It’s Real in the Field (Black Trinity 2)

May 18th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Cheryl Lynn has another entry in her Black Trinity run. This time, it’s on Martha Washington, one of my favorite characters, as the Black Reality.

For the Black Reality is that you have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. Martha works four times as hard and gets all of it. She saves her country numerous times. She exposes her detractors for the dangerous and deluded beings they are. Not for glory, but because her will and desire for freedom is simply that strong. She is that special.

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When a whip and a chain isn’t the black american dream

August 14th, 2008 Posted by david brothers

Gonna go to Ghana!
And when I get there…
Ohh! I’m gonna dance!
Dance! Dance! Dance!

–Killer Mike, “Gonna Go To Ghana”

I find it’s distressin’, there’s never no in-between
We either niggas or Kings,
We either bitches or Queens

–Mos Def, “Thieves in the Night”

Black is
Black is something to laugh about
Black is something to cry about
Black is serious
Black is a feeling
Black is us, the beautiful people

–Mos Def & Talib Kweli, “Yo Yeah”

I happened upon the idea of a black Trinity entirely by accident. I wrote about Luke Cage for the 4th of July and thought the American Dream/Black Reality connection was pretty swift. Then, I wrote the piece on afro futurisim and New Gods. The ensuing conversation, which has sprawled from real life to email to twitter to IRC to AIM and back around again, has been fascinating.

The FBB4l gang, chief among them Pedro, Chris, and David, helped me think this latest step through. Luke is the American Dream/Black Reality. He’s in the thick of it and grinding to make ends meet and make sure his daughter lives a better life than he did (shades of B.I.G.). Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman, is the Black Fantasy. He’s broken the chains of slavery and oppression, and exists to bring everyone else out of it. He’s Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, MLK, and Malcolm X all rolled up into one.

Black Panther is the third part of the trinity. He’s the Black Ideal. Some context first, though.

It’s fair to say that Africa is idealized amongst Americans. You can see it in dead prez’s “I’m A African,” in the niggas/kings dichotomy, or even in those dudes who still wear those corny dashikis in public. Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and other countries are crazy hyped. I’ve personally known a few blacks who have gone to Africa and come back with some kind of epiphany or new outlook on something. Richard Pryor decided to stop saying “nigger” after he went to Africa.

I plan to visit Africa one day. I lived in Spain during high school, so I could have easily made that trip, but I’m kind of glad that I didn’t. I’m older and hopefully wiser now, so when I finally do it, it’ll mean more. It’s like saving yourself for marriage, but way more expensive and you’re more likely to get stung by a fly and die.

Africa is in a special space for a lot of black people. It’s the Motherland. It’s where we all came from, and kind of like growing up and leaving the house, you can’t go back again. Marcus Garvey‘s (birthday next Sunday!) Back to Africa movement got derailed pretty quickly, and that was probably the most organized push. Beyond that is the much-talked about anti-black sentiment on the part of some Africans (“Some Africans don’t like us no way,” Nas) and the reality of how much it costs to visit Africa, not to mention relocation.

(Marcus Garvey looks kinda like Beanie Sigel.)

Even still, Africa is the Motherland. It’s as black as a raised right fist, red and black and green flags, drums, and dancing. You can trace the drums in hip-hop back to the drums of Africa and ciphers to villages. We’ve adopted names, terms, and various rituals into our cultural identity. We’ve even faked it up some with Kwanzaa. I personally don’t like the term, but a lot of people have adopted African-American at least in part because it’s a connection to Africa.

It was something that was common growing up. “In Africa, we weren’t slaves. We were kings and queens. We were equal. We were free.” Putting aside the idea of everyone ever being kings and queens, it’s a great sentiment. It’s another way to build up an identity.

In a curious bit of luck and serendipity, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two old Jewish guys, created the logical endpoint of this idealization of Africa in the Black Panther. The character was ushered further in that state by Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, and Reggie Hudlin, amongst others.

There’s a few good reasons as to why this is so. He’s from a country that’s both technologically advanced and successfully avoided colonization. He’s the king of that country. And he married a Strong Black Woman(tm) and made her the queen of that country. Let’s go through in order.

Wakanda is both isolated and technologically advanced. The important part is that both of these are by choice. They are self-reliant. They didn’t need anyone to bring knowledge to them, because they are a nation of intelligent black people. Panther is smart, to be sure, but he is reaping the benefits of those who came before him. He is standing on the shoulders of giants. He’s learning from the past, in as literal a way as possible. Panther didn’t get to where he is all by himself. His family helped him along that path. He’s part of a legacy.

