah Guther. AfroComicCon emerged as a response to the underrepresentation of Black creators, characters and themes within comic conventions and mainstream media. The first event was in 2017. The organization aimed to create an inclusive event that would not only showcase the creative talents of all people of color but would unapologetically put an emphasis on African Americans and the African Diaspora.
Comic-cons and the entertainment and arts world in general were not welcoming to minorities, especially Black people. AfroComicCon seeks to have critical conversations about how to increase inclusion in comics, science fiction, tech, arts and related genres.
The event’s programming typically includes panel discussions, workshops, art exhibitions, cosplay contests, fashion show, gaming tournaments, film festival, portfolio reviews, job-info internships and opportunities for attendees to interact with both established and up-and-coming Black creators. AfroComicCon’s mission has been to foster a sense of belonging and empowerment for people who have been marginalized within the entertainment and comic industries.
The roots of AfroComicCon sprouted from the non-profit program that James created in the early 2000s called D.U.S.T.Y., Digital Underground Storytelling for Youth, in West Oakland. This was a literacy program developed in collaboration with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
James recalls that there was a young man named Lamont who was 13 years old at the time, who really enjoyed creating digital stories. His favorite thing to do was rewrite and rescript and design animation stories like Dragon Ball Z stories. Years later ,James ran into the young man and asked him if he was still into creating animation. The young man said no! Asked why, he shared that there were no mentors, directions on how to make a career out of those things and no one who looked like him.
James felt like he had let the young man down by introducing him into something that the young man loved but not providing him with the support he needed to follow his passion.
JR Valrey: What is going to happen at this year’s event?
AfroComicCon: This year, we are featuring Rodeny Barnes, Gary A Williams aka Uncle Ruckus, voice of the Boondocks, The Gibbs Sisters, Shanee and Shanelle, twins who are both successful Hollywood writers as well as comic book creators, from Oakland! An Afrofuturistic Fashion Show, curated by Hip-Hop TV, a Gaming Tournament, a Disney sponsored Star Wars cosplay event with a spotlight on “Star Wars: Ahsoka” streaming on Disney+, a “Black Women in Horror” panel and so much more.
JR Valrey: Who are the headliners for this year’s Art & Soul/AfroComicCon?
AfroComicCon: Lyrics Born, Women in Hip Hop featuring Suga T, Yo-yo, the rapper and actress, and The Alphabet Rockers.
JR Valrey: What was the importance and contributions of “Boondocks” to today’s comic culture?
AfroComicCon: Boondocks gives not only commentary on American culture and politics from a Black perspective, but it also allows a space to dive into very controversial issues that need attention but are often overlooked or ignored. The character Huey Freeman is the representation of what Huey P Newton might have been thinking about growing up in the Bay Area.
The show chronicles, through biting sociological and political commentary, the adventures of two boys: Huey Freeman, the older brother and self-described revolutionary left-wing radical, and Riley Freeman, Huey’s younger brother, who embraces and represents the gangster lifestyle.
JR Valrey: Who are some of the local writers and graphic artists that will be there? What is their history?
AfroComicCon: Sumiko Saulson, Yolanda Shoals are two of the artists that are holding workshops.
JR Valrey: As one of the main organizers of AfroComicCon, what do you want the attendees to get out of it?
AfroComicCon: What I would love to see is that this event inspires creative people both young and old to find their voice and join a community of people who are open and willing to help them tell stories and create more content that is relevant and that reflects our voices.
I would be remiss if I did not mention my co-founder and her contribution. She has worked tirelessly for the entire seven years of our existence connecting with our community to showcase the amazing Black talent all around us, and though she comes from an arts background, she is a fierce advocate and ally for social justice, who has put the mission first and herself second.
JR Valrey: How do you think that the resurrection of comic books in the form of graphic novels has affected literacy rates in the Black community?
AfroComicCon: Comic books, graphic novels and related content have had a little known positive impact on low literacy rates in communities of color especially if the content is reflective of the community. Though there are no studies that we know of, anecdotally, we have found that many people have benefited and broken through barriers by way of comic books/graphic novels. Just by having visual engagement, where characters look like you and speak like you is enough to inspire you to read. The motivation to read increases through visual storytelling, when an individual is excited about what they can relate to not to mention the mental health and empowerment of imagining super powers that shield can protect you from the harsh reality that is being a Black person in Amerikka
JR Valrey: What is AfroComicCon’s relationship with the Art & Soul Festival in Oakland?
AfroComicCon: AfroComicCon has always had music as a part of its programming and we have long wanted to explore expanding our music footprint. One way we have included the music industry in the past is by hosting a composers’ panel discussion around composing for film and TV, animation and gaming, with guests like Dwayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone, Patrice Rushin and Kwamé, to name a few, as well as our Hip Hop and Comics panel with icons from the hip hop world talking about the intersectionality of Hip Hop and comics – whether it was a cartoon version of the group, an animated music video, a comic book created by the hip hop artist, or the general stylistic and thematic synergies in the two genres.
When the opportunity arose to partner with Art & Soul Oakland, which has been showcasing great music for 20+ years, we jumped on the chance to celebrate 50 years of Hip Hop with them, as well as to use the City Hall of Oakland as our “Convention Center,” where all of our panels and workshops will be taking place as well as our extensive gaming track, which includes an independent game developers’ expo, a state of the art gaming arcade, portfolio review and outstanding gaming panels.
JR Valrey: What other things does AfroComicCon do throughout the year?
AfroComicCon: AfroComicCon is the annual event of the 501C3 non-profit organization based in Oakland, California, called The Oakland Technology and Education Center (OTEC).
AfroComicCon and OTEC have developed a number of youth programs which have received funding from the California Arts Council among others. The work that will be produced will be showcased at AfroComicCon.
We collaborate with and support other community events such as the Black Joy Parade, EOYDC and their Black Futures Ball, Heiro Day, Free Comic Book Day (last year with the Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland) and last but not least we produce an annual film festival called The AfroComicCon International Film Festival which was founded in 2018. This year it will be in October.
In collaboration with non-profit organizations PLACE, Young Women’s Freedom Center and schools in the area, we will be teaching cosplay costume making, drawing for animation, podcasting and digital storytelling.
JR Valrey: How can people get more info?
AfroComicCon: Go to our website, AfroComicCon.org, or our Instagram, @AfroComicCon,
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, is also the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. He teaches the Community Journalism class twice a week at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office.