Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 176: Prophet Against Slavery: The Story of Benjamin Lay — with David Lester

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, David Lester

[theme music] 

Paige Smith   0:02
Hello listeners! I’m Paige Smith with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

On this episode of Below the Radar, our host, Am Johal, talks with David Lester, the illustrator of 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike. David is also the guitarist of Mecca Normal and Horde of Two. Today, they discuss David’s latest book, Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel, as well as his unique mix of art and activism, and his upcoming future projects. We hope that you enjoy the episode.

[theme music fades]

Am Johal  0:38 
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week. We have our very special guest, David Lester, with us to talk about recently released book, Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel, and really wonderful to have David with us to talk more about it. Welcome, David, wondering if you can start by introducing yourself a little bit.

David Lester  1:04 
Yes, as you said, I'm David Lester. I'm a graphic novelist whose last two books were, 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike, and the book we're going to talk about today, which is, Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel. I'm also guitarist in the underground punk rock duo Mecca Normal. We've released about 14 albums over the course of about 30 years. And we've also been cited as an influence on the feminist social movement known as Riot grrrl. And I live in Vancouver.

Am Johal  1:38
But yeah, I've In fact, I've seen Mecca Normal play many times over the years, going back to the early 90s, at the Anza club, might have even seen you at UBC, but also at SFU just a few years ago. You both played there as well. In terms of this, this project, wondering, where did it first of all start for you? This is in a way bringing back to life an historical figure that in many ways, was erased in a number of ways. How did this project start for you in terms of, there's so many topics you could take on, what was it about this that spoke to you?

David Lester  2:16 
Well, I had just done 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike, and I've done that in, completed a 93 page book in 53 days. So try to imagine that, 93 page graphic novel in 53 days, totally insane. But the publisher needed it by a certain deadline in order to get out for the anniversary of 1990. So what could I do, say, "Oh, I don't want to do it, in this very important piece of history for Canada, and it's about the longest general strike in history." How can I not do this book? So I just did it. And the point is after I finished it, I was like, I need a break.

David Lester  2:53
And then Paul Buhle, who I know via the Graphic History Collective, who wrote 1919. He wrote to me and he said, "Oh, I've got a book project I think you'd be perfect for and it's about this guy, Benjamin Lay, and he's a radical Quaker and, and he sort of pitched it to me, I was kind of like, "I've never heard of the guy. And I don't know the book that it's based on by Marcus Rediker." And, you know, I wasn't keen, because I didn't know much about the 18th century and a whole bunch of issues. And I kept putting roadblocks in the way of it. But Paul was very persistent, and kept trying to remove those roadblocks. And eventually, when I read Marcus Rediker's book, I thought, "This is fantastic. What a character, what a story." It was a history I was completely unaware of. And I thought, yes, I've got to do this. So, who needs a rest when you can do another book? So I, that was the start of it. And of course, you know, the thing is, you know, I basically took Marcus' book and turned it into a script.

David Lester  3:55
And the way you do a graphic novel is very much like a film script. So, everything is broken down into scenes. And I wrote that and and then we did back and forth with Marcus and Paul, and they contributed their ideas to it and changes and, and it was great because they were like, "Okay, drop this scene, move that scene over there." They were great collaborators, and they made the piece stronger. And so this is the greatness of collaboration. And so, that was the origin of, why did I end up doing this book, was sort of a bit fluky. And they, at the time, they didn't even have a publisher, they were gonna they had a bunch of ideas, and it ended up being on Beacon Press. And but, you know, you never know where these projects are gonna go or how they're gonna turn out.

Am Johal  4:39
So, that, I'm still like stressed out by your writing deadline. I was just down in Portland this last week and I had to drink with Joe Sacco who's a graphic journalist. Yeah, he was just, you know, talking a lot about the labour intensive nature of the work where it's like literally working for years on a book before it comes out. He did, Paying the Land, and is currently working on a project on communal riots in India. So this figure of Benjamin Lay, can you set him up as a figure? So you read the biography and what is it about him that you found particularly interesting in terms of, you know, to bring this figure back to life, who's in many ways has been forgotten in so many histories?

David Lester  5:29 
Yeah, well, I mean, his story is, actually, remarkably contemporary. Because he was a white guy who called out the white community of Quakers that he was a part of, and it's kind of what you hope that all white people have the courage to do, which is to step up to be allies, to call out the racism of their community. And, and he did this, you know, 300 years ago. So, you can imagine, it was a time when slavery was looked upon by most people of European descent as natural and normal. And so it was in this milieu, that he took up this struggle that lasted decades, and so I thought that was, you know, I don't know of anyone else, I can't say anyone else. And we have to realize that he did his struggle against racism, I mean, sure, sorry, against slavery, about 100 years before, what we believe to be modern, you know, the activists, the major people we are aware of.

