The whites, part 3
That image is from the first appearance of Hammer and Anvil, from The Incredible Hulk, in 1974. It’s edgy even for the time: these two convicts, black and white, escape from prison; each represents the most thorough racist stereotype to the degree the medium permitted (e.g., the black guy isn’t a rapist, but he “hates everything and everyone”), and they can’t wait to get rid of the chain linking them … then they’re granted super-powers defined by exactly the same kind of chain, as the alien they inadvertently rescue mis-perceives it as something they want (the whole page).
A bit narmy? A little. Easy to sniff “unsubtle” and move on, except I think the moving-on is too self-righteous and quick. It’s too easy to read the following as the message in order to dodge its aim.
- “All racism is the same, directed by whoever at whomever,” which when challenged gets you one of the following:
- Dodge 1: “Racism is the result of unenlightened social ignorance, exhibited by the unfortunates who didn’t get the message early enough”
- “I tried saying the message louder and slower, but they still can’t get it; well, obviously they cannot be included in our wonderful social compact”
- Dodge 2: “Racism is an inexplicable symptom of some sort of tumor, whether psychological, cultural, or built-in”
- “Even if I have it, as evidently we all must [wiping away mournful tear], I practice ameliorative coping mechanisms which keep it from becoming malignant”
See? If only the black dude weren’t so “angry” and the white guy weren’t so “ignorant,” everything would be fine! Good thing you’re not angry and I’m not ignorant!
And that’s your cue: “Oh, I’m not angry. I’m not like that guy [Malcom X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver].” Cue big, friendly smile. Cue just a hint of ‘hood speak (even if you didn’t grow up in one) and then it’s big friendly smiles all around, ‘cause that’s fun and funny.
Real-life, multiple black voices: “Give me a southern bigot any day, over one more God-damned smiling northern liberal. At least I won’t get stabbed in the back.”
If I were to be scripting such a story, or rather, the story I’d most appreciate, would bring forward the two men’s profound experience of relief. At last, no more pretense. Yes, we hate each other, and we hate this chain. But we didn’t put it on ourselves. We hate whatever did even more. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to tell you that their bigger hate is right on-target.
That’s right, I’m not targeting the racism as such, but rather, the know-nothing response to it which has turned out worse than the disease. The one that says, “Racism is so terrible, mean people suck” outlook, which knows the solution to it – just put those pitifully angry black people and those terrible terrible racists together, make them work together, limit their choices, shame them, and they’ll ‘realize’ their error. And until attitudes improve, the beatings may continue.
I know where this comes from; it’s rooted in an actual insight that when people work together on a task, they often get right past whatever loud rhetoric or even approval of violence against one another they’d previously displayed, and sometimes, bond hard.
Real-life: In 1998, Valdosta State U had just become part of the Georgia state system, and had undergone an ambitious hiring and program revision process. Its student body came from all over southern Georgia and many students thought of Valdosta, at just under 50,000 people, as the big city. The student body was as close to 50-50 black and white as could be imagined, and nearly everyone was economically similar, what a snob pundit would call “working class” as a dog-whistle for service and local small business. I liked them.
The racism the students brought with them wasn’t dramatically overcome; instead, sometimes, it simply vanished. There’s a difference. No one was expected or told actually to like one another; they merely did or didn’t through the course of working on stuff. And when the stuff was intriguing, and since this was near the end of the time in the U.S. when a good college education did in fact improve your options in life, when they saw the stuff was something they indeed wanted to do … liking one another happened more often than not. Blessedly free of this sort of thing:
Which is great, but it only happens when people want to accomplish the shared task. Significantly, the result is typically radical organizing rather than docile mainstreaming … h’m, come to think of it, maybe that solution doesn’t miss that latter outcome at all and is tuned to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Hammer and Anvil didn’t get written up to their potential at all. They might rate among the highest ratio of potential content to execution in comics. This was dynamite: prison labor, the white trash, the “hating” black, the chance to hear human voices of dissent without relaxing an iota of their respective racism, tons of challenges to the already-tenuous claim any contemporary Marvel hero had to establishmentarian values or even to actual law enforcement, plenty of room to amp up the abilities and dangers of the super-powered chain. They could have been among the edgiest and most interesting villains around, given even one good story.
Once Marvel ‘matured’ out of its crazy pushy relevance phase, you know, the one I liked, they were even more out of place and became a joke – disposable villain-of-the-week mopes, especially during the 1980s when they gained svelte bodies in silver lamé skintights. I don’t have the Marvel chops from that period to list any interesting steps or particularly egregious missteps from their appearances, but I do know they were eventually snuffed by the Scourge of the Underworld (see Justice is served). They’ve sort of appeared now and again since then, always with spiteful gay-baiting in the depiction and scripts.
