This American Life
As a Blerd, over the past few day/weeks/months/years, it’s been harder to find a means of escapism. We discuss our passions joyously, but are tethered to the inherent meanness of a dual existence. Having to abide by the rules of white society to keep a gig to pay the bills, while staying connected to the fragmented cultural narrative that has been poorly labeled as “Black Life in America” is tiresome. We are expected to be America’s punching bag but never express the outrage, or pain. We are so in tune with our suffering, it becomes a sardonic soundtrack of sorts, tinging the things we enjoy with a coat of grime and prefacing every laugh with a small cry of anguish.
Read it here….
We expect to be underrepresented in comic books. We expect our characters to play second fiddle. We know that the lives of the characters on the panels only matter insofar as they create narratives for white characters to take action. We smiled when Marvel released the hip-hop variant covers and face-palmed when it became clear that Marvel only had a scant desire to create a more diverse creative staff (shouts to Ta-Nehisi Coates….the Black Panther book is the business! David Walker too…I’m feeling Power Man and Iron Fist!) We expect solo series for characters that look like us to be cancelled. Here’s the thing, we still buy the books.
We invest our energy into giving these fictional universes shape and form. We filter the content on these panels to match our individual existences and traditionally we have settled for what has been given to us. But at this tipping point in American History it is imperative that we have comics that truly speak to our experience. Black Lives Matter is our current reality…It needs to be front and center for all street level heroes in Marvel and DC. Any hero who battles street crime and interacts with the police should also have an opinion about injustices inflict BY law enforcement. They owe it to us. After decades of terribly written Blackish sounding dialogue, reductive handing of racial issues or blatantly racist characterizations….
Blerds have given these characters unconditional love. Black Lightning, Luke Cage, Storm, Steel, John Stewart…have all had innumerable oddly scripted moments that raised doubts as to whether the people writing for them have EVER even spoken to or met a black person.
Example: Black Lightning…dad was murdered, raised by a single mother, great athlete, but only really saved by the charity of an old white guy named Peter Gambi. It’s the tired trope of adding a white character into a story about a black person so that the perceived audience has someone to relate to.
Since, according the the creators, single Black Women are incapable of raising black children, Peter was a surrogate father to young Black Lightning. Peter also designed the “Force Belt” and costume that let Jefferson Pierce become Black Lightning. Because of all of this, it’s OK that Peter is the one who murdered Black Lightning’s father in the first place. He didn’t go to prison or anything either. I guess killing Black people is legal in the DC Universe too. His redemption arc ended with him getting killed. This is problematic on a few fronts:
- Why aren’t the white readers being allowed/challenged to identify with a character of a different color? Black readers have been forced to do this for decades.
- Why does the white character shoehorned into the story have to be the savior? If the goal is for white readers to identify with the white character, putting the white character in an elevated position just reinforces white savior trope the the air of superiority it creates. Black Lightning, for all of the ‘Self-Made’ man bravado, exists only because of White Man’s Burden.
- The murder of Black Lightning’s father isn’t as important as the death of the White guy who got away with murdering him.
The issues with these narratives are that they remove Black Lightning’s agency. It makes him a byproduct of white charity. This narrative dominates many area of popular fiction with Black characters. This idea that Black people are incapable of creating their own scripts for success without the help of a white benefactor is a construct of White Supremacy. This trope has been the bane of existence for many Black Writers.
Any assertion that your character is working outside to the White Power structure and without any assistance from white characters is viewed as taboo. Many Black characters can either exist in a servile capacity, like Lucius Fox or Steel. Or can operate with a limited degree of autonomy as long as they are supported/endorsed/sponsored/ordained by a white character, like The Falcon or War Machine.
Enter the Graveyard
There exists a vast graveyard of tone deaf, ham-fisted attempts of white creators addressing complex racial issues within the pages of their creations. Many of these are well-intentioned but are still cringe-worthy. Often these are just poorly disguised attempts at Whitesplaining. They often involve a prejudiced character being redeemed by a Black hero or a Black character being enlightened by a white character. Black Characters are often portrayed as darker skinned white people. They don’t really have a sense of interconnected-ness with with a black community. To Marvel’s credit, they gave Robert Morales a chance to flesh out Marvel’s Black Superhero Community in Truth: Red, White & Black and expanded in with Reginald Hudlin’s vision of Storm and Black Panther’s wedding. That glimpse was fantastic. We saw a community with it’s own history that ran parallel to the mainstream universe.
Now we are in 2016. The duality of Black existence in America is apparent to those who are paying attention. Black people are finding new avenues to attack bastions of white Supremacy. This generation of Blacks is using technology to side step traditional methods used to silence their voices. We combat racist attitudes and poorly realized representation via social media. We are able to voice our discontent in real time and directly to those who violate or likenesses. We have to ability to challenge the two major comic publishers with laser focus. We can and have zeroed in on the lack of diversity, exploitative characterizations and racially lopsided narratives. Now. In this critical time in the history of this county. It is time for the big two to find more writers who can tell our stories. Diversity of all sorts is needed and there is plenty of room for nerds of different backgrounds to advocate for their representation at the table.
Profiting from our stories
Comics have tackled institutional racism, racial profiling, wealth disparity, limited access to resources and government abuses against marginalized populations. It’s just that instead of Black characters, as the recipients of disparate treatment were mutants or The Hulk or teenage meta-humans or….everybody except the Black people who’s struggles were used as a template. They created caricatures of MLK and Malcolm X in the guise of Professor X and Magneto, making the former, the hero and the former, the villain. A simplistic view of two of the most dynamic minds in American History and hailing that as racial progress.
Black characters weren’t completely excluded from stories regarding black issues. They were often used to deliver white commentary on the Black Experience. The Black Pride movement was further demonized by characters like Black Manta and the aforementioned Tyroc, who were used as a proxies to express the writer’s misunderstanding of Black Nationalism.
The industry will use our journey to sell the humanity of their characters but refuse to use characters that look like us OR even allow Black writers to tell the story. We demand better.
Black writers need to be able to tell our stories in comics without censoring for a white audience. Black characters need to able to self identify as black and speak to their experience as Black People in their respective universes. Black fans deserve to reclaim the stories that were white-washed and given to fictional groups in comics. Speaking like Institution Racism is some slayed dragon of the past is dishonest. Institutional racism is why POC creators are few and far between at the two major companies. It is also why we cheer so loudly when Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Walker, Roxane Gay, Yona Harvey…get a shot at creating their own books.
Black Lives Matter. Black Voices Matter. Representation Matters.
To Be Continued…
Also published on Medium.