Wakanda has never been conquered. The clearest way I had this put to me was that “Europe was the worst thing to happen to Africa.” Without that, you’ve got no colonization, or what’s generally thought of when you say ‘colonization,’ at least. You’ve got a nation of black people who stood up against the man and didn’t buckle. They did a lot more than not buckle– they killed kind of a lot of people in the process. Their behavior was kind of like a snake. If you don’t mess with it, it won’t mess with you. “Don’t start none, won’t be none,” to be glib.

Never been conquered. That’s a big deal. That’s the guy who brags about being undefeated, never been knocked out, and can take on all comers. It’s Muhammad Ali in the form of a country. First minute, first round. Hudlin showed this in his first arc. Jason Aaron showed this to great effect in his first issue of Panther’s Secret Invasion tie-in.

When they’re going up against humans, they’re unstoppable. Your guns won’t even work. Don’t even bother. Against super advanced space aliens who planned ahead? They’re going to break down their high technology and reduce the fight to sticks and spears.

Plus, they’ve already got Skrull heads on pikes. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Panther being the king of Wakanda is kind of the easy one, with Storm being his wife a close second. Everyone wants to be the top dog, right? T’Challa being number one counts for a lot here. It’s a sign of not being downtrodden, being beholden to no one, and being able to chart the course of your own destiny.

The Storm and Panther marriage, regardless of your opinion on its execution, fixed that. It simultaneously fixed the problem of the most popular black character in comics ignoring basically every aspect and other member of her race and created a fertile new storytelling ground by instantly turning Wakanda into a superpower.

My favorite part of it, though, is the racial aspect. T’Challa and Ororo have become the king and queen that so many black couples want to be. They run one of the most powerful nations in the world. Wakanda is suddenly interesting again. They have land, a family, and will eventually have a dynasty.

They’re doing all of this free of oppression of any kind. Their royal status means that no authority on earth can lock them down them. No one can touch them. They’re finally at the point where they are free to live life as they wish.

Their relationship forces both of them to elevate their game. T’Challa is used to a) always being right, b) always getting his own way, and c) not being questioned. Now that Storm is there, he’s got somebody who’s going to put him in check vigorously and often. Now that Storm has T’Challa, she can open up and drop that snooty ice queen act she’s been using. She doesn’t have to be aloof and cold any more. Two strong personalities being thrown into the mix forces change.

A couple further points. A big part of Luke Cage’s character is providing for his daughter, and therefore the future. In a similar move, T’Challa has his younger sister Shuri to worry about. He comforts her when she kills her first man, gives her support when she needs it, and trusts her skill. In the future, she’s the Black Panther, so they both must have done something right between now and then. T’Challa keeps an eye on the future, and part of that is being willing to put on someone else and step down.

Panther is confident, powerful, intelligent, and free. That sounds like the Black Ideal to me, yeah?

That’s the Black Trinity there. Reality, Fantasy, and Ideal. That’s a misnomer, though. The word Trinity implies that it’s the full range of experiences, when that is kind of clearly not true. Cheryl Lynn has some interesting ideas on what the female part of the Black Experience involves, including specific takes on Storm and Misty Knight. We’ll see those one day, I’m sure.

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I Call My Brother “Son” ’cause He Shine Like One

August 7th, 2008 Posted by david brothers

This bit of audio here is important. It’s from DC’s Final Crisis Management panel from San Diego Comic-con 2008. Thanks to Jamie Coville for the mp3 of the panel.

[MEDIA not found]
The bit I want to talk about:

The whole idea with Mister Miracle, Mister Miracle was supposed to be a book where everyone was black and that was the idea. I wanted to do like, Metron as Sun-Ra. He’d sit in this big Sun-Ra chair with mirrors and stuff.

But, it wasn’t drawn that way. And when they drew the second issue, they drew the homeless New Gods as white guys, don’t ask me why. ’cause everyone in that book was supposed to be black characters ’cause I wanted the whole thing to be based on Shilo Norman and his world. But, those guys shouldn’t be white, sometimes things just happen, artists tend to draw white guys.

Before I go in, I should probably explain some things about myself.

It’s fair to say that I’m under-educated. My college career was derailed around two months before it really got going, and I’ve been off-track ever since. I went from almost being a Buckeye to being whatever this is. It sucked, if you were wondering.

