Cartoonist Barbara Brandon-Croft on the Double-Edged Sword of Being “the First”
In Conversation with Guest Host Mira Jacob on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, legendary cartoonist Barbara Brandon-Croft (Where I’m Coming From) joins guest host Mira Jacob to talk about building a life out of odd jobs, the double-edged sword of being “the first,” and how being a cartoonist was never on her mind until it happened.
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From the conversation:
Mira Jacob: Can we talk a minute about being the first? I’m always really interested in this. So I’m Indian-American. I do graphic work as well, and I do novels, but I’m part of what is sort of the first part of the diaspora in America, and I’m often told by people in those rooms, Oh, you’re the first. At first, I took great pleasure in it. And then after a while, it really started to grate on me for different reasons. But I’m curious about your experience of being the first. What was that like for you?
Barbara Brandon-Croft: You know, I hear you, because it is complicated. I liked the idea of being the first. It’s something about your place in history, I guess. And I like history. And that’s something that can’t be taken away from you because you’re the first one, so there you are. I did a strip early on about how it’s exciting but upsetting. It’s like a double-edged sword because she goes through all these things about it being so great and so bad that in this day and age, I’m the first black person to do this. And I actually reran that strip ten years later, and it still worked.
And I found, going back to my dad’s stuff, I saw that he did an early Luther that did the same thing—being the first black something, about how good and bad that is. And I was like, wow, me and my dad talking about the same thing so many years apart. That happens a lot.
But to your point about my feeling about being the first, I did feel that complicated way of good and bad, happy and ashamed, that this was the case. But on top of that, I felt like being the first black woman to be in the mainstream press as a cartoonist, I kind of felt like I broke down the door and then I stood in the doorway. Because there I was. And they weren’t about to take another black woman cartoonist. “We already have Barbara.” And you feel like, wow—it’s not all good. It kind of stinks, you know?
Barbara Brandon-Croft was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. After debuting her comic strip Where I’m Coming From in the Detroit Free Press in 1989, Brandon-Croft became the first Black woman cartoonist to be published nationally by a major syndicate. During its 15 year run, Where I’m Coming From appeared in over 65 newspapers across the USA and Canada, as well as Jamaica, South Africa, and Barbados. Her comics are in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. Brandon-Croft lives in Queens.