This Week's Read: Strange Fruit #1 / by Jaz Malone

All artwork presented in this post is property of J.G. Jones and Mark Waid

We live in a nation where police officers can kill unarmed Black men and women and not be prosecuted for it. News media can defame a Black child after his murder, claiming that his use of marijuana at one point in his past somehow rectifies his death, while White serial killers are called "mentally unstable." In the past few years, it has become more and more difficult for many people to take a middle class White male point of view seriously, as it is so distant from their reality. Videos like that of Eric Garner made me sick to my stomach for weeks. I found myself thanking the universe my father wasn't alive to see them, lest I'd have to be as worried about his safety as I am about my brother, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors. In this world, we arrive at the ongoing issue of diversity in comics. The comic world operates much like the real one, with characters of color often written as stereotypes, and their voices altered to reflect a mentality more comfortable for White readers to digest. Only recently has the comic world begun to open up to writers and real characters of color. For a long time, our stories were written by people who look nothing like us, nor experience the things we do. Gene Luen Yang, one of my favorite graphic novel creators, said,

“I would never tell a white writer not to write an Asian American character, but when you are venturing outside your own experience, you ought to do it with humility and hesitancy. You need to gather the right resources. So for a comic book writer, that might mean adding someone to your team who knows more about the experience you’re writing about. It might mean co-writing with somebody, or hiring a freelance editor who has the experiences you need. It means research, and talking to people who are insiders of the culture you’re talking about.”

Steps are being taken, and progress is being made. In comes Strange Fruit, a story by J. G. Jones and Mark Waid, two White men. While much of the knee-jerk reaction online has been outrage that two White men created a narrative about racial division in the Southern states of the US in 1927, I thought it was best to take a step back, read the issue myself, and respond to the concerns brought up by reviewers. I believe in the power of knowledge, and my goal when reading Strange Fruit was to fully digest it, then go back and take it apart piece by piece in order to completely understand what Jones and Waid have presented. Keep in mind that this is based only off of the first issue, as the others haven't come out yet. I recommend picking up a copy of the comic to follow along. Or do what you want; it's your life. This post will be more clear if you've read the story first. This is gonna be a long article, so settle in.

Concern #1: Strange Fruit employs use of the N-word.

I would be far more offended if the creators chose to white-wash this part of history. This story is set in Mississippi in 1927. Everyone in America knows that term was thrown around like Christmas carols in November during that time period -- heck, it's thrown around now. I've been called it on several occasions (and not lovingly). My father's been called that word, my mother, my brother, the Black men and women in my life; and, I've been called it several times outside of the United States. Yes, the word is vitriolic when spit out by some ignoramus out to catch a reaction. Yes, it's hurtful when absentmindedly dropped by a White colleague who thinks because one Black person told them they could use it, all Black people should be OK with it. The word has a long history of pain behind it. But people, we're talking about Mississippi in 1927. The creators should not have omitted the use of that word, simply on the basis that they're White. After all, one of the other major complaints about this story was:

Concern #2: Not all White characters that appear are as obviously racist as the Ku Klux Klan

Yep, that's right. Not all the White people are shown to be spiteful and violent in their racism, and some readers had a problem with it. J.A. Micheline says in one of her two scathing reviews of Strange Fruit,

"I was hardly surprised to find that for every white person who says something racist, there is always either (a) a white person to tell the other white person that they’re wrong or (b) a black person to say nothing and show no resistance. (b) happens only once, while (a) happens pretty much throughout the work. It’s a perspective common to stories of racism written by whites — in order to make white audiences comfortable, white creators (of any medium) frequently show that “not all whites” were pro-slavery or racist. It is simply inconceivable to write a story in which every white person is racist, because, in their minds, how could that possibly be true? You set the Klan up, the obvious racists, just to knock them down with white saviors, to remind readers/audiences that whites are still good people and knew better and wanted to help."

-from "The White Privilege, White Audacity, and White Priorities of STRANGE FRUIT #1

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.

Page 3)

 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."

Page 4)

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.

Page 6) 

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.

Page 7)

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."

- Micheline

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

doesn't do:

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.

He does:

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.

Even if he did go after the Klansmen when they left his presence, I wouldn't begrudge him that. Dudes just tried to lynch the brother. Beating them all to a pulp wouldn't make him a stereotype, either, so I'm not sure what Micheline wants, besides for the exact same comic to have been written by two Black men rather than two White men. I've been quoting her in this post, as I feel she's put out the most opinionated views about Strange Fruit. She also put out the most knee-jerk arguments as to why she doesn't like it. There are many things in this world that should cause outrage, least of which is the treatment of the Black male in American society. But this isn't a part of that.

Concern #4: The Confederate Flag didn't come into popular use until the later in the 1900s, and shouldn't be here.

