Black Power or Blaxploitation?
On Black Lightning's Afro Wig
The Seventies: Where it all started
In order to gain an understanding of the cultural background of Black superheroes, it's important, I think to get an understanding of the social politics involved. While the decade for social change was, of course, the sixties, what came after was in many ways more important - it saw the first appearance of the Black superhero as such.
The seventies is one of the most interesting decades in American history because it was a decade of transition - socially, economically and politically. Significantly, it was the last stand of liberalism in America, and saw the last liberal president - Nixon. Lest people be surprised by that, I should explain that Nixon was a great man for equal opportunity, affirmative action, welfare spending and big government (and the taxes and spending to go with it) - certainly more so than later presidents, who swerved further to the right as time went on.
(As an indication of how left-leaning politicians were back then, attention should be drawn towards one of Nixon's most radical initiatives: the Guaranteed Annual Income, a government subsidy to every American whose tax income fell below a certain point. It was narrowly thwarted in the Senate. As a welfare reform it provides a stark contrast to those of the last President in the White House - a Democrat, no less - who sought to cut off welfare, and not increase it).
Nixon's programmes, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, were aimed at improving the living standards and opportunities of the African-American community. But, at the same time as this period of intense social engineering, Black communities seemed worse off than they had been at any period since the war. Johnson and Nixon had removed segregation barriers, increased welfare spending, and had introduced affirmative action programs; but Black urban centres were descending into squalor, turning into crime-infested, drug-ridden, poverty-ridden, depressing, dangerous and violent slums.
Republicans such as Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater argued that a cause and effect existed there. But their arguments fell on deaf ears; Reagan and Goldwater were regarded as freaks - what politician in his right mind would want to cut taxes and spending on welfare?
Nixon also strove to increase the amount of public housing, another initiative designed to relieve the plight of, among others, the African-American urban poor. But Nixon's initiative was plagued by scandal - houses were being allocated to the wrong people - and under pressure from conservatives, Nixon was forced to roll back the plan, in what was probably the first attempt to roll back any federal programme in post-war US history.
This push-and-pull in politics set the tone for what was to follow in Black hero comic books: conflict between the decent Black superhero (who came, more often than not, from The Ghetto) and his ideological opponent, The Man - the politically conservative, sleazy, wealthy White who was usually a gangster and who wanted to keep the Ghetto kids in their place.
If readers want an actual example of this in the comics, consider this exchange from the Teen Titans. In it, Mal Duncan and the Titans (in their purple jumpsuit period) are confronting a sleazy, greedy, white businessman (who is smoking a cigar, always a tell-tale sign of capitalist corruption):
'[Caption] And that next morning, in the office of one of New York's most respectable businessmen:
[Businessman]: Now, what can I do for you?
[Mal]: Well, Mr Tolit, we represent a certain charitable organisation, and we were hoping you might...'
[Businessman]: 'I'm sorry! I don't believe in charities! I've worked hard for my money! And I intend to hold on to it! I give away enough in taxes as it is! What kind of charity is this anyway? Don't tell me you honestly expect me to support a bunch of no-good bums who are too lazy to get their own jobs?'
[Mal]: 'No, man! It's not that kind of charity! This money will be used to help rehabilitate criminals! Mostly kids and first offenders!'
[Businessman, choking on his cigar]: 'WHAT??'
The Ghetto in Popular Culture
The birth of the ghetto saw the birth of a new Black social consciousness which was reflected in the vibrant popular culture of the times. This was the period of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On?' album, Stevie Wonder's 'Talking Book' and 'Innervisions', Sly Stone's tune 'Don't call me Nigger, Whitey', socially-conscious tunes by the Temptations (eg, 'Papa was a rolling stone'), the 'Shaft' soundtrack by Isaac Hayes, the 'Superfly' soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield... All of it passionate, lyrical, soulful, urgent - and highly politicised.
Certainly, this period saw some great Black music - which, coincidentally, was vastly profitable. The Blaxploitation movie genre took off after the success of movies such as 'Shaft', 'Superfly', and 'Sweet Sweetback's Bad-assss Song' and white movie producers realised that money could be made off Black movie-goers.
Wasn't it inevitable, then, that the hard-headed businessmen at Marvel and DC would see the money-making potential in Black superheroes? In came the Black Panther (1966; a creation of Lee and Kirby, who were oblivious to the implications of the character's name and blind to the Black Power potential of the character - all of this quickly redressed by Marvel in the seventies, of course), the Falcon (1969), Mal Duncan (1970), Luke Cage - Hero for Hire (1972), Black Goliath (1975), John Stewart (1977) and Black Lightning (1977).
