It's an understandable sentiment, but is it true? In this case, the worry that the portrayal of the majority of Whites as heroes ready to step in and fight for equal rights whenever a wayward White person says something even remotely racist, a narrative I agree is often employed in stories about Blacks in order to comfort White readers, is unneeded.
"...while (a) happens pretty much throughout the work."
I've counted the instances of racism by White characters in this first issue, minus the Confederate flag imagery, which I'll talk about later. For clarity, I've documented these instances in order below, and will note when another White character steps in to stop them and why:
Page 1) White Person (WP) #1 says, "It will if we keep ever'body properly motivated," as he and his group pull up in a truck to the "Colored Cafe." We soon find out that he means threatening Black men to get to work fixing the river levees.
Page 2) WP#1 (same man) tells his son, "This ain't no place I ever wanna see you in," again, referring to the Colored Cafe. He and his group enter the cafe.
a) Black Engineer catches himself when speaking to a White man, and adds "sir" to the end. This is a historically accurate portrayal of certain interactions between Blacks and Whites of the 1920s South. Is it demeaning? Heck yes. By today's standards, it would be over the top, but considering the time and place where the story is set, it makes sense.
b) WP #2 calls the engineer, "Boy."
a) WP #2 calls the engineer, "Boy," again.
b) WP#2 says, "Our problem is that we got too many niggers 'round here wearin' suits..."
Page 5) Group of White men tries to force all the Black people in the cafe to stop having fun and get to work.
a) Another use of the word, "boy."
b) Pickens, a White man, tries to attack Sonny, a Black man.
Another White man stops him. This is the first instance of this happening.
Using context clues, the reader can deduce that this man isn't stopping Pickens out of care or love for Black men. He was clearly also racist (see his actions as part of the group in pages 1-3), but his motivation was to get the Black men to fill the rising levees with sandbags, not to start a brawl. His main goal is to save his White community, which can't happen if the group of Black men he wants to work for him are fighting in a cafe with a handful of his White friends. This is a far cry from being the hero; I'd wager that in any other situation, he'd let Pickens pick a fight (P.S. to Jones, nice name choice), but as a flood was coming, he had better things to do.
c) Pickens tells Sonny that "good White folks" shouldn't work when there are "bucks," around to do the work for them. He then pulls a gun.
Pickens threatens to lynch anyone who doesn't do what he says. T
he same White man who stopped him before steps in and tells him to put the gun down.
It is imperative to note the reasons he gives behind his own actions, because he does explain them himself: "Put that thing away and get your priorities straight! We got more important matters t'worry about right now'n one buck!" Again, he's not at all worried about Black lives. He's worried about the White lives that will be saved by stopping the incoming flood.
Page 12) The KKK appears. Everything the Klan does is terrible, so this needs no explanation. HOWEVER! I will provide a short history of the Klan after this segment, just to further clarify the story.
Pages 13+14) The KKK has an altercation with the Senator and his guest Widow Landry, a woman wielding a rifle. Both are White.
The Senator and Landry refuse to let the Klan into their home, calling them "The Chickenshit Brigade."
While Landry seems to care about keeping her Black workers unharmed -- "My boys do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay." -- she still calls them "boys," as she sees them as lesser beings. Meanwhile, the Senator's problem isn't with the Klan's racism, it's with their interference with the system in place: "You keep drivin' the coloreds away, we ain't got no labor force, we ain't got nothin' t'sell and no pot t'piss in!" His life as Senator depends on the status quo. In his mind, the Klan is a bad element not because of their racism against Blacks, but because of the financial inconvenience they cause Whites.
Page 15) A Klan member says his hood "scares the piss out of" Blacks.
Page 17) The Klan attempts to lynch Sonny and the man who arrived in the spaceship.
Splash pages 18-19): Klan attempts to shoot Sonny and the other man.
Page 21) Klan member calls the second Black man a "thing." At this point in the story, no one is aware the strange Black man has arrived in a space ship, so the Klan believes him to be a just that -- a Black man, not an alien.
Page 22) Use of the N-word.
So, in 18 instances of racism by White characters in this first issue, only 4 times does a secondary White person say anything (positive or negative) in response. 3 of those times, the White person stepping in was doing it out of concern for Whites, not Blacks. A White person plays the "hero" only once, and only to make sure she doesn't lose any of her house workers.
"...while (a) happens pretty much throughout the work,"
is just plain incorrect.