I eventually got serious about school, starting caring again, and flexing my underachieving muscles. Kanye West dropped his College Dropout album and I hated on it originally. “Telling kids to drop out of college?” I thought. “Way to go, Kanye. I thought you were supposed to be smart.” I mean, here’s a bit from his song “School Spirit:”

Told ’em I finished school, and I started my own business
They say, ‘Oh you graduated?’
No, I decided I was finished

So, yeah, a few years later and I’m pretty much officially a college drop out with a job that pays better than anything I’d have gotten fresh out of college.

The point of this is that I’m not exactly trained. Almost everything I know, I learned because I wanted to or because I experienced it. I can’t cite sources or trace lineages for ideas, but I know a little bit about a little bit. I’m smart enough to be able to form arguments and talk about them intelligently. I’m not Encyclopedia Brown, is my point. Pardon my poor phrasings or ignorance.

What’s this got to do with black New Gods?

Grant Morrison came very close to writing one of the best stories about the black experience. I can’t speak to whether it was on purpose or not. My gut says “Yes, to an extent,” so I’ll go with that.

Looking back, in most things I’ve read, most advice I’ve been given, and most stories I’ve heard, the one theme that’s almost universal among black people is “elevation.” You are more than what you appear to be, you will be more than you are, what you are now is only the beginning, and so on.

If you put some thought on it, it makes sense. Slavery stripped blacks of almost every possible form of identity. National, familial, religious, and tribal identity were completely wiped due to the slave trade. At that point, what history do you have left? Not much of one, right? What do you do when you don’t have a past?

You embrace the future.

I can’t speak to the specifics of Afro Futurism, but it’s a common trait amongst a lot of black thought. Boiled down, it’s all about being more than what you are, because what you aren’t isn’t that much at all. We aren’t slaves– we’re kings and queens. We came here on slave ships, but we’re gonna leave on space ships.

What’s getting high? Getting lifted.

You can see it in the music. Andre 3000, Sun Ra, George Clinton, and even Lil Wayne are examples of Afro Futurism. Saul Williams in particular has wholly embraced the idea of it. Here’s an excerpt from “Ohm” off the Lyricist Lounge record.

the beat don’t stop when, Earth sends out satellites
to spy on Saturnites and control Mars
cause niggas got a peace treaty with Martians
and we be keepin em up to date with sacred gibberish
like “sho’ nuff” and “it’s on”

It isn’t just about being “weird” and “out there,” though. You can see it in a man’s swagger. Swagger isn’t just about how you walk. It’s your style. It’s your demeanor. It’s how you walk, how you talk, how you dress, and how you carry yourself. A lot of hip-hop heads are gadget hounds. They’ve gotta have the newest and baddest thing out there. There’s a lot of jokes about bling bling or whatever, and part of it is certainly crass commercialism, but it’s also another way to show your individuality and embrace something bigger than you are. It’s a way to become you.

It’s like Key23 in The Invisibles, or “Let there be light.” it’s turning fiction into fact.

Look at the Wu-Tang Clan. The RZA is part rapper, part kung fu warrior, part chess master, part superhero, and then part Bobby Digital. Bobby’s something greater than the RZA who is in turn greater than Robert Diggs.

The cipher is an important part of rap. Or it was. I can’t tell any more. Another word for it is “circle.” The cipher contains men who are not much by themselves, but are something important when together. You’ve heard the advice “Watch who you let into your circle?” Your circle is your cipher. It’s your family and it is important.

Parents want their kids to be better than they were. What matters is that the next generation ends up better off than the previous one. Go to school, get a job, leave the ghetto, do something, be something. You don’t have a history and your people don’t have a history worth speaking of. So, you have to create one.

Elevate yourself. What you are is not everything that you are.

I’m not an expert on Afro Futurism. I can’t tell you exactly where it came from, but I’ve got a pretty good idea why it exists. It is about elevation. It’s taking what you are and becoming something else. It’s being a butterfly.

Chris Randle picked up on the Morrison thing a while back. He linked to this fascinating piece about black sci-fi. I don’t know that I’ve read any, to be honest, but the themes and ideas in it are familiar. Creating/ascending to/acquiring/forcing a heaven that you do not currently have into existence.

All of this goes back to having the direct link to your past stolen by slavery. It’s all well and good to know that you came from Africa at some point– but where? When? Who were you related to? How do you get past that?

Why is this important and how does it relate to the New Gods?