Real-life: it’s some time around 1970, ‘way up in some mountains. The young black man, early twenties, looks at the six-year-old boy who’s looking at him, and calls him “Baby blue eyes.” What he meant, who knows – the little boy, perceiving a slight, mouths off with words he picked up from kids around him: “Black mother fucker.”
The guy grabs the kid, up-ends him over his knee, and spanks him hard. The kid, terrified and crying, screams, “Mommy!” (a word he had deliberately abandoned for “Mom” not long before), and his mother watches, doing nothing. Later, she says she had no idea what to do.
Real-life: it’s the late 70s, also ‘way up in the mountains, and the somewhat scary but cool counselor is practicing his martial arts while the kids watch. One young tween, intending a joke on himself in comparison to the man’s prowess, says, “I do my exercises too,” and flares his nostrils out and in. The counselor is visibly angered – he mutters, “You a bunch of little racists and don’t even know it.”
Later, the same kid and counselor are hanging out watching a full moon. The kid is distraught at some drama concerning a girl, and the counselor, after a pause, pulls out the flask of cognac he’s not supposed to have, and gives the kid a swig in manly solidarity. The kid never mentions this to anyone. The counselor is removed from camp before the end of the session amid rumors of inappropriate behavior, possibly the cognac, or weed, or who knows what.
I don’t know whether I’d give a lot to amass all the unconsidered, unposed responses to those moments among many others, or give a lot never to have to. The latter’s been my general life-choice. I have no time for anyone’s fucking narrative, or especially for discussion thereof. Narratives are for people who don’t know who or where they are, or how it got that way. I didn’t live my life in one, and it’s tiresome to listen to the frantic scrabbling and renegotiating and repositioning involved in their constant reconstructions.
Furthermore, all that noise is cover for the long con run on black Americans. It’s simple: “the American Dream is right here, white people have it, and if you’re good, you can have it too.” It sounds nice, even hopeful or inclusive or tolerant or whatever you want to say, but in practice, it’s pretty much the same sentence George Jackson got: “You’re in here until we’re sure you’re contrite enough and reformed enough to be let out.”
The American Dream lasted one single working generation, and for a certain sector, enough to create a media and educational phenomenon to believe in. It didn’t exist before or since. What’s left in its wake was whiteness defined as nothing, “ethnic, what ethnic?” … ultimately, and especially the 1975-1985 transition, defined only in the negative, by not being treated heinously like black people were. To buy into it, you had to buy into that too – necessitating, therefore, a new version of the good’uns vs. the bad’uns notion, which as you may recall used distinctive terms. See any 80s salt-and-pepper buddy movie for the manual.
Let me remind you about that TV-white I talked about earlier: it’s what those who physically resemble it are desperately and defensively trying to be. Imagine if you will, a couple, moving from their relatively hip city neighborhood into the near burbs, five year old kid, buying their house: Canadian-born Ukrainian, and American-born Irish Catholic. White? Only as a label: they’re profoundly ethnic, embedded in decades of strife and dis-inclusion, both family histories having been accepted into “America” strictly through the anti-communist and law-and-order doorways. Identifying and identified as nothin’ but white, with all that history obscured. Educated, well-traveled, friends and past experiences across all sorts of complexions – yet prone to sudden anger, capable of the most dismissive rage when the legitimacy of the ideal is questioned. Genuinely liberal in their concern for equality, yet “support the police” because, you know, they have to deal with the dangerous people.
So you’re a black professional person in that school district? You’re running the short-con but falling for the long one. The neighbors are mostly sort-of fitting into the synthetic skin of non-entity white, which includes liking black people who are “past all that,” and you’re trying to earn your way into the Dream by believing in it real hard, and thus ensues this reassuring circus of gladhanding about how everything is really OK, all fine here, all friends, big smiles, joshing around. One guy imitates Omar from The Wire. Smile.
Don’t you get tired? I get tired, watching it. I vastly prefer Hammer and Anvil, or rather, the real life they unsubtly and crudely represent, over one more round of this mutual shucking and jiving each other, with everyone’s mortgages breathing heavily in the shadows.
Real-life: a black prof at a city college assigns watching a number of TV shows which his students, almost all black, had not habitually seen – Married with Children, that kind of thing, a bunch of others. The students came back shaken: “My God, these people are miserable! They make a joke out of it to be funny, but their lives suck!” Yeah, he says. You’re oppressed and discriminated against, but faith that white people are happy is part of what keeps you there.