David Lester  6:26 
And if we go back to why he has been lost to history, a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was a dwarf. And he was uneducated, he was working class, he came from this very poor family in England, in Essex, and he didn't fit the persona that is often written about in history as something you should respect, because people looked down upon him. And so, part of it when the history books were written, they didn't really want to deal with this guy. Because he was also, he used guerrilla theater as his method of confronting the congregations who were engaged in slavery. And none of these methods, they were all, I guess, considered a bit uncouth, or something. And so, and the way he looked, so he was marginalized. And so, that's why he has kind of been lost to history for 300 years. And why it's important to do this book, and to, to at least, bring him back into the narrative of when we look at America's legacy of racism.

Am Johal  7:39
So, take us back to this historical moment of the 18th century, you referred to like, you know, kinds of guerrilla theater that he was involved with, but what form did his agitation take? And how did he resist and organize in his specific time?

David Lester  7:58 
Well, I should probably first set it up a bit, like Benjamin Lay, as I said, grew up in England, came to America, settled in New England. And he was a radical Quaker in the 18th century and his family background was Quakerism. And as we know, Quakerism came out of the mid or so century, 17th century out of the fervent of the English Civil War, and the upheavals around that, and so they were very radical at the time, originally, and so Benjamin was also a vegetarian. He was also, you know, against, he was for animal rights, he was for the environment. He believed in equality between men and women. And he also spoke out against wealth and greed, and warned us that to be aware of a rich man who quote, "Poison the earth for gain," end quote, and he also advocated boycotts of products such as tea and sugar and coffee, and tobacco that was made by enslaved people.

David Lester  9:11 
And as I said before, he did all of this 300 years ago. I mean, we're still arguing now about whether climate change is real, whether we should do anything about it, whether systemic racism exists, and should we do anything about it? Well, he was doing these things 300 years ago, he was concerned with these issues. And so that is another reason it makes him rather extraordinary. And so, if we go to what were his methods, well, he used what we would now call guerrilla warfare. I mean, sorry, guerrilla theater, he, Benjamin Lay, used guerrilla theater in his activism, and so, a few examples, which I have in the book, which are that he would go to a Quaker meeting. And he would be in the congregation, and he would just stand up and confront the ministers on the platform, he would accuse them of being slave owners. And this is not done, you were supposed to be as a Quaker, quite quiet. And silence is very important and, and to do this outburst, you totally freak people out. And they did not react well to it. But he was not going to stop having these confrontations with the ministers in the friends meetings of the Quakers.

David Lester  10:34 
So, one one day he filled a Bible full of red juice, and he walked into the congregation, he had a big coat on. And then at one point, he stood up and flipped the coat off. And it was revealed that he had a sword underneath. And he took the sword out and dramatically stabbed the book, the Bible and the juice splurt out, spilled out onto nearby people. And so it was essentially a guerrilla theater action of, they had blood on their hands. That was the symbolism of it. And of course, he was dragged out and thrown on the ground. And that happened over and over again. And I must point out that he was 55 years old when he did this. And so, I would like to say it's an encouragement, you do not need to be in your 20s to be an activist and to be a radical. You can be 55, you can start when you're in your 50s or 60s, it's never too late to do that. And so that's another thing I think of the book as being kind of meant to be an activist book that is meant to be encouraging.

David Lester  11:39 
So, another example of his guerrilla theater, he met a meeting that was coming out of, a congregation was coming out of a meeting. And he was standing in the snow with one leg completely naked, and to the cold. And it was again to shame the slave owners in the congregation who treated their enslaved in these horrible ways. And, and so a lot of what he did was about shaming. One time he was whipped by a minister because of his actions in the congregation. And he also did again, protesting against a tea that was cultivated by enslaved people, he smashed tea cups in a city square. So, he did these things that, you know, we often associate with the 1960s, or the 1970s, or the actions of Yippies or whatever. But he was doing that again centuries ago. And it's another fascinating aspect of his life.

Am Johal  12:48 
Now he had he had a friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who was a slave owner and he also commissioned a portrait of him. Franklin was even pushed to free the slaves that he owned by Benjamin Lay, what did you know about this dynamic between them?

