Vincent S. Moore Presents:
A Mule And Forty Acres Of My Own Part Three:
How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy It)
This week I conclude, for now, my series of ramblings and musings on race, comics, and fantastic fiction.
It seems as though I saved up all the juicy ideas for this part. And the universe has cooperated by providing with one particular piece of scientific data that dovetailed perfectly to what my intentions for this series was. I love being in rhythm with the universe.
The subtitle for this week’s part comes from the documentary on the life of Melvin Van Peebles, filmmaker, writer, musician, rapper, and general rabble-rouser of popular culture. Van Peebles is primarily known for his groundbreaking film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baaaadasssss Song, the movie that launched--for good or for ill, depending on who you ask--the Blaxploitation era in Hollywood.
Not to ruin the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen yet (and I recommend seeing it very highly), Sweetback tells the story of a young black man, raised in a whorehouse, who finds himself in the wrong place at the right time, does the wrong thing for the right reason, and finds himself on the run because of it. The film is filled with the black realpolitik of the late 1960s with a funky score by the then soon to be world famous Earth, Wind, and Fire. Not so much a true blaxploitation film, rather Sweetback is a black power art film in style, complete with ambiguous ending.
The title of the documentary, How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy It), reflects Van Peebles’ creative spirit and serves as the perfect title for this (hopefully) final part.
I first conceived of this series as a way for me to look at race, comics, and the creating of fantastic fiction from the perspective of an adult black male who has always wanted to create such comics and stories, featuring characters reflective of my appearance and background as well as any sort of appearance and background as strikes my fancy.
I wanted to do this because race is still a touchy topic here in the good old United States of America. A touchy topic that nearly two decades of Political Correctness have done absolutely nothing to resolve. If anything, as I and others have feared, racism has merely been driven underground, roiling beneath the surface of American Life, waiting to strike at the worst possible moments.
Just ask Dog the Bounty Hunter about this if you doubt what I’m saying.
After his display of the last week and incidents like the Jena 6 trial, I seriously doubt that most Americans can say with no uncertainty that racism is a problem of the past.
In the midst of all these events, I learned of a study via Discovery magazine (http://discovermagazine.com/2007/oct/how-not-to-be-racist) that claims that 80% of whites harbor at least some subconscious prejudice towards blacks. Upon learning this, I felt I had encountered the final piece of the puzzle I was putting together in my mind. The puzzle as to where I fit in the grand scheme of things, the Great Chain of Being in Comics and how to deal with that position.
At the beginning I asked why should the white guys in comics have all the fun? Fun being defined as being the coolest, most powerful heroes, with the best gadgets and the hottest adventures. Why should such fun be the sole province of white heroes and heroines alone? My answer is there is no good reason as to why this is, other than the resistance of the comics industry to new voices and ideas. Voices and ideas the industry desperately needs if it intends to survive in the coming years of a 21st Century where foreign manga is capturing so much more of the potential comics reading audience. It can’t simply be the fault of these new readers to not bridge the gap nor can it be the fault of superhero comics either. As the slate of Hollywood movies based on these same superheroes is showing the general public is interested in these kinds of stories. And sales in graphic novels are increasing, but not as fast as manga sales are. With sluggish bookstore sales and shrinking audiences going to comics shops, the comics industry acts as if it doesn’t have to start courting potential minority readers. As if use of superhero comics iconography and terminology in rap songs isn’t a big hint that there is interest in superheroes amongst black readers. If only there were more than just a handful of black characters on the stands that could appeal to these readers.
Yet, there aren’t.
Since there aren’t any massive initiatives to create tons of new black characters and to reach out to black audiences at the same time, the real question I should be asking myself is why should I let the white guys have all the fun?
My answer is again, there is no good reason why I should be letting all the cool comics fun happen around me without taking my chances at creating the kinds of comics I want to read.
No reason at all.
Not even my second point of Black Folk Don’t Do That.
