Monday, February 1, 2010

Ebony White- pro's and con's

Ebony White is a mixed blessing. He is a brave, intelligent and loyal assistant to Will Eisner's hero, The Spirit. He is also, visually, a terrible ethnic stereotype which hearkens back to the "blackface" makeup of old minstrel shows. His appearance is so blatantly a racial caricature that, when asked to come up with a replacement for The Spirit , Jack Cole supplied his Spirit-like character(Midnight) with a talking monkey as a sidekick.

You may ask yourself, "Why would Will Eisner, artistic innovator, a man who knew the pain of bigotry (he was Jewish at a time when Jews were excluded from nearly as many things as black folks), depict a young, black man as a sub-human stereotype?". Well, not to make excuses, but it was common practice in the 1940's. Ebony is a "comedy sidekick", not unlike Doiby Dickles from Green Lantern or Woozy Winks from Plastic Man. The comedy sidekick is always drawn in a more cartoony style than the hero and usually has exaggerated speech patterns or mannerisms. Basically, Ebony is a broadly drawn comedy stereotype common to his time period and really shouldn't be thought of as any more offensive to African Americans than Doiby is to guys from Brooklyn.

So, yes, looking back at Ebony through the eyes of the 21st Century, his appearance may make you wince. But bear in mind, no malice was intended and Ebony's inclusion was a tiny, awkward first step forward to bringing African Americans into the mainstream of superhero comics.


  1. I fancy myself something on a amateur enthusiast for history, but even I suffer shocks when I read just how different the world was a scant few generations ago.

    I'd be inclined to wager that Eisner took some heat from readers for portraying a black character as intelligent, loyal and brave. "That's just so fake!"

    If I was labouring thru life with a minority label, I'd be impatient for change. Still, we have to be bloody amazed at the amount of progress that's been made in a measly century.

  2. Great post, Aaron. One might add that many stories featured Ebony on his own, and as childlike as he was portrayed, he was also shown as shrewd and capable, always outwitting the bad guys.

  3. I don't know, man. Imagine if Woozy or Doiby had been stereotypical "greedy Jews", going after pennies in the gutter and whatnot. I agree with you though that stereotypes such as Ebony White (and judging by his last name, I would say that Eisner's intentions may not have been simon-pure)were common practice in all sorts of media for much of our country's history; in fact, some people may not realize just how ubiquitous this type of thing was, not so very long ago (Google "Coon Chicken Inn" sometime.) But that doesn't necessarily make it inoffensive. And that includes Ebony White, in my opinion.

    I've only experienced racism directed at me very briefly, about a year ago when I was in a mixed-race relationship. However, that tiny taste has changed my perspective vastly on many things. The fact that Eisner was Jewish is irrelevant. I've met people from all races, colors, creeds and sexual preferences who hate others based solely upon their race, color, creed and/or sexual preferences. At times the absurdity and seemingly discordant nature of this phenomenon has baffled me, but I can't deny the reality or widespread existence of it.

    Look, I've only read a few Spirit comics here and there, so maybe I'm way off base. And I'm not saying that Eisner was a closet Klansman or a racist at all; judging by "A Contract With God", which I have read, I would say that he most likely wasn't, and I'm sure Ebony White had the "heart of gold" possessed by most such characters of his day (and sometimes of our own, still), but I look at that panel above and I don't see "a broadly drawn comedy stereotype", I see a very narrow and specific one. I'd bet that Eisner looked back upon that particular character with at least some small measure of regret. I haven't searched, and won't, but I'd also be willing to bet money that there's at least one panel of Ebony chomping away at a watermelon or fried chicken leg with a preternatural degree of gusto.

    I'm not trying to be contrary for the sake of being so. I appreciate what you've written here, Aaron, and I understand where you're coming from and I don't necessarily disagree with you 100%. Feel free to quote Jeffrey Lebowski at me if you wish: "Yeah well, that's just, you know, like, your opinion, man." Peace.

  4. LoneWolf- I'm not saying Ebony doesn't make me cringe. You know me better than that. I'm also not handing Eisner the Nobel Peace Prize for just including a black character. All I'm saying is...well, it could have been worse. For the record, Eisner was unapologetic in later years for Ebony and it's his statements to the effect that times and comedy were different upon which I am drawing the conclusion that Ebony's distasteful appearance and dialect were simply an impersonal extension of an unfortunate conventions of the time.

    The point of this posting, which I neglected to announce ahead of time, is to kick off Black History month. For the next 4 weeks, each day, I will be posting on signifigant Black (not all are African-Americans, so "Black" will have to suffice) Comics characters. Ebony seemed a logical place to start as we track the progression of Black heroes. Enjoy.

  5. >> I'd also be willing to bet money that there's at least one panel of Ebony chomping away at a watermelon or fried chicken leg with a preternatural degree of gusto.

    I'd be willing to bet you'd lose that bet, though my exposure to Spirit strips is limited pretty well to the Warren reprints - there's nothing in them to suggest that Ebony was other than how Aaron's described him.

    >>Imagine if Woozy or Doiby had been stereotypical "greedy Jews", going after pennies in the gutter and whatnot.

    I can't really see this analogy being apt - it was purely by appearance that Ebony was a broadly/narrowly drawn caricature...his actions showed otherwise.

    B Smith

  6. I appreciate the "take" that characters like Ebony White (etc., etc., etc.) could have been worse, but it does get pretty tiring to see the sheer abundance of these images that were in popular culture. An African American of the time saw no images that reflected what he/she looked like, acted like, or aspired to be, unless they were reading local (and later, national) black press/magazines. White comedy sidekicks were directly juxtaposed against the white hero - you could be this, or you could be that. You might feel like Doiby Dickles (sp?), but you wished you were like Green Lantern. You might look like Etta Candy, but you aspired to be Wonder Woman. No recurring black character in mainstream comic books represented a type of human that anyone ever felt like, looked like, or aspired to be. So - it's hard sometimes to hear the argument that these characters represented progress. It's sort of like viewing the statement "She's just like one of the family" is uplifting because it suddenly views the maid as a potential person.

  7. Ray: I do not disagree with you. In fact, I chose Ebony White as my starting point for the very reason that he represents sort of a "best-case scenario" for 1940. If everyone will bear with me, I think it will become clear that time and progress marches on.

    I'm not recanting my earlier statements, I still think Ebony was a mostly positive force in his own, limited way.

  8. Aaron:

    As times change, characters have to change. DC did it with Chop-Chop of the Blackhawks after acquiring the property from Quality. He went from being a stereotyped pidgin-speaking Asian to a karate chopping hero in the vein of Bruce Lee, and speaking in perfect English, yet!

    DC also did it with Ebony when they launched their first Spirit series a while back. Made him a smarter-than-the-average street kid, no younger than maybe 16-17, making him old enough to drive. In reading reprints of the old Eisner strips, the first things that spring to mind in seeing the Ebony of those days would be hearing the voice of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in my head as I was reading. Today, it's probably Orlando Brown (ex-That's So Raven).