David Lester  13:08 
Well, we know, the trouble of doing a book that's about three centuries ago is, there isn't a lot of information about those kinds of details. So, in some cases, one has to, to, you know, you know, make up certain things about what did people say and do at the time, because we have scant information. So, we know the basic details of his relationship with Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was a publisher and when he agreed to publish Benjamin's only book, but he didn't, as far as I know, didn't put his name on it because he didn't want to be associated with it. He was worried about his own contacts in Pennsylvania. And so, and I think, we don't know much more about what they talked about or said, we know only a little bit and I put what I had in the book. So, I can't answer the details of, of, you know how that came about?

Am Johal  14:15 
Yeah. So you based your book on some of Marcus Rediker's biography. And I'm wondering if you can speak to how the creative process works for you in this context in terms of doing a graphic novel based from a biography from someone else? Did you work collaboratively with them? Or did you have your own process that you tried to pull out the pieces that would work in this form?

David Lester  14:46 
Well, yeah, I had to take Marcus Rediker's book called, The Fearless Benjamin Lay, and carefully read the book and divide and make those kinds of editorial decisions, what would make, what would I want to get to be in the graphic novel, what works, what doesn't need to be there. And so you're constantly editing yourself through the whole thing. And you started constantly deleting scenes, because you just can't only, you can only do so much in the graphic novel, it's very limited on that level in terms of the page count. And, so I picked what I thought was the dramatic aspects of it that told Benjamin Lay's story. And that's when I went back and forth with the script.

David Lester  15:29 
Before I started drawing, I created a script, and it went back and forth with Marcus and Paul and we probably did that about four or five times. So, we did four or five drafts of the script before I even started to draw anything. And then after that point, then I have to do the visual research of what life was like in the 18th century. And Benjamin Lay was a poor person and there aren't a lot of references to, visual references to poor people, there are some and I found some sketchy kind of drawings that aren't credited. But there's also the work of Hogarth and a few others, but a lot of the art that comes out of a time period like that is art for rich people. And people can afford to pay for portraits. And so that's what you have in, and I'm talking about, you know, what did someone's hat look like? What did their shoes look like? What kind of coat did they wear? What was it made of? And these are the kinds of details, what kind of cups they have, what utensils they use?

David Lester  16:31
So, when you're doing a graphic novel, you really have to, it's like, again, like a film, you have to dress the set with all these things. So, the research takes up a great deal of time before you can even, again, start the drawing process, which is very intensive. But there is so much to deal with. I mean, it's so much easier to do something in the 20th century, obviously, because of the documentation. And so, there is a limitation. There's also the landscapes. What did you know, it wasn't modern day cities quite like we have now. And Benjamin Lay was unusual in that he lived in a cave. And so that presented certain problems of, what does it look like to live in a cave 300 years ago? And I had, again, when we're talking about Benjamin Franklin, how much detail do we have? Well, we have a little bit of information about his cave. And I went with what I had, and did the best I could in terms of trying to present what that would have looked like. And there is an actual picture I found where they believe it was Benjamin's cave that still exists in Pennsylvania. And so I took that as a starting point of okay, this was the cave opening. And this was what the land looked around it, immediately. And I went with it from there. As you were mentioning Joe Sacco earlier, it's a very intensive process. And it's a job.

Am Johal  18:04
Yeah, I was gonna ask you about, you know, you've done a number of graphic novels and, you know, what draws you to that form of creative expression? And also like, who are the people that you're inspired by who are doing this work or what artists or artistic movements are you inspired by in your approach to graphic novels?

David Lester  18:29 
Well, when I was growing up, I just liked drawing, and I liked comic books. And I liked Classics Illustrated, which took very serious books and made them into a comic book form. And I liked all kinds of art and eventually I started to, through an older brother who was a radical, 60s radical, I started to discover politics and he had a vast collection of books that I had access to and so and also to music, which is very important, of hearing people who mix politics and art, and that has been a lifelong thing that has come through my existence.

David Lester  19:12 
And so, in the early days, it was a lot of the folk music, like Phil Ochs and Joan Baez and Tom Paxton and those types of people and where they told political stories through song. And that narrative really spoke to me in the sense of, I thought, well, I'm learning a lot here about the civil rights movement about anti-war protests in Vietnam. And then I realized, well, that's, if I had a life to live, that would be the one I would like to live that was involving those sorts of things. And so out of that came to me a perfect convergence, which is my love of comics and politics and the combining of art and politics together, and what can be accomplished with that.

