Saturday, April 20, 2019

This super, soaring black girl, Ironheart

It's been a busy semester, so I haven't gotten enough time to blog about comic books. If I did have more time, I'd be writing more about Ironheart (Riri Williams) written by Eve L. Ewing, drawn by Luciano Vecchio, layouts by Geoffo, colors by Matt Milla. Kevin Libranda was a co-artist on issue #1.

I'm enjoying the story. Ewing is really developing this character Riri, showing her working in her lab, showing her on missions, showing her interacting with family and friends. Ewing is expanding our sense of the black girl protagonist, and also displaying what's possible when it comes to highlighting the intersections of race, technology, and heroism.

Amy Reeder Hadley has been producing wonderful covers for the series.  Riri's presence on the shelves of at my local comic book store is quite uncommon, where white male heroes are the norm. Seeing this black girl soaring in her suit, peering at various interfaces inside her helmet, and apparently falling out of her suit alters things in important ways.

The artwork by Vecchio and Milla and layouts by Geoffo throughout the series are quite compelling. They depict a variety of settings and capably show Riri in exciting action scenes. There's all this vibrant energy with implied motion and colors with the comic that reward those of us who pursue repeated viewings.

There was this one scene from Ironheart #3 that shows Riri standing and facing a group of robbers in a store. They shoot at her, but their bullets bounce off of her armor. On the one hand, it's not an unusual scene in the history of comics, right?

At the same time, it was something...something rare to know we're viewing a black girl in a hi-tech, bulletproof suit that she designed herself repelling the shots being fired. Vecchio and Milla create this captivating scene, and many others throughout the series.

From Ironheart #3

Ewing presents Riri moving back and forth between her hometown Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts, as she has a lab at MIT. Whereas Tony Stark has an artificial intelligence system known as J.A.R.V.I.S., Riri has N.A.T.A.L.I.E (or simply Natalie), which is also the name of Riri's friend who was killed as a result of gun violence.

The creation of Natalie as Riri's A.I. system is a really inventive idea on Ewing's part. What a surprise that we're now receiving this black woman A.I. system. The convergence of race and technology here had me thinking about Afrofuturism. 

These days, people refer to things like "black girl magic" and the apparent Afrofuturism of artists like Janel Monae and a film like Black Panther. But back in the day (in this case the late 1990s) when I got into AF, we also talked about the concept in relation to the distinct things that black people do with technology and digital culture.

The transformation of a fatal gun violence victim into a holographic, black girl A.I. system definitely constitutes a special adaptation of technological and sci-fi concepts. It signals original and exciting thinking by Ewing. The notion of Natalie also raises fascinating ideas about what's possible when centering a black girl-inflected A.I. system.   

There's a cool scene when Riri's mom asks her about her schoolwork. Riri informs her that "Natalie is going to lectures for me." We then jump to the Natalie hologram sitting in a classroom at MIT. It's cool to see a scene like that come to life in Ironheart.

There's frequent talk in the world of comics about diversity. Folks don't always discuss what it in concrete ways. Thankfully, what we're seeing with Ironheart is that diversity can mean that Eve Ewing, Luciano Vecchio, Matt Milla. Geoffo, and Amy Reeder Hadley collaborate to produce this fun and cutting-edge artistic composition.

Eve L. Ewing, poetry, comic books, and infinite possibility
Riri Williams, Ironheart, Eve Ewing, and Maya Angelou
A notebook on comic books

Frederick Douglass and Alain Locke biographies awarded Pulitzer Prizes

Maybe those of us who research and write about African American Studies, Book History, and biographies will look back on 2019, as the year when two books about prominent black men historical and cultural figures won prestigious accolades. Last week, the Pulitzer Prize in History was awarded to David Blight for his book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster), and the prize for Biography was awarded to Jeffrey C. Stewart for The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford University Press).

The awards further ensure that these two expansive treatments and their focal subjects will receive even more attention. No doubt a Pulitzer assigns added value to authors and their works.

Stewart's book was published February 1, 2018, and Blight's book was published October 16, 2018. Both works are more than 900 pages. And both authors had been working on their subjects for decades.

Stewart completed his dissertation, “A Biography of Alain Locke: Philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance, 1886-1930,” in 1979. He was working on the book on and off for nearly 40 years.

Blight completed his dissertation, "Keeping Faith in Jubilee: Frederick Douglass and the Meaning of the Civil War" in 1985. That project formed the basis of his book Frederick Douglass's Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989).

Stewart's The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke was already awarded the National Book Award for nonfiction. It was the first time the award was bestowed on a biography concentrating on a single African American figure.

In February, Blight received the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for his Douglass book. William S. McFeely received the award in 1991 with the publication of his biography, Frederick Douglass. I suspect that Blight's book will be a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction later this year.