The New(er) Gods were originally all supposed to be black at first. They were the new incarnations of the New Gods, who were themselves the successors to the Old Gods of the Third World. The New Gods becoming black would have continued the tradition of elevation.

In 7 Soldiers: Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman pulls off a trick that involves escaping from a black hole. Inside the hole, he met Metron of the New Gods, who informed him that evil was on its way and that Shilo must be prepared for the coming horror. He meets the reincarnated, or maybe just incarnated, versions of the good New Gods while going through his training, and they are broken and decrepit. The evil gods have won. Shilo passes through the crucible and beats death, finally proving that he’s ready to lead the charge. In Final Crisis, he’s seen gathering heroes to fight Darkseid and the forces of evil.

Shilo being the champion of the New Gods is an intensely powerful image on a variety of levels. By being the first of the New Gods, he’s attained what Afro Futurism and elevation represents. He’s elevated to a higher state. He’s achieved his potential. His figurative lack of a past no longer matters. He’s beyond that now.

On a level that’s both higher and lower than that at the same time, Mister Miracle represents something else entirely. He’s the world’s greatest escape artist. He can easily escape from traps, games, gimmicks… and chains. He’s thrown off his personal chains of oppression. He’s a freed slave, and in becoming so, is also the master of his destiny. He becomes the Harriet Tubman (or maybe Catcher Freeman) for the superheroes/New Gods. He has to rescue them and lead them to safety.

He’s found his true identity and elevated.

Grant Morrison has said that all we’ve seen of the New Gods before Final Crisis is just a sliver of their true existence. In FC, we see the full extent of their being. Isn’t this similar to the idea that a person represents something greater than himself? You are not what you appear to be, you are something more?

If not for that unfortunate art error, Morrison might have written a story that’d resonate even deeper with some of his fans. It’s already rife with layered meaning, but the meaning that almost was is amazing.

It’s worth thinking about. It’s probably a story worth telling, too.

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4thletter of July: Luke Cage is the American Dream

July 4th, 2008 Posted by david brothers

It’s that time of year again, when people barbecue, swim in pools, chill with family, and generally have a good time. I’m stuck in faux-sunny San Francisco for the weekend, though, so all of y’all can eat it. Would it kill global warming to speed up a little bit? I don’t even sweat on hot days here.

Anyway, though, I had a pretty well received post about Captain America and America last year. It’s 2008 now. I’m older, wiser, and meaner. Why not give it another go, yeah?

I’ve been feeling a little nasty lately. Thinking about movies, news, music, and politics. Even comics, man. The presidential race turned into some ugly “My -ism is worse than yours” race, and I’m honestly tired of hearing about how Obama is going to change everything ever, particularly when he took father’s day to air out fathers, but whatever whatever. My point is that I’ve been waiting for an excuse to bite a face. So, you’ll have to pardon any cynicism that leaks through.

You could say that Captain America represents the American Dream. I say American Dream, but if you think about it, it’s really the ideal. Tolerance, perspective, patience, and so on. He thinks before he acts and he does his best to do right. He believes in his country and her people and trusts them to make the right choice. He chooses to lead by example.

If Captain America represents the American Ideal, Luke Cage is living proof that the dream is a valid possibility.

Carl Lucas is a victim of America. He grew up poor in Harlem, had no way out, and ended up running with a fake comic book gang. His childhood is a slideshow of group homes and juvie. He wises up when he gets grown and tries to go legit. His best friend, Stryker, stays dirty, though. Lucas makes the mistake of being the guy his best friend’s ex-girlfriend runs to, which angers Stryker. Stryker frames him, snitches, and Lucas goes to jail in Georgia for some reason.

In prison, Lucas is broken and angry. He doesn’t care about anything, basically, fights constantly, and eventually is used as a guinea pig for a new variant of the Super Soldier formula. A vengeful security guard sabotages the experiment, accidentally granting Cage enhanced strength and hard skin, and Cage escapes in the confusion. He goes back to New York and starts a new life as Luke Cage, hero for hire. He rebuilds his social circle, finds new love, and gets on with life.

Cage was put through a lot, most of it through no fault of his own.

Nine times out of ten, seems like, most Cage talk tends to be about how he once flew to Latveria to get two hundred bucks from Doom, tiaras, ha ha blaxploitation, and jokes about anal sex. He’s kind of a punchline, but I don’t think people realize how far he’s come.

