Vincent S. Moore Presents:
A Mule And Forty Acres Of My Own Part Two:
This week I continue my series of ramblings and musings on race, comics, and fantastic fiction.
If you folks read last week’s entry, I took white people to task for their seeming inability to accept or allow black people to dream the same fantastic dreams, to write and draw those dreams, as whites do. As of this writing, response has been quiet. I’m not completely surprised by this at all. Discussions of race, like those of gender and sexual politics, can oftentimes silence those very voices one would wish to hear from so that dialogue could commence.
Still, I must press onward.
The subtitle for this week’s section comes from the album “My People” by Duke Ellington.
Duke Ellington was my father’s favorite jazz musician, judging from the number of records I remember sitting in the record cabinet as a child and a teen. In the years after my father’s death, when I decided to get into jazz, I remembered the Duke and bought a number of his albums on CD over the years.
“My People” continues Duke’s efforts to capture the spirit of the African American experience in song. Other such efforts include “Black, Brown, And Beige” and “Black And Tan Fantasy,” works that pushed the envelope of what jazz was considered to be by mainstream society. To the Duke, jazz was as capable of different moods and tones as classical music.
“My People” ranges in styles from gospel to the blues to pure jazz and number of stops in-between. Much like the people the album attempts to describe.
As I grow into my own acceptance of my negritude alongside my humanity, I look at the variety of my particular ethnic group and wonder and marvel at us. I also look in confusion at how only a certain aspect of blackness reaches the marketplace. Yet I know that I cannot lay the blame for such limitations entirely upon whites. In order to grow and move forward, some responsibility for the images of black folks has to rest on the shoulders of my own people.
It is at this point I want to pick up my thoughts on race and explore them some more.
Many of the hours of my youth not spent at school were spent watching lots of TV and reading tons of comics and books. I could lose myself for hours that way. To the point where my father or mother or grandmother or other relative would have to dig me out of the quiet space into which I had sunk.
Not that that would happen too often.
See, I had a secret weapon in such encounters. A weapon I didn’t fully understand I possessed. A weapon that particularly worked best on the older members of my family. No, not necessarily what Chris Rock meant by books being Kryptonite for black folks; nearly all of my immediate family were college educated and working in various fields from teaching to accounting and many others.
No, the weapon I had wasn’t the books themselves but the subject matter in those books and comics.
If I were watching Doctor Who and my grandmother or mother would enter the room, I could make them disappear quickly by telling them the show was about an ancient alien who traveled through time and space in a blue box larger on the inside than the outside. Poof! They were gone. If I had the Fantastic Four or a Robert Heinlein book in hand, a quick explanation of what I was reading and Poof! the room was empty once again.
But all weapons, even those of mass distraction, have a consequence.
The consequence I had to deal with when using the weapon of speculative and fantastic fiction on my relatives was having to hear the same refrain over and over again. A refrain that I would hear more often and loudly as my desire to create comics was expressed.
What was that refrain, you ask?
Simple, it was: Black Folk Don’t Do That.
What, I would say to myself, does that mean?
Black Folk Don’t Do That.
Which meant that no matter how many comics or books I read, TV shows I watched, and classes I took, the desires and fantasies I dreamt of were not mine to do. That I should even dare to think of such things as being possible for me.
How silly, I thought. But the conviction with which I heard such words had the force of natural law attached to them. As if to say I would be breaking the laws of physics if I thought about riding in a spaceship or even writing about such. That even to talk about such topics with my family or even some of my friends was to step outside of their perceptions of the world at large and speak gibberish to them.
And so, over time, I began to think and feel that my people, black people apparently had and still have many problems dealing with the speculative and fantastic fictions.
These were my people yet I felt like that proverbial stranger in a strange land, that prophet who is ignored and despised by his own people in his own homeland.