Many black heroes were to follow - some from the Ghetto, too, such as Cyborg of the New Teen Titans. But the Black heroes of the seventies were somewhat radical, while, as I have argued elsewhere, later heroes such as that premiere Black hero of the eighties - Cyborg - were conservative.
The seventies and the late sixties saw a period of intense Black militancy, in which individuals and groups such as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and the Black Panthers flourished. Some Black leaders argued that Blacks needed to develop a Black nationalism - and strive to return to the land of origin, Africa, where their ancestors had lived as free men. (This doctrine was inspired by the ideas of early Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, whose ideas had enjoyed a resurgence). Other Black militants were as extreme as that - but, all the same, they usually they did prefer racial separatism to integrationism. Mario Van Peebles Sr, the director of 'Sweet Sweetback -' (which was used as a Black Panther training film) viewed integrationist, liberal movies such as Stanley Kramer's 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' as condescending to Black people; he wasn't alone. The liberalism of the fifties and forties was out, and even Martin Luther King was looked down on suspiciously as an Uncle Tom. A new man had to be born - in effect, a new Negro role model.
The New Black Hero
The New Negro was embodied in the Blaxploitation movie. The time-honoured formula of these films was to show a masterful, sexually confident Black protagonist, usually operating in or around the Ghetto, fighting sleazy, evil White gangsters. Throw in some bad Afros, plenty of guns, a topless Pam Grier, a funky soundtrack, and plenties of seventies decadence, and a sure-fire winner was born. The genre couldn't be parodied: it was already a parody. Look at a movie like 'Blacula', which featured - well, you guessed it, a Black Dracula.
(Oddly enough, the New Negro possessed a quality attributed to the Old Negro: sexual potency. Unconsciously, directors made their heroes Studs - old-time "Black Bucks", as it were - which must have annoyed feminists and White liberals).
Well, all of this couldn't possibly filter into the comics (which are written for children); or could it? No, the Black heroes of the seventies weren't seething militants like Malcolm X; they weren't super-studs either; but they were vaguely ornery to white people, they did operate in the Ghetto, they did talk jive-talk, and above all, they were socially-conscious, in the same way Green Arrow was socially conscious - always ready to deliver an impromptu sermon on greedy corporations, the appalling state of the slums, crooked politicians, grannies forced to buy dog food to survive.
Take one minor classic - a Batman and Black Lightning team-up, 'Oil oil... Nowhere!', by Dick Giordano and Paul Kupperberg. This was set around the time of the late seventies energy crisis under Carter; as such, it concerns a band of thieves who hijack trucks loaded with gasoline. The gang is led by a crazy general who is a radical Reaganite of sorts:
'Our country's become a laughing stock in the eyes of the world because of the energy crisis - because they see we're no longer strong! And the only way America will ever regain its position as world leader is to cease allowing the oil-producing nations to dictate policy to us - and for the USA to take control of the Arab oil fields!'
But do you think Black Lightning cares to stop and debate oil politics with the General? No; he endangers the mission by attacking the General impetuously: Lightning is filled with fury because one of the General's thugs had run down a little old Black lady... in the Ghetto. (In Suicide Slum, to be exact, a place name coined by Kirby and Lee, to my knowledge, but perfect for a seventies urban locale).
The Black heroes were also vaguely exploitative - blaxploitative. Mal Duncan, for instance, one of my favourites, was a man without any superpowers or special abilities. DC made him a member of the Titans simply because he was a Black man - and because he mentioned 'the Ghetto' at every possible and impossible opportunity. His outfit included knee-high leather boots, an open-necked, Luke Cage-style shirt and a gold chain. (To be fair, this was the period in which Wonder Woman wore her infamous white jumpsuit costume). Later, he went through a few costumed identities, doing a stint as Golden Guardian II. (He was the victim of a magical curse, which, I recall, entailed that if he lost a fight, he would die - a good plot device). In his Guardian identity, he, along with his girlfriend Bumblebee, was more or less indistinguishable from the white Titans.
