From ‘Whitewash’ Jones to Luke Cage: Ndiokho Analyzes Black Comic Book History

Ms. Everytime, Proctor by day and activist by night, uses her powers of time-travel to undo oppression one injustice at a time. A group of participants created this superhero for Emily Ndiokho ’18, this year’s Barbara Landis Chase CAMD Scholar, during her workshop and presentation, “Super Black: An Analysis of the History and Evolution of the Black Comic Book.”

The presentation, held in Kemper Auditorium, was the last event on the program in Andover’s twenty-eighth annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In her speech, Ndiokho presented her research regarding the progression of diversity in comic books.

Ndiokho’s memories of watching cartoons with her older cousin influenced her choice of topic. After he introduced her to superheroes, she became an avid fan and started to see them as archetypes to emulate.

“[My cousin] would visit often and control the TV… ‘Justice League’ was like a launching point in terms of how I found comic books and how I found superheroes to be such cool figures, not only as fictional beings to aspire to but also the way in which they work, their complicated past and histories and personas. So it kind of started as a joke or something that irritated me, but it turned into something where it was almost like my refuge,” said Ndiokho.

Chioma Ugwonali ’20 expressed her appreciation for the presentation’s quality and its exploration of a less common subject that she was intrigued by but did not have a lot of prior knowledge about.

Ugwonali said, “Not only was the presentation informative, it was also fun and interactive with the crowd, which I really appreciated…I just really appreciate Emily doing the research…about a topic that usually isn’t covered in the media or really at school.”

To begin her presentation, Ndiokho relayed the history of black characters in the comic genre, beginning in 1941 with Washington “Whitewash” Jones. Because of his stereotypical nature, Jones revealed the minimal depth to which black characters in comics were once portrayed.

“Between the inceptions of superhero comic books in 1939 and until the mid 1960s, black characters — let alone black superheroes — were disposable and often featured without a story arc or a character development or watered down to racial stereotypes,” said Ndiokho during her presentation.

With a changing political and social climate, however, came the integration of comic books, highlighted by the creation of the first black superhero in 1966: Black Panther.

“With social movements, especially with the rise of the African American Civil Rights Movement, comic books as a whole became more racially integrated,” said Ndiokho.

The parallels between political events and the evolution of comic books was a recurring theme throughout Ndiokho’s presentation. During her research, this idea resonated with Ndiokho, who, according to her, discovered the non-fictional aspects of a fictional genre.

“Black Panther’s debut was monumental and not without reason. Having a black person in the role of a superhero, a position of moral goodness, and exhibiting lots of American patriotism and values in the midst of the most racially charged years in United States history was a sociopolitical statement through the comic book medium. Allusions and connections to the real world events taking place indicated that comic books were far from just fiction,” said Ndiokho.

Amiri Tulloch ’18, a member of the Brace Student Advisory Board, was impressed by Ndiokho’s connections between the fictional comic book world and reality.

“I thought it was just excellent. I felt like Emily did a great job of conveying an idea about comic books that transitioned between the actual comic book itself but also a thing about society and black history. I feel like her ability to manage between both of those aspects of culture was just really powerful and impactful,” said Tulloch.

During her research, Ndiokho was surprised not only by comic books’ connections to social change, but also by how she could relate to their characters.

“I would just say how non-fictional these fictional characters were and how I came in with this idea that they’re fake so they can’t be that important and this idea that these fictional characters are based in some entirely out-of-this-world element that I could never find research or relate to, but I did, and I did so easily,” said Ndiokho.

Ndiokho continues to hope for more diversity in this industry.

“Racial and all forms of diversity must be looked at in a way to make the medium more inclusive and more authentic, one which tells the stories of those reading, one which tells the stories of those who are American and other, one which tells the stories of everyone that can see a reflection of themselves as a hero,” said Ndiokho.

Editor’s Note: Emily Ndiokho ’18 is a Commentary Editor for The Phillipian.