Why Ebony White Isn’t Sassy

Posted by on February 5th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

From the desk of Brian Azzarello:

And as for the elephant in the corner… Look, I have very strong feelings that the only way to make EBONY WHITE work is to make the character a brash girl. Then the name and the attitude (sass) fit. We can talk about this.

The italicized bit should actually be underlined in red, because that’s the way it appears on the printed page. This is from the First Wave “Go Behind the Scenes” featurette running in the back of the March 10 issue of Superman: World of Krypton. The featurette comes scuffed up with Photoshopped accessories that indicate office-land: Post-its, jottings in red Flair. So we find the words “make the character a brash girl” underlined in red, and right after them, from a fired-up editor, “Let’s Do It!” in big block capitals.

I guess if I were a black man, I might see a particular significance in “make the character a brash girl,” as in “There goes the trapdoor. Another of us gets dropped out of sight.” But I’m not, so I’ll stick to a different angle. The quote is a beautiful linguistic specimen because it shows what words can do when no thought is present. Hit on race and the brain gets shut off. That’s not the only reflex we have, but it’s common, especially when entertainment professionals are talking in public about what to do with a given property. So flash Ebony White in front of us and we get “And as for the elephant in the corner” and “Look, I have strong feelings” and then the gal with the sass. It’s a perfect sequence of white-collar brain-deadism: the self-congratulation, the miniaturized soul-baring and sturm und drang (“Look, I have strong feelings”), the triumphant cliché pulleyed down from the rafters. Make the sidekick a girl! OK, fine. Will she be good-looking?

Then there’s the appeal to a universally recognized fact, a something-everybody-knows, that in fact they do not know. Make the character a girl because then “the name and the attitude (sass) fit.” What? The idea appears to be that only a black girl, not a black boy, would be sassy. And … have these people never seen Good Times or Die Hard? Does DC transmit its editorial product from an island base? And how did DC select the elements of American media life that it censored out of base communications?

There is also the fact that “attitude (sass)” is a long way off from summing up Ebony White. Yes, he’s mischievous sometimes, but he’s quixotic sometimes. He’s a lot of things: officious, greedy, tender, poetic, warm-hearted. Maybe you could put “sassy” in there, but the word isn’t his hallmark. Ebony makes noise, but the noise isn’t about himself; it’s just a byproduct of him leading his life. He isn’t staking out a place for himself, and he isn’t trying to brush people back. For a 12-year-old black kid in 1947, his position with the Spirit and Dolan, et al., is magically secure and well respected. He doesn’t have to be sassy: he can say what he thinks.

Ebony may not be the best character, the richest personality, that DC ever bought or commissioned, but I can’t think of a better one. On the other hand, he’s all but useless as a property. He’s suited to nothing but being The Spirit’s second tent pole from the start of the 1940s until the end of the 1940s. It was a great job, but it ended not long after Hubert Humphrey put a civil rights plank into Harry Truman’s election platform. Ebony belongs to the brief period when white Americans could accept the idea of an emotional, high-spirited, rational, effective black kid (because Ebony is no dope) and also accept the idea that this kid would have lips like a rubber donut and say, “Yassuh.” Maybe the lips were the price Ebony had to pay for the chance to be himself; white readers couldn’t take him unless he was cartoonlike, and a cartoon black kid drawn by a white artist in 1940 was most likely to be racist. But take away the cartoonism from a black male in white entertainment and you are likely to get nothing much at all. The Black Panther, for example, became rather Phil Morris-like when thrown in with the Avengers. Ebony, as revamped for the present-day Spirit series, looks forlorn and cropped, sadly trimmed back.

What’s the third way here, the new move, the non-racist cartooning of a black kid who lives his life at high volume but isn’t Poochie the Dog (who operated “from a totally in-your-face paradigm”)? DC couldn’t think of one either, so they made Ebony a girl.

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One Response to “Why Ebony White Isn’t Sassy”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    What a great essay.