Along the way, I would encounter what Edgar Rice Burroughs had written about blacks and imagination, in the pages of Jungle Tales of Tarzan: “Imagination it is which builds bridges, and cities, and empires. The beasts know it not, the blacks only a little, while to one in a hundred thousand of earth’s dominant race it is given as a gift from heaven that man may not perish from the earth.” When I read that quote, I often get upset that one human being would feel that way about his fellows who only differ in the color of their skin. However, now, as an adult and looking at my people and what they do to entertain themselves and what they share with the rest of mainstream society, I wonder if Burroughs was somehow, in some way, right after all.
Now, some of those reading this may be thinking that I’m airing dirty laundry in public. That it was okay and even important for me to talk about how the white folks keep us from playing in “their” playgrounds with “their” toys. But that talking about my people, that being self analytical, is not appropriate. To those people I only say this, how does dirty laundry get clean if one does not air it?
If I or anyone else doesn’t ask the hard questions, then how do situations that need changing change?
I mean, is it not fair to ask--borrowing the Public Enemy album title and twisting it a bit--what if the nation of millions needed to hold black people back is blacks themselves?
For example, I mentioned the Black Superhero Algorithm (http://operative.net/archive/columns/word/15-blackheroorigin.html) before. But is there some real world truth to the elements involved? Let’s take a look.
The first point is the average black superhero is raised in poverty. According to this report (http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq3.htm#groups), poverty rates for blacks and hispanics are higher than average, affecting nearly a quarter of all blacks, the most of any group in America. With that being true, could a white writer go wrong by having a black character come from a poor background? Maybe not.
The second point is the average black superhero is a former Olympian or Olympic level athlete. Well, when looking at most professional sports and seeing the vast numbers of black men associated with these activities, is it any stretch to assume that if superheroes are the best at what they do, then a good black superhero should have gone to the Olympics, the highest level of amateur sports?
The third point is the average black superhero will have a criminal background. Given what I said about poverty and how it affects the black community, it is fair to say that poverty and crime go hand-in-hand. The statistics claiming that nearly a quarter of black men are in some aspect of the criminal justice system have been challenged from different groups. Yet the fact remains that for the percentage of the population blacks make up (12-13%), the numbers of blacks involved in committing crimes is way out of proportion, and so is the number of blacks in prisons. Again, could a white writer go wrong by giving a black character a criminal background? Maybe not.
The fourth point is the average black superhero is or has been inspired by white heroes. This one is harder to peg down. The easiest answer is extending of a preexisting corporate brand to a black character. John Stewart as Green Lantern and John Henry Irons as Steel are excellent examples of this. But this could also speak to seeing a lack of heroic examples from within the black community by mainstream society. Not necessarily people like Martin Luther King, of course, but heroic in the way that superhero comics do best. Such figures that could be considered heroic end up leading us back to the second point, a sports hero.
These four components of the Black Superhero Algorithm show how limited black characters in comics can be. Yet the limitations are based as much on the reality of some but not all black people as on the lack of imagination of some but not all white writers.
And that’s been one of the struggles in America: to control the images of blacks. Oftentimes, the images of my people have not been kind or truthful but cruel and used to promote the idea of a primitiveness to black people that justifies racism on the part of whites.
But what happens when those very same negative images of blacks are used by blacks themselves? What happens when the image of black man as criminal or black woman as sexual wanton is perpetuated by blacks for their own entertainment?
What happens is Street Lit and Hip Hop.
Street Lit, that new literary movement taking bookstores everywhere by storm. That is bringing new voices into the marketplace of ideas and new publishing companies into existence. That is the fiction of “real” black people, telling it how it is on the streets and keeping it real. That is codifying the negative stereotypes and views mainstream society have of black life.
Street Lit, which is often sold at novel prices but containing works of the novella or novelette length. Leaving me to wonder exactly what value is being given to the reader for his or her money?
In my willingness to experiment with reading genres I don’t normally read, I recent bought a Street Lit book by the name of Harlem Heat. Interestingly enough it is co-published by 50 Cent’s G-Unit Books and MTV Books. By my best guesstimate, the “book” is somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 words long. It tells yet another tale of people struggling and hustling on the streets, performing criminal acts as if they were normal and expected. But I wonder, with such a short read, has the African American community discovered dime novels on its own? If so, then we are merely 50 years behind the times and have to race to catch up. I also wonder if for the most part black people can’t or don’t want to read longer works of fiction?