David Lester  19:55 
And so, that's kind of sets the scene for everything I've done in my life, and, and to wanting to do these these books, which, you know, I was meeting with some history teachers, high school history teachers, and they're telling me that students are increasingly unable to read longer texts like books. And so, they're finding that graphic novels are essential in the teaching process of history. And so, we have to remember that these students will perhaps be the future union leaders, the future radicals, the future activist, the future Benjamin Lays, and so I feel like when we talk about activism, I think graphic novels are a key part of the future of activist art, in terms of visuals, and text and visuals, so there's so much you can do with it. 

David Lester  20:44
And that's kind of where, where I came out of, and, of course, the people I really admire are the people working in that in that way, such as Joe Sacco, all the work he's done, it's what can I say, it's just brilliant and people like Nate Powell, who, who did the March series about Congressman John Lewis, he's a great guy and he also does brilliant work and he's a committed activist. And Kate Evans, who did the great biography of Rosa Luxemburg, and Ho Che Anderson in Toronto, I think he's based, who did the one on Martin Luther King, biography. And Jason Lutes, who's one of my favorites, who did the book called Berlin, it took him 22 years to do that book. And it's incredibly nuanced, politically and socially. And to make a book so compelling that is about the minutiae of political parties and elections in 1920s Germany is a remarkable feat, and culturally and everything that he fits into it. So, those are just some of the, you know, there's a whole ton of people doing great work. And so what can I say?

Am Johal  22:01 
Yeah, yeah, I wanted to ask you about, you know, you coming into doing a project like this, you clearly have had long political involvements, and also in the cultural scene in Vancouver, so I'm not going to let you get away from this interview without saying what Mecca Normal is up to these days. And if you could give us an update on that, and also kind of where the band came from, and all of that, for a new generation of listeners that we have, that might not have heard of it. But also, we were talking previously about Solidarity in BC, and you mentioned that you're writing for the Solidarity Times newspaper, but wondering if you could talk about those two things.

David Lester  22:50
Well, as far as Solidarity Times goes, it was during the 1983 strikes in British Columbia, and I was a graphic designer, and I worked on various newspapers, including, prior to that, on the international anti-authoritarian newspaper called Open Road in the late 1970s. And, I'm primarily a designer. And so when it came to the labour movement deciding they wanted their own media, their own press for the, during the strike. They enlisted various people, and one of them was a person who said, "Oh, well, we need a designer and we should get this guy," and so that's how I became involved in that. And because I had this history of publication design.

David Lester  23:41 
And as far as Mecca Normal goes, we started in about 1984. And it was because I met Jean Smith while working at a newspaper in Vancouver. She was working in the production part of the department as well. And and so we started just hanging out and going to a lot of hardcore punk rock shows and stuff like that. And we got kind of tired of just seeing the same kind of four guys on stage, making a lot of yelling and noise and stuff. And, and we liked that noise, but it was like, where's the women? What's happening here? And why does it all sound kind of the same? And again, no dissing of it. I love all that music and stuff. But we just thought, "Well, why don't we do our own band and we'll just do the two of us, we'll just have a distorted punk rock guitar and wild vocals, and we'll you know, be political and be feminist and, and all this." And so, Jean was like, "Yeah, let's, let's do this." And so we started doing that, and writing our own songs and playing shows around town, and we realized kind of that it wasn't that accepted, because we didn't have the standard format of bass and drums. And again, I have nothing against these things. But we were trying to do something different, something more challenging. And so there was a certain amount of resistance to what we were doing.

David Lester  25:00 
And we decided to leave town and just kind of tour and we did these tours called the Black Wedge, which were various political poets and musicians and minimalists musicians and we did the west coast and we ended up meeting Calvin and K Records and he loved what we were doing. And he sort of said, "I'd like to put a record out" and anyway we put our own record out first and then we did a whole series of records with K Records and then we went on to Matador Records and Kill Rock Stars, and Sub Pop did a single of ours. And so that was the trajectory. But our, you know, we were trying to shake things up and Jean's lyrics are really these, there's talks about a lot of feminist related subjects, and social justice issues. And that's where we were coming from and we've maintained that all of these decades later. And if all goes well, this year, we are supposed to be playing three shows with Bikini Kill in the Pacific Northwest, but we'll see what's happening in terms of things. So, that's where it's at right now. So, we've been a bit sidelined because of the pandemic. So, but we have worked consistently through these decades.

David Lester  26:26 
Wondering in terms of writing projects, I know this one just came out in November of 2021. But do you have future projects that you already have irons in the fire or want to do that have been on hold in terms of graphic novel projects?

