So I’m watching Sweetback’s Badass Song for the Black Power Fantasies course I am co-teaching with Stanford Carpenter. What we don’t really have a handle on is how transformative the black power period was. There are a whole set of propositions that those of us born after 65 take for granted, that I’m not sure was taken for granted by our predecessors. I’ve never taken the “white is right” koolaid for example. I’ve never believed that black people were less than. I’ve never judged the beauty of black women using white standards.
What Black Power was about at its best was actually recreating a racial sense of self that was more appropriate for the present and also for the future. But while it succeeded in changing our attitudes about what was possible for black people in and out of America, it also ended up reifying some problematic tendencies. Take Sweetback’s Badass Song.
You know what stands out to me about that movie? Not the fact that the black man gets away with murder (of cops no less)–even though this was visionary for its time. But the fact that every black (and white) woman in the movie is sexualized. Now they are sexualized in some interesting ways–Sweetback rather than dominating them is actually dominated by them. But sexualized nonetheless.
Melvin Van Peebles, director, writer, producer, and lead actor in the film, noted that the movie was about “the radicalization of a stud.” But what it ends up translating into is the radicalization of black PEOPLE through the radicalization of a stud. The gender axis is blurred, and what we have left is a vision for the radical potential of black people embedded in a man. Women can help perhaps, but their role is ultimately secondary. While the black community may actually be represented by a woman (check out the opening credits), the black savior is ultimately a man.
Comparing the state of black comics now vs. even 15 years ago there are some unique opportunities present now that weren’t available then. But it isn’t black comic book writers, artists, inkers, and letterers who have more opportunity as much as it is black male comic book writers, artists, inkers, and letterers who have more opportunity. When Cheryl Lynn comes up with the idea of a black woman’s comic collective, she comes at it with real knowledge of how black men in comics tend to treat black women just like white men do. (The word “tend” is important here.)Â If they just wait their turn, then perhaps benefits will trickle down to them.Â Reaganomics anyone?
Comics is one of the realms, perhaps one of the most underutilized, that artists are using to unpack what it means to be black in the 21st Century. In this way they are trying to pick up the pieces from where the Black Power Movement left off. But where we have to do much more work intellectually speaking and otherwise is in making sure that the definition, to the extent we even need one, isn’t truncated to reflect a narrow set of interests.