The Biography of Ebony White

Ebony White 80.jpg“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”

–Malcolm X / Malik El-Shabazz, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told To Alex Haley)

Running from 1940-1952, Will Eisner’s The Spirit was a newspaper insert back when publishers could afford to do such awesome things. It features Denny Colt, a detective who comes back to life to fight crime from his secret hide-out in Wildwood Cemetery.  The Spirit is indeed everything good anyone has ever written about it—all the joyful adventure, groundbreaking art and genre play. But then there’s Ebony White, the Spirit’s African-American sidekick and driver, all eyes and lips and minstrel show dialect. And I can barely look at him, even though I know I should.

But who is Ebony White?

It’s actually hard to know who he is—or maybe even what he is, given how he’s drawn. Here are the facts: Ebony White’s a young African-American man or maybe an older child. He is, as is often written in comics collections, a product of his time. He’s one of the Golden Age’s many unpleasant black character types, ugly ones with ugly names that are painful but shouldn’t be forgotten. He speaks like Stepin Fetchit, though he’s a different kind of character—brave, hardworking and devoted to the Spirit. I hear that
ultimately he’s sent to school, though I haven’t gotten that far in collections because of him.

Ebony White 250.jpgI often wonder what readers saw when they looked at characters like Ebony White back in the Golden Age of comics. In Fagin the Jew (Doubleday, 2003), Will Eisner writes about unintentionally “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image….I never recognized that my rendering of Ebony, when viewed historically, was in conflict with the rage I felt when I saw anti-Semitism in art and literature.”

In a Time Magazine interview, he adds that Ebony’s rendering was comic relief at a time when “humor consisted…of bad English and physical difference in identity.” The cognates now might be animal or robot sidekicks, I suppose. Poor robots, we use them for everything we don’t want to do—comic relief, demonstrations of how scary adamantium claws are.

From this side of the millennium, though, I can only see a character drawn like Ebony as an alien or some sort of urban fantasy imp. The conventional rendering also reminds me of a horrible, never should’ve been, racialized chibiChibi or, more
accurately, “super-deformed,” refers to the physical distortion of manga or anime characters often based on their emotional maturity. Sometimes, ordinarily non-chibi characters go super-deformed, representing a moment of excitement, fear, joy or exasperation. Some less emotionally mature characters are always super-deformed. Big heads, big eyes, big mouths—big emotions for comedic effect. Sometimes super-deformed characters exist side by side with more “naturalistic” characters. And the stereotypical, Golden Age black characters have big emotions for comic effect while existing side by side with naturalistic, white
characters, just like Ebony White and the Spirit do.

In the Time interview, Eisner was asked how would he like it if someone else wrote a biography of Ebony White since he had written one of Dickens’ Fagin. He said:

I would deserve it. [Laughs] I would deserve that. As a matter of fact that probably would be a very worthwhile idea. I think more, if I were somebody else and were to undertake that, I would probably do something about his psychology. He lives with the Spirit, his engagement was solely tied up with the Spirit and I would probably touch on the slave mentality that he probably had.

But the task of looking for and finding Ebony White, the character, the missing black man, let alone writing his biography is a daunting one. It’s beyond me. And I’m not entirely sure who would want to write this biography, beyond fans of The Spirit
whose joy is dampened by the presence of a racist stereotype. Does anyone love Ebony White enough to salvage him for his own sake and not just The Spirit‘s?

Darwyn Cooke tried to salvage Ebony White in his 2006 relaunch of the comic, recreating Ebony as a kid who’s there when Denny Colt becomes a the Spirit. Frank Miller omitted Ebony White in his film adaptation rather than attempting to repair the damage and maintain continuity. I don’t blame him at all. Most recently, in the back pages of DC’s March comics, Brian Azzarello makes the argument in promotional material for First Wave, a comic featuring Golden Age heroes like the Spirit and Doc Savage, that Ebony White can only work as a woman. It sounds pretty Blaxploitation. And Azzarello’s belief says something about the perceived masculinity of African-American men in the 1940s, but maybe more about racialized masculinity—or hypermasculinity—in ours.

Could Ebony White, a male Ebony White, star in a racial uplift, Blaxploitation film, Who Is Ebony White?  Would he join the Nation of Islam, as Lincoln Perry (aka, Stepin Fetchit) allegedly did? Would Ebony White love himself enough to write The Autobiography of Ebony White?

I like to think so. I’d like to think he found himself in  school.