[You may ask, wait, wasn’t TV where you said we get the myth about “American white” as an identity? Yes – but TV myth is promulgated through constant casual contact, not by the stories. It’s especially present in the extremely consistent fictional setting of all the commercials, more pervasive than any single show. You have to train people actually to focus on the stories instead of merely watching TV, and when you do, it’s amazing how much is revealed.]
I was teaching a class about birth and death at DePaul around that time, and introduced the modern suicide statistics, which among many other interesting details show that white men are at the top of the list, slightly exceeding Native American men in offing themselves before they hit their mid-fifties. It baffled my student assistant, a black woman. “But why? What on earth do they have to be unhappy about?” She was furious at my reply – prompted by the other prof’s account to me – that “white = happy” bore some investigating, and she also said she was torn between genuine concern for an obvious human problem vs. a certain glee at the obvious difference between American white men / black women. I didn’t blame her – she had taken a hit to the faith.
Speaking of death by common causes …
Real-life, this one quoting myself from the comments in a previous post:
The tiny brother of one of my students died by drowning in a mop bucket because his mom had nowhere to keep him while she worked. That is not “poverty.” It is class and ethnic murder. People hammered by a whole society that writes off such events as “accidents” or the result of bad parenting have every reason to regard the entire spectrum of what I’m talking about here as the enemy.
That chain on Hammer and Anvil – oh, so terrible, that ignorance, that hate! – that’s not what killed that child and thousands more. What did is the real chain, like the “accident” term. The “super-predators” term, a subtler and far more powerful dog-whistle than the unseemly verbiage its very recipients are so shocked by. The “broken homes, absent fathers” bullshit promulgated by that whitest of TV-white families, the Cosbys.
This death isn’t about narratives of history and cognitive constructs and cultural modalities. It is happening right now. Wait, how could it! We’ve come so far!
Real-life, this one’s kind of long: The original faculty search was for a narrow range of specialty, which is typical for a tenure-track hire in the research sciences, but the admin said, “Make it Affirmative Action.” We didn’t crank about unfairness and reverse discrimination, just had a frank talk about “how do we feel,” emerging with the notion that it was good to shake off the default scientific-academic idealism that we’d always been a totally-fair meritocracy.
First problem: for basic research, i.e., not medical or agricultural or similar, the relevant applicant pool is very very small. Because the industry is such an old-boy white network? No, because it’s fucking low-pay and low-status compared to the jobs that considerably less education and suffering would get you back in the 80s and 90s, like being a physician or any other sort of professional. People who meet every idealized notion of “by the bootstraps” have no interest in striving for a position whose starting pay was barely over $30,000 a year.
The admin stonewalled our request to boost that salary at least to the level of fancier universities that a given applicant would be considering. “No,” they said, “those fancy schools are full of white kids, so being at our school obviously gives the ‘right’ applicant a chance to ‘do good’ for their little brown brothers and sisters.” Our jaws dropped, including the single black grad student. Was this a search for a prof or for a Magical Negro? Did these admin people, and more importantly, a few of our faculty who found this convincing, learn everything from movies? (hint: yes)
So all right, we revised the position description to a more general biologist to broaden the net and kept going. We started from scratch with the big ol’ manual. Seriously, this thing is enormous – do you know why? Because it’s full of the most nitpicky descriptions of how many grand-uncles you have to have of this or that exact designation, like Choctaw vs. Cherokee, in order to be eligible for this or that clearance level within the program. Our biologists’ jaws dropped again. Why is Affirmative Action organized by the most astonishing separation of humans into categories based on immediate family lineage, to the extent that old-school “octaroon” or the Reich’s family-tree designations of “Semite” look slapdash?
By this point we’d kind of gotten into the task, with a sense of purpose, and the complete silence regarding economics, in the presence of this arrant essentialism, floored us. Defining this search in nothing but ethnic terms, according to the manual, meant all the applicants qualified by the octaroon-esque whatnot categories, but most of them were from outside the U.S. and were evidently not marginalized at all. Sure, this guy was “Hispanic,” but he was also from a well-off Colombian family and had been educated at the best schools there and in Europe – how was that supposed to be meeting the stated need?
Here’s the punchline: when the candidate who was eventually hired came to interview, the department in its wisdom sent the whitest man in its ranks, and possibly in history, to meet her at the airport … and he called back, saying he couldn’t find her. Mind you, this was a small regional airport, with only one flight coming in at a time, it’s not like there were crowds. Why did he call? Because she was Creole, with auburn hair and relatively light skin, and completely outside his preconceived image of “black woman,” which I hardly dare to guess at.