It's fascinating that  Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom book was awarded the Pulitzer in the History category and not for Biography. It worked out well especially this year, as the two books did not have to go head-to-head against each other. Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by the way, earned the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

Although we are all familiar with many prominent African American historical and cultural figures, it's somewhat rare for such expansive books on the subjects to appear with major publishers and to gain this kind of widespread attention. Imagine the time, energy, and resources that it takes to devote one's career to a single figure the way that Stewart and Blight did on Locke and Douglass, respectively. 

Book History
Frederick Douglass

Friday, April 19, 2019

How Bryan Hill diversifies our views of villainy

Listen: Bryan Hill really brought it with American Carnage #6, the latest installment in his crime thriller about a an undercover bi-racial FBI agent seeking to infiltrate a white supremacist group. This latest issue is particularly haunting because of the opening pages where this leader, Wynn Morgan, is calmly discussing white superiority.

"We [white people] are the people who have brought civilization to the world. Civilization is our tradition and they want us to be ashamed of that," says Wynn. Later, he notes that "their ancestors worshipped trees. Our ancestors understood the language of the stars."

In many cases, comic book writers, as well as many poets and novelists, discuss villainy and heroism in metaphorical and analogous terms. By contrast, Hill takes a literal approach with the opening from Wynn. This isn't a villain talking about taking over a city or the world. This leader is instead asserting "white civilization is the mother and father of the world."

The comic book is drawn Leandro Fernandez and colored by Dean White. The images for the book complement some of leader's commentary. When Wynn states that "We know what happens when lands are denied our civilization," we are shown an image of malnourished, presumable Africans.

Another image shows brown people, perhaps Mexicans, detained as they seek to gain entry into a country. The image complements the statement that "when their lands are broken by their culture, they come to ruin ours."

So often when folks speak of the value of "diversity" in comics books, the conversation concentrates on how having black superheroes is important for young black people. Black Panther gives African American children and adults a sense of racial and cultural pride, for instance. All of that's true. But Hill offers a reminder that there are additional outcomes.

What if an exposé on the mind of a leading white supremacist is a another diverse contribution that a black writer capably brings to comic books? Celebrations of black people and culture are important aspects of diversity. However, Hill additionally demonstrates the importance of uncovering dimensions of whiteness.

I started reading Bryan Hill back in 2017, when he was writing Wildstorm: Michael Cray. After that series, I checked him out on Killmonger, and I  went back and got the trade paperback for his run on The Outsiders. With Michael Cray and Killmonger, I had been thinking about the important ways that Hill presents bad men, bad black men characters. But with this representation of Wynn, Hill raises the stakes on treatments of bad (white) men.

American Carnage includes various kinds of troubling white men, such as low-income white people who express animus toward black people. Those characters are notably different from the wealthy and powerful Wynn, who is more philosophical and calculated with how he expresses disdain for non-white people and non-Christians.

Given his wealth, political ambitions, and embrace of whiteness, Wynn no doubt invokes the real-world notion of Donald Trump. But Wynn appears less impulsive and reckless. That makes him a little scarier.

Wynn's measured discussion of white supremacy doesn't come off like the Twitter-ramblings and dog whistling of a con-man. His comments are also not like those typical villain monologues about world domination. He is rather dispassionately and surgically explaining why certain kinds of white people are destined to rule.   

It's not everyday that you come across a comic book character so plain-spoken in discussions of white supremacist ideas. In this way, Hill diversifies our views of villainy. 

Reading Bryan Hill in 2018
A notebook on comic books

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Haley Reading Group: "The Devil Is in the Details"

[The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2017)]

In his article “The Devil Is in the Details,” Christopher Solomon describes the fight for claim over wilderness land in Utah. He explains that the fight for land is not just in ownership but also for “natural gas, oil, and potash” (167).

Contacted by Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, Solomon travels to Utah to witness Bishop bargain between environmentalists, Native Americans, energy companies and corporations for the land (169). This article displays the difficulty is dispensing land and ownership with various parties involved with severe consequences to the earth at stake.

What was one of the major challenges mentioned in the article that caught your attention? Why did that particular challenge stand out to you? Cite page numbers where necessary.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Deborah E. McDowell's Crucial Introduction to Frederick Douglass's Narrative

Multiple editions of Douglass's Narrative

At the College Language Association (CLA) conference, I gave a presentation discussing multiple editions of Frederick Douglass's Narrative. I pointed out that in addition to the covers of the books we can also learn from the many different introductions of Douglass's book produced by scholars.

Over the last two decades, several scholars, including Houston Baker, Jr., David Blight, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert O'Meally, William Andrews, and Deborah E. McDowell have produced introductions for editions of Douglass's Narrative. McDowell's introduction to a 1999 Oxford University Press, I was noting at CLA, is especially unique and powerful.

Most introductions for Douglass or any major writer are almost entirely celebratory, highlighting the most outstanding aspects of the author and book. McDowell no doubt accounts for some of the many attributes that make the Narrative such an important book. In this regard, her introduction coincides with the many other introductions for Douglass's book.

But she distinguishes herself by also identifying, in the introduction, some of the limitations of Douglass's Narrative. McDowell points out, for instance,  that "inasmuch as 'manhood' and 'freedom' function throughout Douglass' discourse on slavery as coincident terms, his journey from slavery to freedom leaves women in the logical position of representing the condition of slavery." Later, McDowell points out that "The Narrative is literally populated with the whipped bodies of slave women, and in each of these scenes Douglass looks on voyeuristically in a fashion tinged with eroticism."  

McDowell responds to a scholar's observation that the Narrative regularly shows the whipping of women in the book because it was an element of its rhetorical approach. However, McDowell explains that Douglass "achieves his 'stylistic signature' on the backs of black women." Her observations were an abbreviation of her essay, "In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition” (1991).

Despite any shortcomings and problems, McDowelll acknowledges that the Narrative occupies a really important place in interpretive history. "The book has adapted nimbly," she notes, "to changing critical moments, fashions, and vocabularies of literary scholarship."

For me, McDowell's introduction is or should be an essential component to the publishing history of Douglass's Narrative.

A Notebook on Frederick Douglass

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Haley Reading group: The Intuitionist, 221 - 255

[The Intuitionist (1999)]

We've finished or just about finished Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist. Many of the mysteries have been cleared up for us. Maybe?

Some of us have been noting what we viewed as powerful sentences from the novel. Here's one that caught my attention: They were all slaves to what they could see.' But there was a truth behind that they couldn't see" (239). Notably, a key character had been passing for white, which raises all kinds of ideas of people failing to see beyond the surface.

What was a sentence or two that stood out to you from our reading (221 - 255)? Why that sentence or those sentences? Be sure to cite the page number.

Haley Reading Group: “Blood in the Sand”

[The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2015)]

Matthew Power reports the story of Jairo Maro and Almudena as they worked to protect turtles on the Playa Moin beach of the Caribbean. According to Power, the beach’s darkness and isolation made it a popular place for turtles and poachers who’d sell the turtles eggs as aphrodisiac (212).

Power recounts the events leading up to Maro’s death and the impact it had on the local community. This article focuses on the danger people face when preserving wildlife and seeks justice in Maro’s death.

What did you find especially memorable or important about this article? Why?

Monday, April 8, 2019

Dometi Pongo and the Malcolm X Mixtape

Dometi Pongo performs song from Malcolm X Mixtape in 2011

I've given versions of this lecture many times over the years. I tell folks in the class about this legendary student, Dometi Pongo, who arrived on campus back in 2008 or so. He was a poet, he was a rapper, an organizer, and most of all an active thinker. He  and I were constantly talking about black consciousness and making moves.

I tell the young'ins in class about these notebooks he kept and eventually shared with a group of us that were full of rap lyrics that he had been composing since he was in middle school. Then, there were the on-campus talent shows. I tell the story of hearing students competing for second place, because, as they'd say, "there's no question who's gonna win first."

Pongo's notebooks

All of these stories are the lead-in to the Malcolm X Mixtape -- one of the greatest student projects I've ever witnessed. Back in 2009, my students Adrienne Smith, Al Henderson, Pongo, and me came up with the idea of producing a black studies project. We wanted to make something to raise consciousness and distribute it among the masses of the people on campus. Back then, in our minds, the best way to do that was through the production of a mixtape.

screenshot of mixtape vid by Al Henderson
Over the course of a few months, Pongo collaborated with producers and lyricists in Chicago to come up with the tracks for the 11 tracks on mixtape. The tracks are linked by a common thread: Pongo inserts excerpts from Malcolm X speeches at the beginning or end of each of the tracks.

We released the the Mixtape in March 2010. We held listening events and distributed the music on flash drives. The responses were positive and enthusiastic.

Henderson created a series videos based on tracks from the mixtape. So folks who purchased the drives were treated to music and a selection of videos.

The production of a mixtape energized us and gave us all kinds of new ideas about the possibilities of producing collaborative artistic projects. Pongo had additionally modeled

Ta-Nehisi Coates signs The Beautiful Struggle for Pongo, March 2011

When Ta-Nehisi Coates visited our university in 2011, Pongo was part of a small group of students I gathered to meet with the author before his public talk. Coates signed Pongo's copy of The Beautiful Struggle, and in turn, Pongo gave Coates a copy of The Malcolm X Mixtape.

Over the years, I've introduced selections from the Mixtape to my classes. The young black men I work with have been especially interested in the composition. Their interest in "conscious" rap draws them to the project. In addition, they are moved by the idea that someone who, as I note, "sat in these same classrooms." could produce such a powerful project.

Dometi Pongo: source

This semester was the first time I shared the Mixtape project with students since Pongo has been in his job as host of MTV News’ “Need To Know” program. It added even more interest to know that the lyricist who produced the Malcolm X Mixtape is now a journalist for MTV.

A Notebook on Dometi Pongo