In 1773, when an 18-year-old Phillis Wheatley attempted to publish her first collection of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral, she was interviewed by a panel of 18 men who sought to verify whether or not the poems were actually written by Wheatley. The reasoning was that a black woman was simply incapable of crafting this work—irrespective of quality. Publishers, as well as the public, needed affirmation that they were being told the truth. The narratives of black people were not deemed veracious without assurances from white people.
That was nearly 250 years ago–before the Civil Rights Act—before the Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century—before the Civil War. This was even before there was a United States of America. We might like to think that this sort of thing is an artifact. But it continues—de facto, if not de jure. People don’t listen to stories about agents of the state’s disproportionate application of power until a white man verifies these claims. We don’t believe in white privilege until we hear Tim Wise or Jon Stewart articulate it (Stewart and Jessica Williams even poked fun at this phenomenon, so he knows what’s happening).
Published by Boom! Studios last week, Strange Fruit aims to salve the festering knife wound of chattel slavery. It aims to reveal the evils of racism—the stupidity too (As if those where heretofore unknown facets of chattel slavery). Unfortunately, like The Help, The Green Mile, The Blind Side, and, in many ways, even like the godfather of “Seen one episode, so I know about dope,” The Wire, Strange Fruit is a #notallwhitepeople story about black people that’s constructed for a primarily-white audience. Its creators are white, its priorities are those of self-righteous white people, and it’s just the latest in a long line of narratives that white suburbanites can consume to feel like they’ve done their part in eradicating the scourge of racism. It fits perfectly into the American tradition of white folk hipping other white folk to the narratives of black folk—“No, no, this shit really does happen. I can’t believe it either!” This is particularly unfortunate in an industry that marginalizes black voices at every single level.
Chase Magnett wrote about the issue, and his essay is a substantive take on the book’s problems. His criticisms of the book are similarly in line with my reading of the book, as well as that of other critics, and I wholeheartedly agree that the verisimilitude of the book would have been better served by creators who could bring a more lived-in experience and personal perspective. I consider Chase a friend and I think he’s a talented writer who hasn’t, in my estimation, hesitated from giving his full and honest opinion—though, his taste and mine may not always line up. However, reading his review, I was struck by a feeling that I’m unable, even at this moment, to adequately articulate. It’s a paralysis, a hesitance, a double check.
Interrogating that feeling, I coupled it with my lack of interest in essaying the perceived tone-deafness of Strange Fruit. Not that I felt there was nothing to unpack—clearly, I feel the opposite—but I did feel as if I wasn’t the person to do it. My biggest criticism of Waid/Jones’ text was that it, well intentioned though it may have been, drowned out the voices of black cartoonists. It felt disingenuous of me to speak on the book in a big bad way, because I became increasingly convinced that that would’ve made me hypocritically culpable for the same behavior I was lambasting. I felt, in this instance, it was more important to use whatever platform I have to amplify the voices of black critics, fans, creators.
I hesitated from saying anything regarding Chase’s essay, because I honestly wasn’t sure if this was an analogous scenario. After all, white writers/journalists/artists/etc. have a responsibility to call out these manifestations of structural racism when they see it. But as a writer about comics, this is my work. Unlike white creators, who can publicly keep quiet on these issues and then take steps in the work to minimize their perpetuation of systemic racism, my work and my public speech blur into one act. To remain silent is to allow systemic racism to perpetuate. To speak publicly is to risk hypocrisy. So: was I responsible for black erasure if I spoke up against black erasure? It seems paradoxical, but this was the notion that I wrestled with in my head. Like a zen koan, but, instead of searching for enlightenment, I’m searching for the lesser of two evils.
How do you untangle that sociopolitical knot? How do you extract yourself from that moral quagmire? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. There is always the risk of white savioring the oppressed voices if you position yourself as speaking for them (there is an implication that they cannot speak for themselves, which has a marginalizing effect). At the same time, the fear of drowning out the marginalized shouldn’t dissuade you from action, because “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” However, there has to be a way to navigate this maze, to step the razor separating the axial roles of oppressor and oppressed.
Socrates once apocryphally said that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. He sought answers, but he never claimed to have found them. However, unlike Socrates, while I may know nothing, I have to do something.
J.A. Micheline and Dominic Griffin both wrote incisively about this comic—with more depth and personality than the cursory glance that I’ve offered. Former DC Editor Kwanza Johnson’s similarly-minded tweets have been collected by Sean Kleefeld. You should read those critiques. But you should also go beyond those critiques. You should read the comments sections and the twitter feeds of those writers and people who lauded those writers. You should see JAM relaying quotes from readers who are immediately suspect of her exegesis because she’s black—“I’m only seeing black people mad about this, so…”—or who file her response under the oppressive catch-all epithet of racial animus: “black rage.” You should see the innumerable black men and women pushing her piece and lamenting the silence of white creators/editors/publishers at every level. What did Martin Luther King Jr. say about the toxicity of “the white moderate”? So: Strange Fruit is a comic not without technical merit but one whose semiotics are tone-deaf, signifiers made full by anachronism, revisionist history, and unchecked privilege. This is not a statement written to be read in a booming voice or an authoritative tone (save that for MizCaramelVixen’s tweets). This is not even an original observation. This is a co-sign. This is a point of fact that I’m simply repeating so that one more person might hear it or pay attention to it, because people with the most personal connection to the steamrolling of black perspectives are being derided for the same words, because those people can’t hear those words from the lips of other people who look like me.
In this instance, it’s more valuable to speak up than to stay in my lane. But I would be remiss if I didn’t simultaneously make proscriptions: Read comics by black cartoonists in addition to, or instead of; matter of fact: read this Strange Fruit. The fantastic David Brothers has a list going of webcomics. Check those out. Read those new Ron Wimberly comics that Image is publishing when they come out. Buy the comics that that Spike Trotman stays putting out. Say “What up?” to David Walker, Sanford Greene, and Khary Randolph. Pay attention to Darryl Ayo. Have a look at what people like Richie Pope, Chris Kindred, Shannon Wright, and Whit Taylor are doing at The Response. Listen to Julian Lytle’s podcast.
But don’t stop there. Read more comics by queer folks, by women, by Latinos, by cartoonists of Asian descent. Publishers, editors, writers: hire those people. Don’t get it twisted; this isn’t #alllivesmatter. It is, however, a recognition that white hegemony/heteronormativity/heteropatriarchy is real, its effects are real, and its effects are far reaching.
So is that a good answer to my question? It feels onanistic, self-congratulatory. And it is. I’m writing this more for own edification, to answer these questions for me, to ease the struggle to be a not-bad person. So no: it’s not a good answer. It’s an adequate answer. It’s as good as I can do.
Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose work has been featured at Paste, The Comics Alternative, This Is Infamous, eFantasy, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock. Essays of his will be included as backmatter in upcoming issues of Shutter from Image Comics, and he can be found as sheahisself on both Twitter and Tumblr.