Real-life: a black American with advanced academic degrees, a professor and the high-earner across his extensive family, visits northern Europe and comes back flabbergasted. “I’m used to introducing myself as Doctor So-and-So, and getting immediate awe and deference – and all they did was say hello as if I were some ordinary professor!” He was accustomed to being received as special, and as his expectant pause to receive the impressed, approving nod lingered on, they would instead ask him if he wanted something. “I wanted something all right, and I didn’t know it. I’d wanted white people to be just racist enough to be super-impressed by what I’d done.”
Real life: a colleague of mine, a Jewish American guy, as a teen, had been reading alone at home when four black teens came into the house, tied him up, and ransacked the house, eventually leaving him there to be found the next day. He didn’t turn into a raving bigot á la Hammer, but it was a defining event nevertheless. This was real life – probably close to death – for him, and it confirmed the most discussed reading matter in his family, The New Republic, whose ideology I wrote about in Today is for taboo II. It’s real easy to see yourself as the bastion of civilization in a sea of ungrateful savages.
Don’t even bother with the tapdance about how utterly tragic “it” all is. At least Hammer and Anvil know they’re pitted against one another, and at least they don’t pretend to be nice about it. Hammer should “just” not be a racist and Anvil should “just” not be so angry? Uh huh. I guess they didn’t watch enough TV.
Quoting from Doonesbury again from the early 1970s, [editing: found it!]
Real life: A few years ago, I developed some kind of cramp or pain in my jaw joint, bad enough to cause a lot of trouble. Through the vagaries of insurance, I found myself traveling a few times to a town called Maywood, technically part of the greater Chicago sprawl, but very far out there. It had a familiar look of combined bleak prairie scrub forest with too much concrete: the juncture of an interstate and several state and country highways, a meandering river curve, tired-looking residences, few and isolated pedestrians, and the archeology of 1980s development boondoggles, like a couple of glassy multi-story boxes purporting to be hubs of commerce and industry, their parking lots deserted. By far the biggest feature was the hospital complex, big enough to be a town of its own, where I went for the MRIs.
From the most recent two census data, it’s about 80% black, median income about $42,000, about 13% of the population under the U.S. notoriously deceptive poverty line. Mentioning it to anyone I knew drew shudders: “Maywood? You’ll get shot!” Perhaps related, when I had to contact the doctor to make sure he got the results, the staff at his real office – in a much more affluent area – wanted nothing to do with me as soon as I mentioned “Maywood” and I had to be stern.
But in driving there a few times, I noticed something no one had mentioned, a dedicated street name sign: Fred Hampton Way. That Fred Hampton, whom I mentioned a couple of posts ago, organizer of the original Rainbow Coalition among the Young Lords, Young Patriots, and the Chicago-area Black Panthers, victim of a particularly obvious police murder. It was his hometown.
I stopped the car and sat there a bit, looking at the sign and the street. No one shot me.
Real life: a black American business owner gets charged with medical fraud, when state and federal agents terrify his employee into giving the testimony they wanted. He was found guilty despite a defense which demolished the prosecution’s case, showing that the alleged dead patients existed after all, and despite the star witness just mentioned growing a spine and refusing to testify as instructed. He was convicted following an astonishing lecture to the jury, by the judge, to do so.
He’s in prison right now. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in there, and due to this-or-that, some way, always some excuse, did not receive treatment for five months. That’s attempted murder. Raised-eyebrows, slight smirk, “who me?” murder. Sure, only Florida and Texas still carry out the death penalty, we say. Every other state has either abolished or suspended it. Why not, when it’s so much more deniable to delay this over here, misplace that over there. I haven’t seen the statistics for age of death from treatable conditions in prison vs. out. Have you?
Oh so many more comics I could use to close this off. 1980s DC was especially bumbling about it, including the explicit failure of Black Lightning to be a “real hero,” and the bizarre portrayal of Guy Gardner to be some kind of mean white guy, even a biker or something (?!), with nary an actual point of view in sight. And so much I left out, including the big rock thrown into Cold War power by the African nations upon their entry into the UN in 1960, the MOVE bombing in 1985. Again, I’m staggering to a finish rather than pulling the finished bow tight on the box. Let’s see what you make of it.
Links: Suicide statistics; the blogging that led up to this series or at least demanded its inclusion includes The Coal Tiger, the Black Panther(s), and US, Man of Steel, Puh-leeze!, Still beautiful, Two women, It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an implosion!, and The new blackface.
Next: how Vigil‘s coming along
Posted on January 8, 2018, in Politics dammit and tagged Bobby Seale, Camp Unalayee, Doonesbury, Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Hammer and Anvil, Herb Trimpe, Huey Newton, Hulk, Len Wein, Magical Negro, Malcolm X, Maywood, racism, Rainbow Coalition, Roosevelt College, Scourge of the Underworld, TV-white, University of Florida, Valdosta State University. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.