Sunday, November 15, 2009

Running the Race

In my previous blog concerning Silver Streak, I mentioned the character Wolf and how I created him as a kind of political and racial counterpoint to the ultra-conservative, pro-establishment, and very white Silver Streak. I’ve also discussed in another blog entry, Moral Clarity, my family’s involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1950s, ‘60s & ‘70s. The issue of race relations in America has always fascinated me, and that fascination, in turn, wove itself into the creation of the Trademark Universe as well as my other writing.

Over the years, I’ve been told my views on race are naive, provincial, and/or uninformed. I’m neither surprised nor angered by that assessment. I grew up in North Olmsted, Ohio during the 1970s. We could count the number of African American families living in our suburban community on one hand. Although I do recall going to school with a smattering of Asian and Hispanic Americans, only one distinctive color ran through my childhood and adolescence: white.

Some would say my lily-white past disqualifies me from writing anything substantive regarding race relations or racism in the United States. I can respect that. What follows may explore the most wrong-headed assessment of the white/nonwhite divide ever conceived. So please, let me apologize beforehand. I can only write from my own experiences. To do otherwise would simply be disingenuous.

I formed my seminal opinions concerning race relations and racism from a combination of complementary and often contradictory influences. In my entry Moral Clarity, I briefly explored my mother’s background as the daughter of a somewhat controversial minister strongly committed to the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement. I grew up, then, with an acute awareness of the evils of slavery and Jim Crow, as well as a fair amount of knowledge regarding the historical plight of Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Japanese-American internees, migrant farm workers, and other disenfranchised and exploited minorities.

Coupled with my mother’s philosophical commitment to equality and social justice, I also learned a great deal about the practical, day-to-day aspects of race from my father. My dad is a professional jazz musician, and I grew up loving jazz and idolizing jazz icons the way most normal kids revered rock musicians and star athletes. Considering that jazz music was invented by black Americans and most of its pioneers and innovators were African Americans, any notion of white superiority among professionals is absurd.

More than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Charlie Christian shattered similar barricades with Benny Goodman’s band in the mid-to-late 1930s. Whereas social commentators and historians still extol the cultural significance of Goodman’s actions, musicians take a much more pragmatic view of the decision. Being able to hire excellent black musicians simply meant band leaders were able to fill their chairs with the best talent they could find, black or white.

In other words, as socially just as Goodman might have been, he didn’t hire Teddy Wilson because he was black. Goodman hired Wilson, and later Hampton & Christian, because they could PLAY.

PERIOD.

During my youth, when my dad and I listened to recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, or Frank Rosolino, the issue of their race wasn’t only irrelevant; considering it would have been inconceivable. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

PERIOD.

For example, Buddy Rich was, by many accounts, a tyrant, bully, and four-star jerk. (Just listen to this if you don’t believe me.) He also happened to be one of history’s greatest drummers and bandleaders. The thought that any musician would discount Buddy Rich because of his personality is ludicrous.

Similarly, Charlie Mingus had a reputation for bi-polar meltdowns and punching out his sidemen. When musicians talk about Mingus’ bad temper, they never discuss his race. They just talk about what an asshole he could be. In the same breath, they’ll also talk about what a great bassist, composer, and bandleader he was. Who Mingus or Rich were had NOTHING to do with their music. Anyone who judges any musician by anything other than the music isn’t a musician, and frankly not worth considering.

Growing up, I heard lots of stories from my dad regarding race in the music business. He told me how his father, a brilliant piano player, took him to see pianist Art Tatum when my dad was still a young boy. Tatum was performing in the upstairs living room of a black family living in one of the racially-segregated neighborhoods in Cleveland. Although my father and grandfather were the only whites in attendance, they were welcomed warmly into the home without any attention paid to race. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

As a teenager, my dad regularly ventured to jazz clubs that were deemed “colored.” He sat and listened to the music, struck up professional friendships, and never experienced any discomfort whatsoever. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

Trumpeter Red Rodney travelled with Charlie Parker’s band in the ‘50s and was forced to pass as an albino black man because of white racial prejudice and strict segregation in the South. Although Benny Goodman had broken the color barrier north of the Mason-Dixon Line years earlier, Jim Crow still dominated the southern US until the 1960s. Musicians still laugh at the ignorant “white power structure” represented by this story.

My point citing these anecdotes is not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist among musicians. Of course it does. Prejudice exists everywhere. However, among true professional musicians, prejudice doesn’t factor into who gets hired or who is admired. Among musicians, all that matters is the music.

I was raised, then, by a combination of influences. From my mother, I acquired a philosophical belief in racial equality, and from my father a practical sense that someone’s race should never be a factor in determining their worth. Needless to say, all these high-minded ideals remained fairly easy to maintain considering I didn’t really know any black Americans in real life.

Like many white suburban kids from my era, the only African Americans I encountered appeared in movies, television, and comic books. Luke Cage, the Falcon, Black Panther, Mal Duncan -- these were the “black” friends of my childhood. Other forays into Black popular culture included blaxploitation movies, TV characters like Terry Webster from The Rookies, and myriad professional athletes. As grounded as I may have been in the ideals of racial equality, my young mind still couldn’t help gravitating to the stereotypes presented by Superfly, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Spearchucker Jones, and Christie Love.



Needless to say, my creations in the Trademark Universe reflected these stereotypes. Before Wolf, I created Retaliator, my first African American hero, who was actually more an anti-heroic cross-pollination between Luke Cage and boxer-turned-substitute-Iron-Man Eddie March (Iron Man #21). With his face hidden behind a helmet, however, Retaliator wasn’t in-your-face black, and most in the Trademark Universe never even knew his race.

A short time later, I wrote a Silver Streak story featuring an openly black hero I dubbed “Black Wolf.” Based primarily on Falcon & Black Panther, Black Wolf owed much of his personality to the street-smart “Black Superman” archetype promulgated by movies such as Shaft, Super Fly, and Hammer. Black Wolf spoke like these blaxploitation bad-asses, and during his down time he surrounded himself with a bevy of Christie Love & Foxy Brown lookalikes.

I loved the character immediately. I actually found him easier and more fun to write than Silver Streak, the star of the book. Without explanation, I quickly dropped the “Black” from his name, and simply referred to him as Wolf. He came to co-star in the book just as Falcon co-starred with Captain America. Unlike Cap & Falc, however, Wolf and Silver Streak were never partners or friends. They fought crime in the same city, and thus continued crossing paths and butting heads. It was a blast to write, and I’ll be talking about Wolf himself in greater detail with a later installment.

Over the years, as I grew to know and befriend Americans of every race, my take on Wolf and other minority Trademark characters grew slightly more complex. But, truth be told, Wolf, Retaliator, Slice, et al have remained pretty much as I created them, stereotypical warts and all.

As Worlds Apart develops, please pay attention to my portrayal of race, race relations, racism, and racial stereotypes. These themes play a prevalent role in the coming pages, just as they have throughout my life. Although you may disagree with my ultimate conclusions, I hope you respect my honesty. For me to write Worlds Apart any other way would be, as I said before, disingenuous.


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