James Disco instructs tennis at George Bannerman Dealey Montessori through the Dallas Tennis Association, also known as the “Slam Jammer Program.” Disco found a way to tie tennis to activism through his work with young people and his graphic novel “Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan,” about four men who escaped from Southern Sudanese attacks in 1989. The graphic novel tells the story of the second Sudanese civil war, during which Islamic North Sudanese militants attacked and killed entire villages, leaving thousands of Sudanese boys to run for their lives into the wilderness. Many of them now live in Dallas, and we talk to Disco about his work with them.
How did you get into working with the lost boys of Sudan?
My sister was a program director for Catholic Charities in Dallas, and I worked doing refugee setups for them when they first arrived in January 2001.
How did you create the graphic novel?
It was based on a previous comic book I did in 2004. Our illustrator, Niki Singleton, was able to capture the ethnicity of the boys along with the imagery. Dr. Susan Clark, a social worker and University of Texas at Arlington professor, co-created it, and it took about eight years to complete. They call me an author, but the real authors are the lost boys; it’s really their story. To me, it’s really like a documentary on paper, but they call it a graphic novel.
How many men did you interview for the book?
Two cousins and two men from the same village that arrived to Dallas at the same time. We also got feedback from the Sudanese community in Dallas.
What is the connection between the lost boys of Sudan and tennis?
Arthur Ashe was the co-founder of the USTA National Junior Tennis and Learning program. Ashe is a human rights activist, I’m a human rights activist, and this is a human rights story. Ashe fought against apartheid in South Africa.
Rick Halperin, director of Southern Methodist University’s Embrey Human Rights Program, wrote the intro to your novel. Why was that important?
SMU is the only university in the South to offer a minor in human rights. Dr. Halperin and program assistant director Dr. Pat Davis’ opening article connects the human rights/history of Sudan. Dr. Carol North of UT Southwestern Medical Center wrote a special section for the novel where she interviewed the boys for insight into how they survived. I think to myself, ‘How did they make it? How do you overcome the trauma of seeing your family members murdered and growing up without your parents?’
What do you do with money earned from book sales?
It comes back to the National Junior Tennis and Learning program. I hope one day to have a traveling RV and show exhibits and the books. Maybe one day they’ll make a play or movie about it.
What’s your next project?
We are looking to release a comic book called “Upstanders Quest, True Stories of Survivors of Slavery” by the summer. Dallas black literary historian Jesse James Arnold is one of the characters in this upcoming work.
You worked on promoting a film in January. Can you tell us about that?
The Slam Jammer Program is co-hosting “The Suffering Grasses” on the Syrian revolution. It’s a film directed by Iara Lee of National Geographic. It premieres Jan. 30 at Grand Prarie ISD; hopefully other schools will pick up on it.
What is your goal for students as a tennis coach?
There are a lot of tennis coaches out there that have a real passion for tennis, but I want children to know that you can give back to the world.
What has been your favorite moment or biggest gratification in doing this?
Watching the Lost Boys heal. It’s a surreal healing process that happens. When they go out and speak and let out that emotion, there’s a healing process, and they’re connecting with the kids in the audience. And the children realize they don’t have it that rough.
“Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan” is available at echoesofthelostboys.com, Barnes and Noble, and amazon.com. Contact James Disco at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested in showing “The Suffering Grasses” at your school.
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