Essential New Music (Book): David Lester’s “Prophet Against Slavery”

David Lester is a longstanding contributor to MAGNET. Every Saturday, we post an illustration by him, which pairs with a song by Mecca Normal, his 37-year musical partnership with Jean Smith. (Smith also contributes text each week.) If you’ve listened to Mecca Normal at all, you know that Smith’s voice and Lester’s guitar can make a righteous noise, calling out wrongs and proposing better ways. Lester’s book covers, posters and graphic novels amplify themes crystalized in Mecca Normal’s songs, and Prophet Against Slavery tells the story of Benjamin Lay, an 18th century figure whose example resonates with contemporary efforts to resist racism, capitalism and other systems of exploitation. 

Lay was born in England in 1682, and during a life that spanned 77 years and encompassed sojourns in the Barbados, Pennsylvania and on the high seas, he enacted and articulated principals of protest that made him very unpopular with the powerful. He was cast out of four different Quaker communities for his insistent protests against slavery. Benjamin Franklin published his book, All Slave-Keepers That Keep The Innocent In Bondage, Apostates, which was one of the earliest works on the American abolitionist movement. Lay adopted a lifestyle of radical non-exploitation; he made his own clothes from fibers that he cultivated, and he adopted a vegan life more than two centuries before the term was coined.

Lester’s illustrations display a nuanced empathy with his subject. The black-and-white drawings resonate with Lay’s absolutist moral code. His portrayal of Lay’s diminutive stature (he was a hunchback who stood just four feet tall) throughout the story corresponds to the ascending power and impact of Lay’s message. Overlaid images convey the chaos that ensued when Lay took his messages of protest right where it was least welcome. And Prophet Against Slavery’s narrative tells the man’s story in detailed terms that will leave the reader pondering what it takes to put one’s body and social standing (Lay didn’t have much time for money) where his mouth was.

—Bill Meyer