David Lester  26:43
Oh, yes, I have about two weeks to go for another graphic novel called Under the Banner of King Death, which is pirates in the Atlantic. And it's based on Marcus Rediker's book, Villains of All Nations. And, again, with this one, it was a bit different because Marcus did a treatment of it, of his book, a kind of an outline of it. And then I wrote the script from there. And then we went back and forth. But, I've been working on that the past year, and over a year, and it's just about to be finished. And it'll be published in early 2023.

David Lester  27:21
And I've also got another one that I'm about to start based on Marcus' book, The Many-Headed Hydra. And that was one part of the book which is an uprising by the enslaved and indentured Irish in the latter 18th century. And again, a little known story, but it's quite compelling in terms of the people from below rising up to try to break the, you know, the chains that they were working under, in terms of their lives. And so that's happening.

David Lester  28:00 
And I also just recently put out an album with my other duo, called Horde of Two with Wendy Atkinson. And it's an album, which features a 22 minute piece about the life of the Spanish anti-fascist, anarchist, Durruti. And it's essentially totally the opposite of doing these graphic novels. It's an instrumental biography. So you, with a few words, but you kind of have to kind of have to go with it on that level. And, we did a chat book that goes with it as well. So it's a book album thing, so that just came out like last week or something.

David Lester  28:38
So, those are the things that, for the moment, and also the long term prep plan is that I had been working for many years on a biography of Emma Goldman who was a revolutionary and anarchist who died in Toronto in 1940. And so I covered the last year of her life. And the thing is, I'm so fascinated by biographies like Benjamin Lay and Emma Goldman is just how do they maintain this stamina, you know, Benjamin Lay was fighting against, for the abolition of slavery for about, I don't know, 30 years or so, until he died. And Emma Goldman was a revolutionary, an activist for 50 years until the moment she died. And the thing is, with her, it was like, how can she maintain interest in doing this when she realized that her ideals will never be realized in terms of an anarchist society? Why continue? Like, how do you handle that? And so with my book, I tried to answer that question. And, but I'm still working on it. Three quarters of the way done. So that's another project, which probably is now a few years away.

Am Johal  29:51 
Wow, your creative output is so inspiring. It's amazing. Anything you'd like to add, David?

David Lester  30:00 
Well, I wanted to say again, about why do a book on Benjamin Lay. He actually succeeded in what he was doing. He didn't completely see it in his in his lifetime, before he died, but Quakers, because of his work and others, the Quaker community in New England became the first one in America to abolish slavery. And I think of that as being quite incredible that he had that impact. And part of the reason it took so long was because it needed young people to become part of the congregation, to kind of, as old people died off, the young people kind of were more open to Benjamin's ideas. And also the idea that, actually, which he put forward, which was, the idea of slavery was was violence, and Quakers are opposed to violence of any kind, wars, killing people in any way. They're opposed to that. So why would you live a life where you are committing violence against individuals on a daily basis. And so that was Benjamin's argument. And so, younger people were more receptive to that. And so, gradually, that's why the Quaker community changed. And it evolved to see the end of slavery in that community.

David Lester  31:30
And also remember, he was also fighting the Quaker establishment, which, at that time, was very powerful politically, they were the governors, they were the the government ministers who were enabling slave owners to function and making it easy for them to hunt down, escaped, enslaved. And so he was not just against the congregation, I mean, up against them. He was up against the establishment, the hierarchy that ran government. And so, that makes again, it quite interesting to bring him back into the narrative. And I must add that in the only book that Benjamin wrote, which as you mentioned before, Benjamin Franklin published for him, Benjamin Lay, warned us, warned the reader, that if slavery wasn't abolished immediately, that this this legacy of racism would haunt America, profoundly haunt America. And  I think, three centuries later that his words are not wrong, because I think the legacy of racism in America is where we're at right now. And so I think again, his words ring, in a contemporary way, to try to explain our own situation by looking at the past.

Am Johal  33:06 
David, thank you so much for bringing this wonderful book to life and, and it is so timely and poignant and thank you for sharing the work here on Below the Radar. Thank you.

David Lester  33:19 
Thank you for having me, Am.

[theme music] 

Paige Smith 33:25
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with David Lester! Head to the show notes to learn more about the books, bands, and resources mentioned by David. We release episodes every Tuesday, so make sure to subscribe to Below the Radar on your podcasting platform of choice to make sure you never miss an episode. Thanks again for tuning in and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar!

[theme music fades]

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
June 14, 2022

Stay up to date

Get the latest on upcoming events by subscribing to our newsletter below.