Ok, now we're just grasping at straws, but I'll tackle this one. The first Confederate flag was created in 1861. The design was of three stripes (two red, one white), next to a blue square with thirteen white stars in it. The Confederate flag most people recognize, the "stars and bars," was created in 1863. It was made official as a symbol of the South, with its own salute separate from the American salute, in 1933. As I said above, context is important. In 1927, the "stars and bars" flag hadn't been in popular use. However, most people associate that particular Confederate flag with racism in the South, and Jones and Waid needed a symbol to represent that. And besides, let's remember that it's a comic about a space alien fighting the KKK...historical accuracy isn't really the biggest concern, here (although, as I've noted, they did a pretty good job with it).

Concern #5: Everyone who worked on Strange Fruit is a White male/ the White men whose names are on the cover called this story, "A deeply personal passion project."

Do you see the Black man featured on page 3? How about the character, "Sonny," introduced on page 5? Those aren't just random images of Black men pulled out of Jones' head. Those men are...wait for it...people he actually knows. People he's spoken to and has befriended in real life. Better still, they're people I know. I don't know the alien (but let's be real - if I did, I wouldn't be nerding out about comics on my computer right now, I'd be buying the man a steak dinner), but I can guarantee Jones used reference for him, as well. It's what good artists do. The title, Strange Fruit, is taken from Billie Holiday's song of the same name, which addresses lynching. The "strange fruit" are the Black bodies hanging from trees. It's visceral imagery, and fitting of a story that pulls no punches about the nature of Mississippi in the 1920s. I'm going to give Yang's same quote from above:

“I would never tell a white writer not to write an Asian American character, but when you are venturing outside your own experience, you ought to do it with humility and hesitancy. You need to gather the right resources. So for a comic book writer, that might mean adding someone to your team who knows more about the experience you’re writing about. It might mean co-writing with somebody, or hiring a freelance editor who has the experiences you need. It means research, and talking to people who are insiders of the culture you’re talking about.”

Jones and Waid didn't just wake up one morning and decide to write something they hadn't experienced without attempting to understand it first. They did research and they spoke to people who were affected by these issues. They even put some of them into their book! They could have missed the mark by a long shot, but they didn't. It's not the best comic I've ever read, and I get super nit-picky about hyperrealistic artwork in fictional worlds, but I'm intrigued. I'm certainly not offended.

This project was personal. White people are told they shouldn't ever speak about racism towards Blacks because they simply can't understand it, and in the same breath, that they should speak up when they see it happening. We don't need White heroes to swoop in and save the Black community, but we do need to sit down, hash all this out, and come to an understanding. If we truly want to have conversations about being a minority in America, then it needs to be a conversation. Not, "This didn't happen to me, so it must not happen at all," from the White community, and not, "This didn't happen to you, so you're never allowed to speak on it," from the Black community. Should we be heard? Absolutely. But railing against anything and everything White creators do isn't helping. If Black men had made this exact same book, I sincerely doubt it would have as many White readers as it does. I'll be happier when Black writers and artists get the same amount of press as their White counterparts (Jeremy Love's "Bayou" and Andre Batt's "Dreadlocks" are two out of hundreds that should be more popular), but the fact the White men who wrote this tried their best to do a decent job of talking about racism without coddling their readers should be praised, not protested.

Conclusion

Basing my opinions on this book off of knee-jerk emotions, without actually looking at the book itself, would probably get me a ton of views and lots of comments from people who didn't read the book but are happy to jump on the "everything made by White people is racist" train. But then I wouldn't be a thinking Black woman. I'd let people like J.D. Micheline speak for me,  and get behind their rage without looking into the issues myself, and I'm not about to do that. I understand the hostility she and other Black comic readers feel towards the comic community. We've been fighting to tell our own stories so long that it's more than off-putting when suddenly a story involving mostly Black characters gets famous when it's written as a "personal" piece by two White guys. That shouldn't keep them from telling the story, though. Jones and Waid didn't fail with this one - yet. After all, this is just the first issue. Strange Fruit doesn't deserve the unbridled hate it gets based on this alone. If I were to dislike it, it would be because, again, I'm iffy about visual styles (said the super-amateur artist). Maybe readers were looking for something more subtle, something that doesn't outright say, "these particular characters are racist." Maybe they want to be able to point to a sequence and say, "Hey, I caught that! You didn't think I'd catch that racist thing that just happened, but I did!" I don't know. I do know that with all the Black people currently dying at the hands of police, the terrible portrayal of our race in the media, and the insane hate President Barack Obama gets because of his Kenyan heritage, that there is enough racism to talk about and rage over for decades. Is this comic the underhanded, good-intentions-gone-awry, bastion of racism some people think it is? Whole-heartedly: no.