Carol Borden looks forward to reading The Autobiography of Ebony White.

3 replies »

  1. Lovely piece, Carol, very thought-provoking.
    My feeling about Ebony, for what little that’s worth, is that he’s a character best left alone. I enjoyed Mr Cooke’s take, for example, but the truth was that he wasn’t Ebony at all. Any attempt to give weight to Ebony only seems to accentuate how horribly racist the original character was. Ebony as originally portrayed is so thin a person, so pathetic a comic relief, so ignorant a stereotype, that trying to turn him into even a two-dimensional character seems to me quite futile. The only endearing qualities he had were his friendliness, loyalty and determination, all of which only worked as “positives” if we view his friendliness and loyalty as “positive” components of his subservience to the Spirit. He’s lovable because he’s the type of Black boy that racists like to believe in: the black servant boy who’s fulfilled by service to his master.
    There’s so much of The Spirit which I adore. I have the whole run of the Archives on my shelf. But Ebony isn’t recastable as a character because there was never anything but a racist fantasy there to begin with. There’s a great fondness for Ebony – though even that name is hard is type! – because The Spirit was so fine, and the tone of the surface of the stories so affable in their apparent humaneness. But Ebony’s biography is already written, I think, in the very regret and shame which Mr Eisner to his credit expressed in later life. He knew there had been – and was – no excuse for perpetrating on Black Americans the prejudice which was so appallingly disastrous to his own ethnic grouping. Mr Eisner apologised and moved on. And I think the Spirit franchise should move on to; just having an Ebony draws the attention to what was, and rather than try to redemn such a character, why not create new ones? I certainly see no point in changing the characters gender. Move on. It’s shameful, it’s gone, move on.
    But then, what do I know? If Mr Cooke believed that reworking Mr E was a good idea, then perhaps it was. And given how you obviously believe that such a project is worthwhile, then I’ll be happy to engage with it when and if it comes. But still, if there was nothing more than racism there, why add anymore? What was there to save in the first place?


  2. Colin, thanks for your thoughtful comment.
    In wrestling with my own feelings of revulsion in just looking at Ebony White and then pondering whether Ebony White could be something other than what he was/is, a racist stereotype that diminishes African American men in particular, I didn’t make clear enough that I do think he’s best left behind–as long as we don’t forget about him.
    I was never comfortable with Darwyn Cooke’s portrayal, not because of anything that Darwin Cooke did, but because of Ebony White’s presence by itself made it hard for me to read a fun book by a creator I enjoy. I think Brian Azzarello’s female Ebony is fraught with new perils, not the least of which is forgetting about Ebony and others like him. I think Frank Miller was wise to drop him from his movie. In the end, Ebony White is likely toxic. After all, not even Will Eisner could salvage him beyond, as you say, providing Ebony’s biography in his regret and shame.
    In a way, the Ebony White I write about is a figure representing a kind of horrible, dehumanizing but tragically mundane racist projection. And I feel awful for him and for the kids I imagine who read The Spirit, looking for something of themselves and finding Ebony White, a grotesque, thoughtless parody. But you’re right, there probably is no person to find behind the projection because he was never conceived of as a person in the first place.
    But I don’t know and I’m curious what people think. I’m not positive that his biography couldn’t be written in a way that wasn’t apologist, reflexively defensive of comics history or just ignored the racist depiction. It would have to be some kind of struggle of its own, I think, and not a patch over unpleasant history. Though, honestly, I have no idea who could write it. I am sure I’d rather that it not be done at all if it weren’t done very, very well.
    Anyway, thank you again for your comment. I really appreciate it and love your site.


  3. Carol – you’re quite right, there IS space for the kind of biography you suggest in your penultimate paragraph, but it would take a creator/s of significance to pull that one off. And what a wonderful thing it would be if such could be done.
    And I found your line about “the kids I imagine who read The Spirit, looking for something of themselves and finding Ebony White, a grotesque, thoughtless parody”, if you don’t mind me saying so, touching as well as desperately sad. I think it’s too often forgotten in all medias that we DO often look to find ourselves in the protagonists of the fiction, indeed all the art, that we engage with. That isn’t a call to old-school heroism, which after all came with Ebony White in the first place,but just a mention of something I think is far too often ignored.
    Thanks for the kind word about TooBusy. I’m glad you stumbled across it, because I wouldn’t have found this, one of my favourite blog-pieces of the year.


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