I mean, why should I let that silly attitude stop me? Why should others? Such attitudes are the end result of accepting wholehearted the message of American culture that blacks have a limited space within the public sphere. A limitation that is enforced by such connected attitudes as thinking a mastery of the English language or any other school subjects are a person trying to “act white” or that developing a myopic viewpoint to the world around one is somehow “keeping it real”.
Who really benefits from such attitudes?
In a case of politics making strange bedfellows, both mainstream white Americans and an apparent majority of black Americans benefit from such attitudes. For some, but not all, white Americans, seeing such attitudes on display in the media are self-fulfilling prophecy of the limitations of blacks, to both liberals and conservatives. For seeming many blacks, holding onto such attitudes may provide the veneer of possessing a culture of one’s own, not seeing how these are really limitations tantamount of another kind of slavery.
Fortunately, such limitations only affect some but not all of my people and definitely not myself.
All one has to do is walk into a bookstore or go to Amazon and see the growing numbers of Black and Hispanic and Asian writers working in the Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Mystery genres. Names such as Massey and Due, Mosley and Barnes, McDonnell and Durham, Hopkinson and Buckell and others fill the shelves with dreams with an African flavor, stories of heroes and heroines of color.
Is the tide turning?
From the looks of things, I can say yes, the tide is turning, albeit too slowly for my tastes, but that’s a personal problem as my father used to tell me.
If the tide is turning, then why am I complaining? I should have nothing to complain about, right?
In many ways, wanting to rid myself of complaints and the complaining nature I often feel when going to the movies or reading comics is a major reason for my writing this series.
See, I’m tired of going to the movies or reading a book or a comic and looking for the magical negro so I can groan and bitch and moan. I’m tired of waiting for the black man--more often than not--to die trying to save white folk. I’m tired of it and want to use that energy in other ways. By freeing myself of these complaints and issues, I can hopefully free white creators as well. Free them for their attempts to create characters of color, any color.
The white guys and gals are under no obligation to create heroes for my people or for me. No obligation whatsoever. So why should I or anyone wait for them to do so? Yet again, no good reason at all.
Besides, if we accept the 80% statistic to be true, then how can any white writer or artist honestly create a black hero who is as competent and powerful heroic as the white heroes? A hero who will be acceptable and admirable to me and my people? Even with the best of intentions, all too often the same templates show up. Meaning it’s time relieve the white man’s burden in this area and take up the challenge for ourselves.
So it’s time to move beyond the Black Superhero Algorithm (http://operative.net/archive/columns/word/15-blackheroorigin.html). The black experience is far more varied than is seen by American media, black and white. It’s time to start creating heroes of color that leave the stereotypes behind. After all, we are dealing with fantastic and speculative fictions here. Is it really so hard to imagine a black man or women who is wealthy, well educated, creative, and the wielder of the power to move the stars and planets? It can’t be because I just did it.
I just made imagining new kinds of black heroes look easy. It isn’t, not truly. There are still some problems to handle.
For example, how does one create fantastic characters of color and speculative concepts to go with them, being true to oneself and cultural experience, when the act of doing so will more than likely upset and not be supported by the mainstream?
That whole 80% of whites harboring some kind of prejudice will obviously affect one’s reach. Right?
Knowing this, however, I would think it should free up myself and others to simply create as our various and varied muses guide us to do. Simply because there may always be this large contingent of complaints from some but not all white people. As the saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. I think it’s fair to accept this now and to move forward anyway.
This is not to say that this 80% of whites thing only affects them. I am definitely wary of the flip side to this: that at least as many blacks may harbor prejudice to white people. This isn’t a license to be just as exclusionary as whites have been. I keep mentioning this statistic as way to explain that short of making white characters only no matter the color of the creator, there will always be those who find any element of ethnicity in their comics and books and movies to be a threat to their self-concept and world view. My feeling is, knowing this will free up the Black or Hispanic creator to create the works he or she wants to. And isn’t that what any artist wants?
Besides it’s not like I and others don’t have artists who have gone before us. No artist creates in a vacuum. We all have those shoulders of giants we stand upon.
For myself, I have role models such as Melvin Van Peebles, the original guerrilla filmmaker, whose works still cause me to pause and wonder at how he did all that he did, and is still doing.
I wonder and the answer comes in part from his documentary Classified X, an exploration of the images of African-Americans in American cinema. I have watched the film a dozen times and find it disturbing, enlightening, infuriating, and liberating all at the same time. I watch it as a way to touch bases with one of my mentors and elders, to see how and why he is the way he is, and to learn how I can move beyond the limits and limited images of my people.
This quote from the back of the DVD case sums up Van Peebles’ rationale and creative raison d’etre:
“. . . the very first thing we must do is to re-conquer our own minds. The biggest obstacle to the Black revolution in America is our conditioned susceptibility to the white man’s program. In short, the fact is that the white man has colonized our minds. We’ve been violated, confused, and drained by this colonization and from this brutal, calculated genocide, the most effective and vicious racism has grown, and it is with this starting point in mind and the intention to reverse the process that I went into cinema in the first fucking place.”
The quote sums up in part the reasons why I wanted to write A Mule and Forty Acres of My Own. To start the process of clearing out the stuff and nonsense rattling around in my mind about race and comics and the frustration of seeing so many black people, people of all kinds of colors, wandering around the comics mecca that is Comic-Con International: San Diego, yet knowing there are so few comics for them. And many of the ones that are out there may not up to snuff. But that is a talk for another time.
Now, if Melvin Van Peebles could go into film to re-conquer his own and his people’s minds and succeed in the ways that he did, then surely others in other fields have done so.
And they have.
Whether it be George Clinton and the many different versions of Parliament and Funkadelic with their wild and crazy funk music and visions of a black science fantasy landscape filled with dances of water and guns that go “bop” instead of “bang,” and one nation gathering under a groove and just getting down for the funk of it.
Or Living Colour and the other member bands of the Black Rock Coalition, celebrating and reclaiming one of the musical contributions blacks made to America, namely Rock ‘N Roll.
Or Milestone, that once shining comics company that promised to bring diversity to comics through quality comics. Books that I have and still often read just for the fun of it. To see heroes of color coming from broader backgrounds than what is accepted as usual. And just to remind myself of what is possible when one or a group believe in a dream.
Even Jack Kirby’s Black Panther in the way he simply understood that the hero was a hero first and last, and a black man in-between, in ways that didn’t limit him or his reach. The endless parade of wonders and dangers Kirby fit into 12 issues still astonishes me to this day. There were no ghetto crime lords to be found, only threats both cosmic and domestic, often at the same time. I want to capture that sort of sense of wonder, bottle it up inside my mind and use it to fuel my own stories.
Knowing that others have walked the same or similar paths that I now walk is comforting. I know better that I am not limited--from within and from without--to writing Street Lit or the like. If anything, writing about the streets would be much harder for me than writing about alien cultures or faraway places or never-ending battles.
I may still have fights of my own to engage in, because I do still have to fight for my right to dream. Writing this piece has cleared the chains out of my mind. But I do still have the minds of others to contend with after this.
That’s okay. Through writing this, I’ve found the bravery to create exactly what I want to create. That may not mean a lot to some, but it’s everything to me. Writing and drawing are lonely endeavors. The demons and devils that can haunt one the most are those from inside himself. Writing pieces like this help me to understand myself better, to let the big thoughts out so they can rest and leave me alone. At least for a while.
In the end, we all struggle with ourselves. That is karma no one can escape.
Just as I cannot escape the karma that led me to be black in this lifetime, nor my mission as a Buddhist to create fantastic comics and stories. It may be a crazy way for me to follow my bliss, but there are worse ways to spend one’s life, I suppose.
I mean, I could complain about my lot in life, about how my particular group has received and still receives the short end of the stick. I could but that wouldn’t solve anything. Complaining wouldn’t change that karma, no matter how much I did it. Only by taking actions to change the situation could change that karma. After all, all karma is action or habit anyway, by some definitions. People change bad habits all the time.
With sincere effort, any people can change any bad habit they wanted to, I feel.
Maybe even a subconscious habit of prejudice, perhaps.
There are ways to break out of one’s reality tunnel, if one wants to try.
Just as Robert Anton Wilson recommended in his Cosmic Trigger books when he experimented with reading books and magazines from an opposite point of view to his own. The idea being to start breaking down his own reality tunnel, as he called it, which limited and shaped his view of the world. I’ve done the experiment for myself when I started reading romance novels and westerns. In a way, I’ve done this experiment my whole life by reading and watching the heroes I have, to expand my own reality tunnel into something much wider than it would have been otherwise. Maybe, just maybe, we can encourage white comics readers out there to try comics featuring black heroes. You know, to do something hopeful and positive in this world for a change.
Because all one needs to do is read the news or watch the news on TV to see the world is in a mess. Not that this is entirely new to the human experience. But it does make one think, doesn’t it? That if we could open our hearts and minds, to accept that the “other” dreams just like we do and in so doing we may find the antidote to the current culture of fear.
I know, I’m a wide-eyed idealist and a dreamer.
But if groups of mostly white teens can accept and read manga in droves, then why not black comics?
It’s not like this wouldn’t be the first time or the last that America has fallen in love with black culture. It’s rap and hip hop now, but it was Blaxploitation when I was a kid.
And Blaxploitation was far more than merely a way for Hollywood to save itself from going broke. It was a chance to see a broader spectrum of the black experience than had ever been seen in America.
Blaxploitation films, many of which were crappy, were far more than the crime movies that people like Quentin Tarantino and others have claimed in a seeming endless stream of documentaries on IFC. There were many genres represented during the decade. Comedies and dramas, westerns and horror movies. It was a chance to see that the black experience was and is an aspect of the human experience.
Which is what all stories are about anyway.
Stories, no matter what medium in which they are told, are about people. People’s hopes and dreams and fears, et. cetera. The only differences one’s race, gender, and culture bring are flavors of how one achieves one’s dreams or solves one’s problems, of how one copes with one’s fears.
That is all that any creative person wants to do. Even if that creative person is also a person of color. And that color shouldn’t be a barrier to the creative person’s expression. That creative person shouldn’t be expected to carry the weight of his or her race, gender, religion, class, and other definitions alone. As if to say that because I write about black characters I am THE BLACK WRITER. That is ridiculous.
Yet I do know that it goes on in the comics industry all the time.
And it’s a shame.
I don’t merely represent myself or my people (who should or could shoulder that burden alone; only in America, eh?), I represent my country as well and my planet. If I am limited more so by others than by myself to propagating the Black Superhero Algorithm or Street Lit or other stereotypes, then what does that say about America that it doesn’t say about African America? That America is all promise but no commitment or follow through? We are all growing up in this crazy cultural experiment together. Isn’t time we really did grow up and act like adults?
And as an adult, I lay claim to that mule and forty acres of my own, to the freedom to create what I will as I will.
I mean, why should I feel the need for permission to be creative anyway?
This is the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, after all.
Whew! I’ve spent the last three weeks writing this series and it’s done finally. At least for now. Since I am showing no signs of losing my blackness, I can guarantee I will find time to revisit this topic again and again.
I wish I had more to say for this week, but I’m done in more ways than one. This kind of heavy thinking is out of the norm for me. I usually prefer to mouth off without having to think my thoughts through. That may explain my first couple of columns. Hahaha!
Working on Mule has occupied so much of my mind and time the last three weeks that I’m behind on my other writing projects and editing assignments.
Coincidentally enough, Marc informed me last week that he would be busy with other endeavors next week and I had the choice between posting the column a day late or skipping a week entirely. Given that I’ve already had some columns posted a day later than ‘usual,’ I opted for the week off.
So, I’ll see you happy campers in two weeks (okay, 13 days actually) with something new. It’s been quiet lately, so I think I need to stir up some trouble. All in the name of fun and attracting new readers, of course. With the WGA on strike and TV shows shutting down, somebody has to take up the slack and provide you folks with some mindless entertainment, right?
Why not me?
Take care of yourselves.
See y’all in 13.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved