Recently, I've been writing about Christopher Priest's Black Panther, specifically about Priest's use of Everett K. Ross, "Emperor of Useless White Boys," as the narrative voice of the book. Today, I want to look at some of Reginald Hudlin's work as head of Black Panther. I have read a couple of issues of Hudlin's run, but I do not want to focus on those issues here because I have not read enough to comment thoughtfully. Instead, I want to focus on the four issue series Captain America/Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers (2010).
Flags of Our Fathers chronicles the first meeting between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and King Azzuri (Black Panther) during World War II. The Nazis learn about Wakanda's vibranium deposits and want to conquer Azzuri's nation so they can mine the vibranium and use it for their missile projects. Told from the point of view of the only African American solider in the Howling Commandos, Gabe Jones, the story contains some of the same themes that I have been discussing in previous posts and it introduces news topics of examination.
I do not want to focus on all of the similar themes in Hudlin's story and the other texts I have been looking at lately. Rather, I want to zero in on the "invisibility" of Azzuri's spies in the United States. In issue #2, Steve and Azzuri speak in the Wakandan palace. Azzuri addresses Captain American by his name, Steve Rogers, and Cap wonders how Black Panther knows his real name. Azzuri replies that he knows Captain America's identity because of "[a] vast spy network, not unlike your own." Within the context of the narrative, this claim does not appear out of the ordinary; however, what comes after Azzuri's statement highlights the historical context of the narrative. Azzuri continues by saying, "Sometimes there are benefits to being, how shall I put it . . . invisible."
Azzuri's words trail off in the panel that shows a closeup of Rogers' face and moves to a black and white flashback that shows a pre-serum Rogers with a doctor while the foreground shows a Black janitor. Azzuri's word, "invisible," sits at the top of the panel. The invisibility that Azzuri speaks of here is more straight forward than the one that Everett K. Ross experiences when he looks like Mephisto in Priest's Black Panther run. Hudlin situates the Wakandan spy's invisibility in a real world situation that eludes any ambiguity. The framing causes us, as readers, to confront the invisibility that Azzuri speaks of, that Ralph Ellison writes about, and that countless others have commented upon.
Alongside the theme of invisibility, Hudlin's narrative brings to mind the "Double V Campaign" started by the Pittsburgh Courier which called for victory abroad and victory at home. On February 14, 1942, the Courier wrote,
We, as colored Americans are determined to protect our country, our form of government and the freedoms which we cherish for ourselves and the rest of the world, therefore we have adopted the Double ‘V’ war cry—victory over our enemies at home and victory over our enemies on the battlefields abroad. Thus in our fight for freedom we wage a two-pronged attack against our enslavers at home and those abroad who will enslave us. WE HAVE A STAKE IN THIS FIGHT…WE ARE AMERICANS, TOO!
As soldiers fighting under the American flag, the Courier argued that while we need to fight atrocities occurring around the world, we also need to fight the atrocities of racism and segregation occurring on our own shores. After World War I, African American soldiers returned from Europe were greeted with the Red Summer of 1919. During World War II, the Lee Street Riot in Alexandria, LA, the Harlem Riot, and countless others took place. I have written about the experiences of Joe Louis and Dorie Miller in World War II before.
In Flags of Our Fathers, Gabe does not encounter overt racism from his fellow Howling Commandos. He does wonder which of his squad mates will be the first to make a racist or derogatory comment as they fly over Wakanda, but apart from that, nothing happens between Gabe and his squad in regard to overt racism and antagonism. Rather, Hudlin makes us question the ideas of loyalty and patriotism, and this questioning does not always end up as clear cut as we might expect. Discussions of Captain America as a symbol emerge, and these moments are not far from the same instances in Robert Morales' Truth: Red, White, and Black.
On the way to the climactic battle, Azzuri calls Gabe to the front of the plane to speak with him. Azzuri tells Gabe that he has observed him since he arrived in Wakanda, and seeing the way that Gabe conducts himself, Azzuri offers him "Wakandan citizenship." Gabe smiles, replying, "I'm honored sir." He then asks, "Can I take a moment to think about this?" The panel where Gabe asks this question is interesting because it only shows Gabe's words and his hand, which is over his chest as if he is saying the Pledge of Allegiance or listening to the National Anthem. This positioning shows an aspect of honor and respect at Azzuri's offer, but it also makes us think about how Gabe feels about America. We get an answer to this question when Gabe actually tells Azzuri about his decision.
After the battle, we see the Howling Commandos on the tarmac waiting to board the plane and leave Wakanda. Gabe tells Azzuri, "It's not that I don't appreciate the offer of citizenship. But even if I lived here, I'd still want to fight this fight, and when I get home, I gotta fight that fight too. I can't leave everyone else behind." Here, Gabe sums up the "Double V Campaign," fighting at home and abroad. While he appreciates Azzuri's offer, Gabe knows that even though America has granted him the chance to fight for his country, his country does not entirely regard him as a citizen. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 wouldn't appear till 19 years after the World War II, and even now, battles still continue.
Gabe's decision also comments on his nation of birth. His decision causes us to think about what it means to fight for a country that sees you as less than human and less than am equal. His descison makes us think about David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Chester Himes, and countless others who wrote about what it means to be African American and fight for America. There are other aspects of Flags of Our Fathers that I could write about. Specifically, we can look at the ways that Hudlin addresses issues of symbolic patriotism and the covert actions of the government that under gird that image. For now, though, I will leave it here.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.