Now, if the concern boils down to historical accuracy (which it seems it does as other readers have questioned when the Confederate flag came into popular use), then let's review what events occurred surrounding 1927. Better yet, let's talk about the history of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan was founded in 1866 by a group of six White Confederate War veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee. It quickly gained momentum from other Southerners who were upset over Reconstruction and the loss of White supremacy. It is important to note that the KKK was not one large group at the time, but a handful of small factions that sprung up in different states. Many Whites kept their mouths shut about the violence and intimidation perpetuated by the Klan, but some spoke out about it - not because they felt love and admiration for all the freed slaves, but because of the disorder. The burning crosses, lynchings, massacres, and general violent nature of the KKK did nothing to restore the financial stability of the South. It still hasn't, as is obvious today by the many poverty-stricken towns still around. The Klan used their hoods to act as vigilantes; the worst of society now had a mask to hide behind while committing these acts. Angry, fed up and stripped of racial power, they sought to restore the life they had before the Union took away their voting rights for fighting against them (but honestly, it makes sense to strip a defeated group of voting power for a while. I still don't understand why they were allowed to keep the Confederate flag up for so long). They killed both Blacks and White Republicans, but they went after Blacks far more often and with far more cruelty than Whites. They were unmerciful and unflinching in their quest for the absolute destruction of the Black community. They believed Black people were the reason their lives had gone downhill. When attacking Black leaders, they went after those with political pull at first, and then devolved further into a violent free-for-all. By 1870, the KKK was listed by the federal government as a terrorist organization (which did nothing to stop racist brutality, but it happened). In 1915, we got the film "The Birth of A Nation" by D.W. Griffith, which glorified the Klan's efforts. If you've seen this unfortunate film, you know it's a topic for another day. If you haven't, then while it's a cinematographic masterpiece, it's possibly the most racially offensive material ever made. It also stirred a new order of the Ku Klux Klan, as if the original wasn't bad enough. This new entity, with a far-reaching spread over the Southern and Northern states, Republicans and Democrats, sought not only to destroy Blacks, but Jews, Catholics, immigrants (*coughcough the first klan members were second generation immigrants *cough) homosexuals, or anyone else who wasn't a White Protestant. I find it interesting that they felt they were the morality police, and yet lynched and massacred so many. How high does one's level of cognitive dissonance have to be to ignore a glaring inconsistency like that? But I digress. Klan members were poor, middle class and rich. They were Supreme Court Justices (Hugo Black, anyone?), judges, and just plain terrible human beings. By 1927, the Klan had accomplished two things:
1) Scare a lot of Black men, women and children from doing pretty much anything out of reasonable fear of getting brutally murdered, and
2) Annoy a lot of White people who wanted racial supremacy and financial stability but weren't seeing the results the Klan promised. Klan membership dropped as public mask-wearing became illegal in several states, and citizens began to resent the Klan for not accomplishing anything besides murder and mayhem. The phrase, "White Silence Is Violence" comes to mind; we could have resolved the problem of the Ku Klux Klan much earlier if White citizens had spoken up more about it. But that's not what happened, and now we're here. We can discuss the long-term effects of racial subordination and the portrayal of Blacks in the public eye another time, as that topic is worth several articles and a few books of information. The topic at hand is whether Strange Fruit's backdrop is as historically accurate as it could be, and it is (minus the alien sub-plot).
So this is the context behind this first chapter of Strange Fruit. It explains why the Senator was upset with Klan members (loss of money), and why the earlier supposed White "hero" wasn't really a hero at all. He was incredibly racist, but tempered himself in order to achieve his own goal.
It's important to look at context when reviewing anything. Knee-jerk reactions help no one. I can feel the backlash coming. Shoot me a text before it happens, so I can eat a good breakfast first.
Concern #3: The strange man/alien at the end is a stereotype of the strong Black man.
"Of course, there’s the argument that, in this case, the character in question is genuinely superhuman. The alien isn’t a stereotype because it’s actually true, right? But here’s the problem: He does not speak. He does not show any capability of speaking. He has not shown any level of intelligence beyond sentience, any goals, any desires, any anything. For all intents and purposes, he could have been an animal. Sure, maybe he’s going to speak in the next issue, but I have no reason to think that he will given the way the character has been presented in this first issue. So, instead of presenting a subversion of a stereotype, the creators have managed to create the ultrastereotype by making the physicality of incredibly strong (and nameless) black man who cannot or does not speak the push of this splash page, and ultimately, his current identity."
The character Micheline describes in the above quote appears toward the end of the issue. No, he doesn't speak. He wields an aura of mystery. You know what that's called? Good writing. In a visual medium like comics, it's bad form to tell, not show. Every other character has a clear goal. This new guy, though? What's his deal? Who is he? Why did he arrive in a spaceship? I don't know, but I want to know. Now, it's fair to think that the character can't be proven to be an alien, because he doesn't speak. What's not fair is assuming that because he doesn't speak, he's nothing more than a stereotype of a Black man. He's clearly strong and muscly, and entirely unafraid of the lynch mob who sees him in the field. Two characters in SF use the term "buck" to describe Black men. Buck is a racial slur, encompassing several stereotypes: violence, lechery, uncontrollable desire for White women, stupidity, and defiance of White supremacy. If Micheline is trying to say that this man fits the "buck" profile, I'd say she's gone from being offended to being horribly offensive. We have to be careful when equating any portrayal of a strong Black man as racist sentiment. He is neither a subtle nor an overt misappropriation of a Black male character. Here's what this man
This man has no circular pink lips, no sambo personality; he doesn't taunt anyone - he barely acknowledges the lynch mob's existence. He doesn't leer at women, and as far as readers can tell through the limited information given, he's not stupid. He's not a respectful, knee-bending Black male, hoping to appease Massa. He doesn't yell. He doesn't do a typical, "Look at this fine Black man beating back the White supremacists!" war cry typical of Blacksplotation, with broken English and a flag of black, red and green tied around his arm.
uproot a tree and throw it at Klan members, but that's self-defense, not outright violence. Not to mention, badass. He sends the Klan members off limping and whining, and he does it without striking a pose or beating his chest. He sees oppressors, deals with them, and moves on.