Which brings us to an important theme in Black hero books: the split personality. So far as I know, writers unconsciously divided up Black heroes into two types: the first was the well-spoken, well-educated, clean-cut Negro hero, usually a super-scientist of the Black Goliath type (who was a Black Dr Henry Pym, right down to his powers) or a scholar, and not that different from the white superheroes; the second was the fast-talkin', jivin', streetwise, socially-conscious Black hero. The contradiction was brought together in one man - Black Lightning. As Jefferson Pierce, he was an educated man, a conscientious school teacher and well-spoken; as Black Lightning, he donned an Afro wig (!!!) and an open-necked shirt and became a Ghetto crusader who deliberately spoke jive-talk (to gain street credibility, I suppose).
The respectable Negro persona echoed the pop culture Black protagonists of the forties and fifties. Such protagonists appeared in the work of Lee and Kirby. Both creators were colour-blind. For instance, I own nearly all of Kirby's famous seventies Captain America run (guest-starring the Falcon), and a few of his excellent Black Panther issues. In both, race isn't touched on, or even hinted at, once. Kirby's Black Panther is an excellent Kirby superhero - who really is neither Black nor White. The same could be said for other Kirby creations, such as Vykin the Black and the Black Racer. This was because Kirby himself was never interested in social or political questions in the slightest and because Lee was an old-fashioned, fifties-style, integrationist liberal, who frequently used his 'Stan's Soapbox' to denounce "bigotry" at every possible and impossible opportunity. And Kirby and Lee were the norm for artists and writers in the pre-seventies period.
Black enough? Radical enough?
I'm talking as though the comics of the Bronze Age period (1970-1987) were politicised and racialised. They were, but not to the extent they could have been. Green Arrow was as radical as a hero got; Black Lightning, with his Afro wig, was as Black as a Black hero got. Why didn't we see a Black nationalist hero who delivered diatribes like Malcolm X? The comics never got around to really rubbing ethnic identity in one's face, in the way the Blaxploitation movies did.
But still, the heroes back then, Black and White, were more socially conscious, more political, than they are now. But wouldn't that quality be more relevant in a hero now than ever before? Especially when we foreigners hear frightful statistics from America - that America has the developed world's highest infant mortality rate, that the jails are filled mostly with Black people, and so on. Surely, then, you'd expect Black superheroes (and White superheroes) to become more socially conscious in this current age?
But, as I said before, the Black superhero is torn between middle-class respectability and race-conscious Ghettoness. In the post-Bronze Age era, middle-class respectability won out; the Black hero is to be treated no more differently from a White or Asian or Hispanic hero.
One of the reasons for this is that liberalism itself has changed. My intuition is that, in the Bronze Age, Black heroes who happened to be highly-educated or super-scientist types - such as Cyborg (the son of two brilliant scientists) and Jefferson Pierce - weren't pushed down our throats as 'positive Black role models'. As a child, I knew this was all part of the superhero fantasy: all heroes, with the exception of Spiderman and a few others, seemed to be high achievers who were well-off and lived luxurious life-styles; the X-Men, none of whom had any visible means of support, had a whale of time living the high life at the X-Mansion. If a Black character did have a pronounced ability as a super-scientist or as an inventor, I knew that was only a plot device which would lead to him developing some miraculous powers. But in the multicultural, affirmative-action nineties, my suspicion is that Black characters are included in comic books - especially in team books - as "positive Black role models"; the aim is to remove any political, social or racial tension.
Comic writers, I think, want to say, 'See? I'm putting a Black man in my comic book, and he's no different from the Whites! Oh, I do talk about "racism" now and then, but you can bet, sure as shooting, I won't be talking about the Ghetto, urban squalor, starving people on welfare, deprived Black and Hispanic kids, crooked politicians... We've got a New Democrat president who's seen through all that old seventies liberal stuff. We've all grown up since then...'
Call it paranoia? I don't think the writers of today's comics are operating under a political agenda - they're just going with the times, with what they see in their movies and TV shows. Certainly, times have changed since the seventies. Black heroes, and White heroes, must change with them.
But, from a marketing point of view, Black comic readers must be a large, untapped audience: if publishers do want sales to pick up again, they should strive to appeal to this market niche - by making their black heroes as colour-conscious as they were in the Bronze Age. After all, sales of comics, and Black hero comics, were better in the seventies.
Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge http://www.blacksuperhero.com, a slick, well-presented website which contained some invaluable information for this article.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2001 by Rupert Griffin.
Fanzing is not associated with DC Comics.
All DC Comics characters, trademarks and images (where used) are DC Comics, Inc.
DC characters are used here in fan art and fiction in accordance with their generous "fair use" policies.
Fanzing site version 7.4