Cage went from the kind of vaguely-insulting, heart-in-the-right-place black character that was popular back then (and kind of still is now) to the guy who took Captain America’s spot in the Avengers. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Part of the American Dream is that frontiersman, wild west work ethic. Staking your claim and all that. You take what’s yours and you refine it, beat it into shape, and make it work how it’s supposed to. Cage applied this to real life. He’s a hero for hire, yes, but that doesn’t mean he won’t work pro bono. There’s a scene in a Daredevil comic where Cage proves this. Luke tells Matt to use his senses to scan the building. Is there anyone selling drugs, being violent, or doing crime in his building? No. Why? ’cause Cage laid down the law.

There’s a line from a rap song that goes “Handle your business before your business handles you.” You can sit and wait for people to fix something for you and get screwed over in the process, or you can fix it yourself. Cage fixed it himself. He handled his business. He did the right thing.

This is something that most heroes do not do. They don’t take a firm hand in policing their area. They just kinda mill around and look for crime, or in Superman’s case, actively ignore things sometimes in the name of “letting people govern themselves.” The problem is, most people aren’t going to govern themselves. Some people do not have that choice or made the wrong choice.

Cage’s method of operating is very similar to how Frank Miller approaches Batman. It’s kind of a benevolent dictator move– he knows what’s right, and he’s going to implement it and you’re gonna benefit, whether you like it or not. He uses the Avengers to clean up a single neighborhood. He believes that heroes should be constantly making a difference, not just fighting supervillains. Superheroes should be visible and lead by example. This isn’t just about fighting crime– it’s about making the world better.

He eventually marries Jessica Jones after the birth of their daughter, Danielle. He begins to take heroing even more seriously after that. What’s the point of having powers if you aren’t going to leave the world a better place? What’s the point of having principles if you aren’t going to stick with them?

Why would you want your daughter to grow up thinking that you’re a coward?

This is part of why his split from Tony Stark is so believable. He thinks that Tony made the wrong choice. He can’t live with going along with that choice if it’s the wrong one, so he chooses to play outlaw instead. He’s doing it for the future and he’s doing it for his daughter.

So, Cage is out there every day, putting in work and doing the best he can. The only way to make it in America, for most people anyway, is through blood, sweat, and tears. You have to get dirty.

Cage is getting dirty. In the process, he’s risen above his beginnings, he’s cultivated a circle of loyal friends, he’s protecting his neighborhood, and he’s providing for his family.

Why is all of this remarkable? Why isn’t it just standard issue? Why should Cage be admired for doing the right thing?

(this is where the cynicism hits, y’all)

The thing about America is that she eats her young. It was founded on the idea of freedom, civil liberties, and making your own way in life. In reality, it didn’t even begin to seriously approach those lofty goals until the mid-1900s, almost two hundred years after it was founded. Even then, the political equivalent of baby steps were what happened, not long strides. It still isn’t 100%.

You’re on your own in America, a lot of the times. Look at the prisons, poverty, and education. You think everyone in prison is there because they’re a bad person? No, I’m willing to bet that a significant number are there because they didn’t have any other choice, so they picked up that gun or bat or kilo and went to work.

Think about it. Say you’ve got a family and your kid won’t stop crying because she’s hungry. You can either hope for a call back from that temp agency or you can hit the corner for a day or two and come home with a roll of twenties.

Now, keep thinking. What kind of a world is this where you have to seriously contemplate the idea of losing your family versus poisoning someone else’s? Could you make that choice? Is it right that you should ever have to make that choice?

This is what I mean. The American Dream should be a reality, but it is still a pipe dream for a lot of people. It shouldn’t be– but it is.

But, that’s life, right?

Well, yeah, it’s harsh, but that’s life. Life isn’t fair. America is not, and has never been, fair. Will it one day be fair? I’d like to think so. Will I see it? Probably not. But, that’s no excuse not to try and do right and behave as if it is.

This is why I love Cage so much. He has every reason to be bitter, full of hate, and furious at the life he’s found himself in. Instead, though, he’s just living his life, trying to do right, and leave it better for the next generation.

That, to me, is the only proper execution of the American Dream. You may feel like Atlas with the weight of the heavens on your shoulders, but your knees don’t buckle and your spine doesn’t bend. When America hurts you, you remind it that throwing a punch is an invitation to catch one right back.

Sometimes, when you love America, you have to fight America. Sometimes, you have to even dislike America, even though you love it.

Cage gets it right. He proves that the Dream exists. You just have to be willing to fight for it.

Happy 4th.

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