Black History Month ’09 #08: The Theme Song is “It’s Yours”

February 8th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

Three things happened on November 18, 1992. The first is that I turned nine years old. Finally! I was almost as old as Bart Simpson, who was one of my many childhood heroes. Second, Spike Lee’s feature length biopic “Malcolm X” was released. I saw it that weekend, if not on the day of release, at the big theater in the next town over. The last of the three is that Superman died, at least according to Roger Stern’s novelization.

The Death of Superman was basically my introduction to DC Comics. I wheedled and begged and got a few of the books, and eventually ended up tearing through the novelization. This is why I didn’t know that Hal Jordan was involved in the climax of the mega-arc until years later, and only recently found out that Bloodwynd, the only black guy on the JLA at that point, was actually the Martian Manhunter.

The movie was, in hindsight, much more of a milestone. It was my first introduction to the real Malcolm X, rather than the brief paragraphs we’d get in history books. All I really knew at that point was that he was a white people-hating, fast-talking, symbol of the violent side of the civil rights movement. Where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the tip-top of the non-violent resistance solution, meaning “the right choice,” X was the guy who advocated violence. He was the scary one. Don’t be like him, children, turn the other cheek.

It turns out that what I learned in my little history books, usually during Black History Month, wasn’t the whole story. The film filled in a lot of things that I didn’t even know I was missing. I didn’t know that he travelled to Mecca, nor that his views adjusted after he left. I had no idea that he wasn’t the bogeyman that he was portrayed as in school.

It didn’t instantly change my mind. I didn’t become Baby Huey P. Newton on the spot. I do think, however, that it fostered a healthy mistrust of things that you are taught, or at least a driving thirst to know more about everything. I’ve owned a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X ever since I was old enough to have a job. X quickly became my second favorite figure from that era, after being slightly edged out by Muhammad Ali.

Superheroes are, at their heart, about uplifting. My favorite hero by far is Spider-Man, and I think the character has a lot to say about both the human condition and having fun. At the same time, Malcolm X taught me a lot about self-esteem, being comfortable in my own skin, and being, or becoming, a man.

There is, or was, a common metaphor for how the X-Men worked back in the day. Professor Xavier was Martin Luther King, Jr., prophet of peace. Magneto was Malcolm X, the violent villain. After having read things by and about the man, it’s probably my least favorite analogy in comics ever.

It’s extremely reductionist. It doesn’t track with either of the two men’s beliefs or practices, and in a way, it’s amazingly insulting to both. MLK wouldn’t have been caught dead with a paramilitary fighting force in his basement, and Malcolm X didn’t, and would not, advocate genocide. The analogy only works if the two men are what I was taught in school: good and bad, two opposing forces fighting for basically the same thing.

A little education goes a long way. I’m pretty sure that every thing I’ve complained about with regards to inaccurate or offensive portrayals of blacks in comics can be fixed with a little extra knowledge. You don’t even have to spend any money, since twenty minutes on Google can get you very far these days. A few good key words and you’re going to be sitting pretty.

I don’t think that the fundamental source of all of the problems with blacks in comics is racism. Institutionalized racism plays a part, sure, but it isn’t the end-all, be-all. Ignorance (and here I do not mean malicious or “you’re dumb” ignorance, I’m referring to “not knowing something”) is the issue.

If you don’t know, you can’t do it. It’s as easy as that. You are not forbidden from doing it, but anyone who does know about what you’re talking about? Those people are going to point and they are going to laugh and they are going to sit in judgment of you… and you kind of deserve it.

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7 comments to “Black History Month ’09 #08: The Theme Song is “It’s Yours””

  1. Depending on which version of the X-characters we’re looking at, the comparison to Martin and Malcolm stands up or it falls flat. I’m a bit more comfortable with it, after having seen the Xavier who’s basically a pacifist (at least as far as I’d read through Ultimate X-Men) but who was realistic enough to know that mutants, at the very least, needed to know how defend themselves and those who needed them. Also, my favorite incarnations of Magneto are not those where he’s sadistic, genocidal, and twisting his metallic mustache (so to speak), but those where he simply feels that humans and history have shown that refusing to take the fight to one’s enemies will not win you any brownie points and it won’t win the day. He believed in “mutanity” and, would not have abandoned Mystique once she took a chemical bullet, for him, becoming a baseline human being, as a result.

  2. My father bought the trade collection of the Death of Superman when I was around 10 or so. I remember not knowing who that Bloodwyn guy was but someone (I think it was Blue Beetle) finally seeing who he really was and the reader never finding out, at least not in that collection. The mystery totally escaped my mind until last year or so when I looked it up on Wikipedia and found out he was Martian Manhunter. At the time I read the collection, I did not know the character and his weakness to fire, but that should have been a giveaway had I known more about J’onn.

  3. Three things happened on November 18, 1992. The first is that I turned nine years old.

    Man, I feel old now…

  4. I just looked at that Wiki page. I didn’t know that Bloodwynd was an actual character who was impersonated by Martian Manhunter, for a while. I thought the Manhunter created the Bloodwynd identity. Apparently not.

  5. I didn’t know about the Bloodwynd-MM thing until I read this now… What else don’t I know about the comics of my youth?

  6. I have to agree with Malcolm X having an huge impact on what I had perceived as the truth for so many years of my life. The history books didn’t do much to tell the truth, even though I attended a high school that was predominantly black.

    I was fortunate enough to have a few teachers that were actually there during the days of Dr. King and Malcolm, men who marched and struggled along side these two men of conviction. Hearing them did start my questioning of the partial truths in my civics classes.

  7. Malcolm X is the most classic example of someone I deeply respect and dislike at the same time. He did so much positive work, but at the same time, helped set race relations back. Of course, he’s among many people who are to blame for this, though. But you know, that’s part of what made him who he was, a flawed human being, not a hollow icon. Just about every legendary figure has some negative aspect to them as well. I hope I’m not being a wet blanket or inappropriate by mentioning this.

    I figure this is as good a place to mention this as any: I think a lot of comics fans have problems with the “race thing” because they feel like it’s some sort of challenge, that they’re being told “This thing you like? Yeah, well it’s racist.” or that because sometimes it’s about race, it’s about race all the time. This is obviously not the case but it’s a very charged, sensitive and confusing issue. A lot of people believe that the issue of diversity in comics involves forced, artifical diversity, and a blame game where if someone doesn’t add a black person to the Avengers or creates a new character or group who’s white, then obviously they’re being racist, ignorant, or purposely exclusionist. Then of course if they add a black guy, it’s tokenism. If they make him a scientist or erudite they’re purposely playing against the stereotype, just like if they make that Asian not a scientist or a martial artist. To these people, when someone says “I wish comics were more diverse” they hear “The medium you enjoy is racist”, forgetting that the person wishing for diversity is probably just as much of a fan as them, and wants to make things better, not “blackify” everything, like David mentioned.

    I’m probably saying stuff that’s obvious and covered much better by others, but hey.