A Black History Month Special – Classics Illustrated #169, “Negro Americans: The Early Years”
Comics have a checkered history when it comes to including black characters, a deficiency that extends to minorities in general. Any non-white figure, especially in the dominant superhero part of the industry, was ever in danger of being portrayed as a disturbing racial caricature at worst, a disposable cipher at best. And black heroes that didn’t have “Black” appended to their moniker — like Black Goliath or the Black Panther (and his dopey family) or others — were few and far between. The lily-white 20th century in comics has such a strong aftertaste, it’s no surprise that Marvel making the new Ultimate Spider-Man latino generates charges of pandering. Because, really, from these people and at this point, what else could it be?
All this makes a Black History Month retrospective through a comic book prism relatively slim pickings. But the comic in today’s post is a healthy buffet, a history of Black Americans from the colonial beginnings of what would become the United States, right up to the early part of the 20th century that would see so few strong black comic book characters — and up to the point where “Negro” was still an acceptable descriptor. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are nowhere in these pages, it’s a solid primer, like something you would have read in an elementary school class in February. In that vein it’s a great success, yet by stopping short of the mid-century turmoil that finally sealed many antebellum promises, it’s a very bland, very conservative selection. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t a conscious decision on the part of the editors to play it safe and not touch on any people and events that had so recently roiled the country. The 1969 publication date was only a year after MLK’s assassination — perhaps he was still too current, and feelings still too raw. And Malcolm X would have caused some people to faint dead away.
This final issue of the venerable Classics Illustrated line (as we’ve seen, the brand at times went beyond the usual adaptations of great works) opens with Crispus Attucks, the free black man who many think was the first colonist slain in the Boston Massacre. Fast forward towards the Civil War and Harriet Tubman enters the narrative accordingly. Her delivery of slaves from bondage via the Underground Railroad is chronicled, including the rescue of her very own parents:
Either I never knew that Tubman was called Moses or I had forgotten. So this comic either taught me something or refreshed my lapsed memory. Which means I’m already on the plus side of the ledger.
Frederick Douglass, owner of one of the most distinctive profiles in all American history, also has a number of pages devoted to his life and career. Here’s a selection of quotes suitable for framing:
His coiffure was the Einstein of its day, no?
Anyone who’s watched the Matthew Broderick/Morgan Freeman/Cary Elwes/Denzel Washington-infused Glory knows about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all-black regiment in the Civil War — and if they have a soul, there was no dry eye as the soldiers bravely marched on Fort Wagner. The glistening bayonets are also recreated here:
Going into this comic, I’d never heard of Daniel Hale Williams, a pioneer in the field of medicine. (Unlike the Harriet Tubman/Moses connection, there’s no ambiguity here — this is a void.) He started life working as a barber and wound up an M.D., and in 1893 he performed the first successful surgery on a human heart:
Now that, friends, is boldly going where no man has gone before. Kirk, Picard, eat your hearts out. Pun intended.
Booker T. Washington, author of Up from Slavery and long a paragon of how far from humble origins diligence, work and education can take anyone, black, white, Martian or whatever, also gets time. Others who came along later contested his doctrine as meek accommodation, but many of his words have undeniable resonance:
(Did the Joker inherit Washington’s purple wardrobe?)
There are more black Americans profiled, including that mainstay of the Black History Months of my youth: George Washington Carver and his miraculous peanut. Track the book down if you want to sample their tales.
Norman Nodel both painted the cover and provided the art within (Gray Morrow also illustrated two of the stories not discussed here). A mainstay of the CI adaptations, his work could often be stiff and flat, but at other times, when given the opportunity to depict a posed scene — like the Frederick Douglass scan — he could offer up a certain measure of preserved grandeur. And, accordingly, the comic reads like a book out of time, an amber-encased relic of celebrated African-Americans past. Indeed, nothing says “another time” quite as much as the “Negro” in the title. It would be another decade before that term would vanish from popular usage and Supreme Court opinions, and take up its primary residence in hip hop lyrics alongside its nuclear “N” cousin.
Take the book for what it is, and send out some psychic dap to all the brave black men and women who blazed trails for themselves, their race and us all, and even made it into the world of comics. This is one time when we can truly say: EXCELSIOR.