Black Labor in Waid and Jones’ “Strange Fruit”

My expectations going in to Mark Waid and J.G. Jones’ Strange Fruit were high. I expected to encounter, between the covers, a work that would explore “themes of racism, cultural legacy, and human nature.” Overall, I was a little underwhelmed, and I even questioned the purpose of the comic itself. If, as Waid and Jones argued, they wanted to present a text that examined issues of racism, I feel like they fall exceedingly short. In 2015, Waid stated that as “Southern natives who grew up during the Civil Rights wars … [Jones and I] both feel like we’ve got something personal to say about the racial clashes we saw and experienced first-hand as boys.” This statement does not seem too far-fetched or even negative; however, the execution of transforming this statement into a narrative that dives the depths of these issues leaves much to be desired.

Even with my comments above and those that arose surrounding the appearance of Strange Fruit, I do think there are aspects of the four issue series that warrant examination. Tre Johnson, in his piece for Vox, points out that Strange Fruit exists within a medium that has been dominated, over the years, by white males, and that this history has spawned the creation of texts that, while expressing a desire to tackle issues of race, revert to the white gaze and stereotypes. J.A. Micheline goes further arguing that we need to be responsible, at every stage, during the creative process when creating popular or any form of media. She notes that Strange Fruit presents its readers with the overt types of racism that we, as audiences, have become all too accustomed to. However, this move causes repercussions because, as she writes,

[I]t’s black people who suffer when white readers think that racism is only enacted a certain way. Those same white readers, after a lifetime of textbooks and films and shows that insist that racism is using the N-word and calling me “colored,” will leave their homes, go to their jobs, and think the reason they decided not to offer their black employee a raise was his perceived aggression in the workplace.

For me, Micheline gets to the crux of the problem with Strange Fruit, and it is something I thought about while reading Waid and Jones’ text.

Strange Fruit does not provide a multi-dimensional examination of racism on the victim. In fact, when we see Sonny, we only see him running, getting beaten, or under some other form of attack. We do not get much into who he his, his community, or anything else. This is a major problem because Sonny becomes one dimensional and exists only as an object to highlight the racism and oppression enacted by the white characters. Likewise, Johnson exists within Strange Fruit as nothing more than a plot device that leans heavily on the trope of the magical Negro, and the engineer Fonder McCoy serves the role of the Black intellectual that the white townspeople want to suppress. Each of these main Black characters are nothing more than plot devices.

As for the white characters, I became especially intrigued by Sarah Lantry. Michilene rightly points out that most of the racism in the book centers on overt acts of racism; however, I would argue that Lantry exists as an example of the type of racism that Micheline mentions when she is talking about the workplace. I say this because Sonny and other Blacks work on Lantry’s plantation as sharecroppers, and she believes that she treats them well, but that is far from the case.

When the Klan comes to Lantry’s plantation looking for Sonny, she meets them at the door pointing a shotgun towards them. Standing by her side Senator Blakenship, and when Pickens, the Klan leader, claims that Lantry is protecting more than just Sonny from the Klan’s “righteous justice,” Blankenship tells him, “You know why no one ’round here’s barely got two nickels to rub together? ‘Cause of your ‘righteous justice,’ that’s why! 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!”

Blankesnhip blames Pickens and the Klan for the economic downfall of the city and Lantry’s plantation claiming that the Klan has caused Black workers to leave the area and migrate elsewhere.  While true, Blankenship’s comments also highlight racism because in order to maintain the region the white landowners such as Lantry need black labor. He acknowledges this, but he does not acknowledge that this, like Pickens’ system, also attributes to oppression and subjugation.

The next panel shows Sonny in the foyer and Blankenship and Lantry’s backs through the open doors. Lantry tells Pickens and his men, “My boys do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. I need all the hands I can get, and I’m not about to lose my home to a buncha men too old t’be playin’ cowboys and Indians.” Here, Lantry echoes Blankenship. Her plantation cannot survive without Black labor. While Waid and Jones present this aspect of a racist society founded on the backs of Blacks, Native Americans, and others, the moment passes and no interrogation occurs. This causes the text to falter because readers, inculcated by countless other examples, view Pickens and his men as the obvious threat and see Blankenship and Lantry as benevolent whites trying to protect Sonny. However, they are not necessarily trying to protect Sonny because they like him; they seek to protect him because he, and others, benefit them financially.

Later, as Sonny is in the quarters planning to leave, he talks with those gathered on a porch about going with him. Lantry overhears him and asks when has she not shown him, or the others gathered, respect. Lantry, acting paternalistic, tells Sonny that she has known him since he was in “short pants” and that she will give him money for “travel fare”; however, he must “earn it.” Along with this, she also tells Sonny that she does not like him “stirring [her] other workers here into a lather” with his fiery rhetoric and talk of leaving. Before paying his fare, Lantry wants Sonny to find the lost Sibley boy, to which Sonny replies, “Fuck that. You keep that white money. I earned it for yo. Every bastard sharecropper here has. I don’t owe you shit.”

Even though this moment plays into the “lifetime of textboos and films” version of racism, it also underscores the ways that racism does not always manifest itself in an overt manner such as through language or physical violence. Rather, it exists on various levels that buttress and support a system whose very foundation exists because of racist practices. In many ways, Lantry reminds me of Candy Marshall from Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men. Candy acts as if she is benevolent and trying to save Mathu and those in the quarters from Fix Boutan and his men, but she continues a legacy of racism through her paternalistic actions and her words, calling those gathered at Mathu’s house “my people.” (I have written about this before on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog.)

I do find Strange Fruit problematic in execution, but I also find it intriguing in some of the ways it tackles the history of racism in America. I think that it exists within a larger context of the comics industry, and as Johnson, Micheline, and Elvis Mitchell note, we need to consider it within that context. Mitchell, in the introduction to Strange Fruit writes that the text is “determined to keep shouting out a perilously undervoiced thought–the place of race in comics.”

This is not all, of course. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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