Yet Street Lit is popular. So much so that mainstream publishers are trying to get in on the game. Similar to developments in the history of Rock and Jazz. Because there’s money to be made from selling black people what could be called wish fulfillment power fantasies, tales where the bad guys are the good guys and The Man is still the ultimate enemy to be defied but not truly defeated.
If Street Lit is one kind of black wish fulfillment power fantasy, then Hip Hop is another.
Far too many young black men and women dream of being rappers, of coming up with the right rhymes and hot beats, so they can be like the rappers they see in the music videos. Rappers surrounded by all the trappings of opulent wealth that money can buy and all the half naked women that such wealth attracts. If that isn’t the wish fulfillment fantasy of a person born into and/or living in poverty, I don’t know what is.
Yet if what is seen is rap videos are wish fulfillment power fantasies, what does that say about black people? What does it say about the differences between the power fantasies of whites and blacks? Does being white and therefore being in the default normal position in this society mean that you can fantasize about powers and abilities beyond those of ordinary man while your black counterpart is stuck only fantasizing about cold hard cash and hoochies?
Now for those who are poor, survival is the highest priority. Doing whatever it takes to feed and clothe oneself and one’s family is going to occupy a large portion of one’s mind. Dreaming of a better life may not be a high priority when one is just trying to survive. In fact, dreaming, fantasizing may be considered anti-survival. However, that does not excuse any people from dreaming of their future. And without dreams, without visions, people do perish. It could be said that the African American community is without a vision of itself living in the lands of tomorrow.
It could be said but it isn’t entirely true.
Writers in comics such as Dwayne McDuffie, Reginald Hudlin, Kevin Grevioux, and others are daring to tell the tales that not only blacks for all people can read and use to open themselves up to dreams. Writers in other fields like Walter Mosley, Samuel Delany, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, the late, great Octavia Butler and others are dreaming of black people in the past and in the future, having adventures and learning about their own and others’ humanity. These brave people live their lives and follow their dreams outside of the rule of Black Folk Don’t Do That and encourage others to take the same chances.
But the ghost of Black Folk Don’t Do That still lingers in our society, in the black community and in the white. All is not perfect yet.
For when the brilliant writer Charles R. Saunders cannot sell many copies of the new edition of his Imaro series, to the point where his publisher drops the project, then the power of Black Folk Don’t Do That hasn’t fully waned. Not when booksellers and distributors, black and white alike, can effectively tell him that writing fantasy is a white realm. Then you realize the ghost of Black Folk Don’t Do That is haunting us all still in the dawn of the 21st century.
What is sad about that story isn’t that white booksellers wouldn’t buy the book. I mean, a series of novels about a black Conan-esque hero wandering across a fantastic version of Africa would definitely put a cramp in the style of many white readers. What is sad is that black booksellers wouldn’t buy the book. That is, shops filled with gangstas and hoochies and down bitches and roughneck niggas, a black man with a sword and a purpose in a fantastic land was beyond the understanding and imagination of these people. That is sad in a way I cannot fully put into words. I mean, most days when I rise I look at my face and am proud of the imprint of Mother Africa upon it. At times like these, I wonder if I could trade my medium chocolate skin in for a shiny new white model, just so I could feel less out of place.
But that isn’t what I really need.
Or what my people need.
What we really need is a new movement, a Civil Rights movement for the imagination of black people. A movement to teach them how to stop thinking about pure survival that could reduce them to animalistic behaviors and to start dreaming of how to make the future a better place for them and for all. A movement to dream the dreams that are equal to those of whites and hispanics and asians, dreams that have our particular flavor to them.
What we in the black community need is to finally move away from Black Folk Don’t Do That to Black Folk Do That. That black people can ride in spaceships and change the course of mighty rives and slay dragons. That we too can dream.
Now that’s a dream I think we all can share.
Well, that’s it for this week, folks.
Next week, I’ll bring you the conclusion (for now) of A Mule And Forty Acres Of My Own.
Until then, be safe and well.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved