Black History Month

By | Thursday, February 01, 2007 Leave a Comment
Well, here in the U.S. (and Canada) we're celebrating Black History Month throughout February. It'll be easy to find scads of documentaries on various historical figures like Fredrick Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. I expect it won't be hard to trip across "hipper" things, too, like Halle Berry and Will Smith movie nights, Snoop Doggy Dog concerts, or a Chappelle Show marathon.

Now, let me state from the outset here that I'm not black. I make absolutely no claims that I have any real knowledge of the "black experience" in America. My father DID spend most of his teaching career in inner-city Cleveland public schools, so I was aware at least of some of the issues blacks faced in the 1970s and 80s, but I grew up in a white, middle-class suburbia and was largely removed from any problems or issues many black people faced.

I've talked before about the old Golden Legacy comics my father brought home. Since my favorite comic was Fantastic Four, I saw a decent number of appearances by the Black Panther (where some of the stories even made quite deliberate commentaries on what was going on in South Africa and other problematic areas). Ezra Jack Keats was also a favorite author of mine as a child (it wasn't until I met him in 1981 that I realized that he wasn't African-American like so many of his characters) and I hold many of his books in the same esteem as those of Dr. Seuss.

When I was in seventh grade, a new family moved into town. They were black and had a son, named Guy, about my age. He and his younger sister were the only two black kids in our school system, and there was... tension right from the start from too many people. I thank my parents, through exposing me to some of the issues of blacks in America in various forms of literature, for ensuring that I was enlightened enough to not consider this new classmate a threat or an object of ridicule. There was incident the first month he was in school where a fellow classmate deliberately mispronounced Niger while reading a passage in our social studies textbook in class. I hadn't really met Guy yet, but I creditted him with an inordinate amount of class for NOT slugging the idiot.

I was somewhat disappointed when I did start to get to know Guy, though. He was a nice enough chap, but he wasn't too bright and probably didn't study as much as he needed to. He was more interested in sports and music than reading and video games, so we didn't share much in common. I was always on friendly terms with him, but we didn't become great friends or anything.

Now, where is this going in relation to comic books?

Well, I think there's a significant disconnect bewteen comics and minority audiences. Rattle off the comic book titles you're familiar with and you'll likely fine none that feature a significantly minority character of any sort. And even when you do come across a Storm or Black Panther, they're somewhat removed from the urban "black experience" from America. (That's not to say there are NO black characters that aren't steeped in it -- Luke Cage is a prime example -- but they're the decided exception and not the norm.) Christopher Priest, I think, did an excellent job in his Black Panther and I understand that the folks at Milestone Comics did admirable work as well. But shouldn't there be more?

One could argue that the comic book industry isn't particularly conducive to letting minorities in. There's certainly some validity to that, I think, but not particularly moreso than any other entertainment industry. But I feel that folks already within the industry could do more to make in-roads. Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams (both caucasians) did a fair job introducing John (Green Lantern) Stewart into the DC universe; as I noted earlier, I didn't even realize that Ezra Jack Keats wasn't black. Why don't we see more white folks incorporating the reality of minorities into comics?

I suspect that it has more to do with a lack of thought than anything. We write/draw/create characters that we can relate to -- "write what you know" and all that -- and that tends to mean "similar to ourselves." Unless someone's specifically trying to do a story about racial tensions or something like that, they simply don't think to include minorities. I give a lot of credit to Mark Waid and Karl Kesel (both decidedly white guys) for creating (and repeatedly using!) a black character to head up the legal/political arm of Fantastic Four, Inc. It was never brought up as a racial issue, just "here's a new character who works for the FF" -- that she was black was irrelevant. But that still required a bit of extra thought; Waid could've said "Oh, I need this type of character for this story" and assumed that it'd be a white male. But it was that extra bit of "why couldn't it be a black female" thought that rounded the book our more pleasantly. (Pity that J. Michael Stracynzski hasn't picked up the character for his run on the book. Maybe new writer Dwayne McDuffie will bring her back.)

If more creators put that extra bit of cultural thought into their stories, maybe Guy would've been interested in reading comics. Maybe he and I would've had more in common. Maybe we could've been better friends. Maybe that could've extended to more people who read comics. Maybe the world would be a little nicer place.

So take a few moments this month to appreciate black culture. Flip on the Biography Channel and catch a documentary on Sojourner Truth. Track down an issue of Golden Legacy and read up on someone who ought to be more famous than they are. Take a few extra moments to write to Marvel and ask them to see more of the Prowler, or ask DC to show more with Black Lightning.
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