The Two Sides of Ebony White

Posted by on February 18th, 2011 at 11:17 AM

Noah just said Eisner was being racist when he came up with Ebony White, so there’s been a long thread and bit of a fuss over at his blog.

I took part down toward the end of it, and Noah had to remind me that I had formed a misconception. Somehow I had the idea that Noah saw Ebony as nothing but a distasteful racial stereotype. Yet in his post Noah writes: “I’m willing to accept for argument[‘]s sake that … Ebony White is a great, funny character…”

So what was I reacting to? To this, the post’s closer:

America still needs anti-racism; it still needs Huck Finn and Mark Twain. Ebony White though? Even if he’s all that Matt [Seneca] says he is, I think the culture is probably paying the Spirit’s sidekick just about as much attention as he deserves.

To my mind, that’s what you’d say about a character that was nothing but an ugly racial stereotype. As opposed to a regrettable racial caricature that is also a wonderful, dynamic, fully imagined ficitonal personality. So Noah’s “all that Matt says he is” disclaimer doesn’t strike me as holding much water.

If Ebony is as great a character as I and Matt Seneca (he started the fuss with a blog post here) like to believe, he cannot be a simple piece of ugliness that deserves to be kept in obscurity. Read Ebony and you’re reading about a person, and that’s the best antidote to racism there is: seeing that the other (if you’ll pardon the phrase) is also human.

It’s not just that Ebony’s human qualities mitigate the racism built into the character; they counteract it. In Ebony we have a racist antidote to racism. Bizarre, but such is life.

I’ll also point out that the works of Leni Riefenstahl get lots of attention. They’re Nazi propaganda, yet one recognizes that they are also fine art, etc. It’s not like America needs Nazi propaganda, but having Leni Riefenstahl around is still worthwhile. So if Ebony’s artistic worth could somehow be split off from his anti-racist properties, I’d still say he deserved more than obscurity.

… finally, I wrote a piece about Ebony here.

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One Response to “The Two Sides of Ebony White”

  1. patford says:

    This topic has always struck me as a simple one.
    The visual look of Ebony is the typical racist stereotype of the time.
    The other side is that Ebony is portrayed by Eisner is an admirable character. He’s intelligent, often the most clear thinking person in the strip. He’s very hard working, motivated, and trustworthy. He’s also independent, he doesn’t come across as simpering.
    My feeling is Eisner just adopted the common cartoon shorthand of the era, and had no racist intent in doing so.