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Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel review

A graphic novel about Benjamin Lay, an early Quaker abolitionist, will resonate with today’s tumultuous times, writes Dave Clinch
A segment from the graphic novel

Benjamin Lay challenged the “weighty Quakers” who owned slaves

In this vivid portrayal, illustrator Daniel Lester and historians Markus Rediker and Paul Buhle bring to life the story of Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay.

Lay was born to a Quaker family in Copford, Essex, in the late 17th Century. He was born with restricted growth. He ran away to sea, escaping from a miserable apprenticeship to a glover. He remained a seafarer for 12 years. When his ship docked at Bridgetown, Barbados, he first witnessed the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. 

Lay dedicated himself to the worldwide abolition of slavery. He embarked on a remarkable radical campaign, which would bring pain, rejection and exclusion from the Quaker community. Benjamin married Sarah Smith. She supported him unconditionally as they challenged the “weighty Quakers” who owned slaves. In the Burlington Friends Meeting House in New Jersey, for example, he carried out one of many “guerrilla theatre” actions. 

He stood up at a prayer meeting denouncing the slave owners in the room, then pierced a bladder full of pokeberry juice—fake blood. It spattered over the worshippers causing mayhem. He was literally thrown out.

Undeterred, he lay down on the threshold of the exit door forcing everyone to step over him. Because of Lay’s unremitting advocacy for abolition, he was disowned by the Quakers. It was not until 2017 that he was effectively reinstated to the fold.

Lay’s activism influenced early 19th century US abolitionists, but his memory seemed lost to history. But in 2017, Markus Rediker’s book brought Lay’s story to a new generation. Lester’s vivid, exceptional artwork is a visual representation of this revolutionary activist. It stands as a companion to Rediker’s work. It is a perfect introduction to students in schools and colleges and resonates down the centuries to the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and the campaign for climate justice. 

In Prophet Against Slavery, Rediker explains the importance of Lay. “David Lester, Paul Buhle and I created this graphic novel to recover his inspiring life for our tumultuous times,” he writes. He was a revolutionary, attacking rich men who “poison the earth for gain”. He believed that human beings and animals were “fellow creatures” within the natural world. 

In a short essay by Paul Buhle which examines Comic Art and the Artist, he offers an insight into reading a graphic novel. How “purely visual pages slow down the action and focus the reader’s thoughts”. He suggests that the format is ideal for Lay, who spent periods of his life in contemplation. Buhle shows how Lester draws inspiration from the work of William Hogarth, Albrecht Durer, and James Gillray and contemporary comic artists such as Kate Evans and Joe Sacco.

Lester’s illustrations bring Benjamin to the foreground as the story progresses. It reminds the reader of his courage and tremendous moral and political impact, as he campaigned to end the scourge of slavery. He died at the age of 77 in 1759. Prophet Against Slavery is a fine history, from below, claiming new ground for the graphic novel. It is an absolute must read.

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