On February 2nd, 2016, Kwanza Osajyefo launched his Kickstarter for BLACK with a goal of $30,000. By February 29th, the comic had received $92,000. The comic’s unique premise clearly appealed to backers. Addressing issues African-Americans face daily, BLACK deals with police brutality, discrimination, and violence — a trauma that history books and newspapers often underplay. The comic addresses the overall issues of cultural trauma.
Cultural trauma occurs when members of a group experience a catastrophic event that was forced upon them, leaving a mark on their group consciousness. This event marks their memories forever and changes their future identity. In light of this, BLACK (with Osajyefo as the writer, Tim Smith 3 as the co-creator/designer, Jamal Ingle as the artist, and Khary Randolph as the cover artist) uses the cultural trauma inflicted on the African-American consciousness to create a story where only African-Americans have superpowers. Cultural trauma provides a possible explanation as to why only African-Americans have super powers in BLACK.
Black People Have Superpowers
In BLACK, Kareem Jenkins is a regular kid hanging out with friends when the police unexpectedly gun him down. Kareem miraculously wakes up in an ambulance after having died and escapes police custody. He shoves open the ambulance doors and races off. Kareem comes to find himself in the middle of what is The Project: a global network of Black people who work to keep their superpowers secret from the world. Kareem learns that only African-Americans have superpowers.
The leader of The Project, Jeremiah, takes Kareem to their headquarters. There, Kareem meets Dr. Pistorius-Quaife. She studies why only African-Americans have superpowers. While unsure, she tells Kareem that his powers come from quarks, or sub-atoms. These quarks affect human atoms and create these superpowers. Kareem learns that his own quark type is like nothing ever seen before. The powers Kareem has hold infinite possibilities and no one — not even Kareem — has any idea how powerful he could actually be.
Black Mark: A Brief History of African-American Trauma
Slavery ended for over 150 years. Patrick Manning of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute estimates that 12 million African slaves entered the Transatlantic trade between the 16th and 19th century alone — about 10.5 million of whom arrived in America. This estimate does not include how many people would have died during the raiding of villages for the slaves. The fact is there is no genocide like African slavery. Just like how only Black people have superpowers in BLACK, only Black people have experienced a genocide of this magnitude.
What followed slavery was 150 years of lynchings, bombings, and police brutality. Unfortunately, slavery didn’t stop with the Thirteenth Amendment. The Amendment contains a loophole. The Amendment abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. This loophole was exploited by the South and continues to be exploited nationwide today. America has the largest prison population in the world: about 40% of that prison population is African-American despite African-Americans only making up about 13% of the overall population. By contrast, Americans of European descent make up 63% of the overall population and only 39% of the prison population. On top of this, there’s also the sexualization of African-American women and girls and the demonization of African-American men and boys.
Although seemingly unconnected, these violent acts have marked the consciousness of African-Americans. Black people are aware of how society continues to view them as aggressive and overly sexual. This is what society uses to justify imprisoning and subjecting them to sub-human treatment. Generations of people had to endure horrific abuse. Such trauma can affect and alter DNA.
It’s in the Genes
In 2015, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital studied the genetics of 32 Jewish men and women who were in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. The researchers also analyzed their children and found that the DNA differences were noticeable. By studying the genes of DNA that stress effects, scientists found that traumatic situations (such as the Holocaust) cause the gene to change and pass down to the children of victims. This is often referred to generational trauma. It explains why children of trauma survivors are more prone to stress disorders. The effects of their abuse are biologically passed onto their children. Not only will children endure a society that dehumanizes them, but they also have DNA that initiates the fight-or-flight instinct more frequently than other children.
Osajyefo and Smith 3 use quarks to symbolize generational trauma. Since quarks help to make up components of atomic nuclei, they alter DNA and how it functions. BLACK’s “quarks” are similar to trauma in how trauma affects DNA. Osajyefo and Smith 3 take something that has been hurting a community and make it a positive: superpowers. In an attempt to heal a community, it is necessary to bring the issue to the surface and face it head on. Smith 3 and Osajyefo do just this by turning a traumatic experience into a source of power — literally.
In BLACK #5, Jeremiah explains to Detective Waters how far back these quarks are in history. He tells her (and the reader) that The Project has traced the history of African-Americans having superpowers as far back at the 15th century and that the superpowers likely occurred earlier. Jeremiah also tells her that the number of people with superpowers has increased from generation to generation. By changing trauma into a superpower, Smith 3 and Osajyefo create a narrative that is empowering. The comic regains control of how these things within ourselves are perceived and turn them into a strength.
Cover Stories: Imagery and Postmemory in BLACK
Cover artist Khary Randolph also aids in turning trauma into power by reminding readers of where black people have been. His covers are unsettling and striking, but also so much more. They address America’s history of violence against people of color by bringing up postmemory. Postmemory explains the relationship between the second generation and to the powerful, traumatic experiences that preceded them. When traumatic events like slavery affect a whole demographic, it leaves an imprint on the consciousness for generations. Much like the quarks, the postmemory created by the traumatic events of slavery impact following generations. They may not have the first-hand experience, but they still feel so deeply impacted by these events that it seems they constitute memories in their own right.
For example, BLACK #3 (see above) depicts different perceptions of black people. Each man reflects a different but major event within American history. The men represent slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and a contemporary black “thug,” respectively. The cover shows that the labels that they are given are essentially the same regardless of dress. The word cards hammer this point further. The only color on the cover comes from the red cards. They are meant to draw your attention, forcing the reader to acknowledge and read the words these men have been called. The cards also cut through the very center of the page. Randolph leaves no room for a reader to overlook the words, much like how these men are forced to endure being called these words.
Postmemory plays a big part in this image as it addresses how slavery never truly ended. Slavery became something almost unrecognizable but still part of a pattern that is in effect today. This cover reflects the idea that no matter how you dress, who you are, or what you’ve experienced, if you’re black, you’re a criminal in the eyes of our judicial system.
Reflecting on History
The covers also invoke reflection. For BLACK #2 (above), the cover depicts a lynching of three people. Lynchings are often undiscussed or glossed over without really thinking about the people murdered. Randolph shoves the images into the face of the reader, invoking thought and (hopefully) discussion about the topic. Black people know these things happened yet their memories and feelings regarding these events go largely unnoticed. While the number of Confederate monuments and idealizations are in the seven hundred, only one monument has even been thought of for the victims of lynchings. By bringing lynching front and center, Randolph opens the discussion of how race has affected black people in our country.
The stoic image is not just for shock value. Upon closer inspection, the red works as a way to show superpower and acknowledge the guilty party. The red that flows through the air may seem like blood, but it is possible there is another reason. The red that runs down the mans arm creates a pattern that neither of the other two bodies has. It begs the question: “Does this man maybe have superpowers?” The way the red moves around his arm is too close to a pattern, unlike the red that falls all around him. The red in his eye glares out at the reader, or perhaps the guilty party, or maybe even both. Perhaps the reader is just as guilty for turning his body a show, just like the lynchers have.
Speaking Truth to Power: Final Thoughts
The issues addressed in BLACK are perpetuating and constant. It brings up a history most people try to ignore because they are difficult to talk about. However, artists of all mediums have become more open about these issues and how they affect their perceptions of the world. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Mick Jenkins, and Osajyefo and Smith 3 address the issues of race head on, creating a space for black people to express themselves about their internal, political, and societal struggles. However, the majority of artists who address these issues end up facing backlash just for expressing contempt for how they are perceived. Once again, the black narrative is forced into silence because the “majority” of America (read: white people) don’t want to hear it. But just because an opinion is unpopular does not make it invalid.
I felt like I was waiting for an eternity once the comic made its Kickstarter goal. But BLACK is well worth the wait. The parallels to our reality that the comics address are important, and the history the comics reference are narratives that need telling. The centuries of trauma that black people have endured is atrocious, yet it continues today. The comic faces these issues head-on and openly points out the injustice within our systems. By making something that is negative into something empowering is a difficult thing. But BLACK manages to do this. It tries to give hope to people by showing them that history does not have to dictate the present. With recent events in Charlottesville, VA, this comic seems and feels more relevant. There just may be a space between emancipation and retaliation, we just have to find it.
All six issues of the series can be purchased from Black Mask Studios here. The trade paperback of BLACK comes out in October.