"And Then There Was...X," by David F. Green, Jr.
Updated: Apr 24, 2021
My introduction to the energetic, charismatic wordsmith DMX was in the winter of 1998. I, like many others, became familiar with him from his verse on the now infamous LL Cool J song “4,3,2,1,” which featured him and other artists including Method Man, Redman, and a then-unknown Canibus. Following that song, I would be introduced to one of my favorite mixtapes of all time, Canibus vs DMX. In many ways, DMX captured the complexity of urban street culture, and he did so with wit and honesty about his personal turmoil while channeling the survivalist attitudes of various hood personas.
I often took night walks home from school after basketball games and track meets, and for a time I did this with DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot blaring in my Walkman. I enjoyed how insightful the songs were about personal struggle, and I moved swiftly to their cadences. Back then, walking home at night in Newark, New Jersey, you kept your head on a swivel, anxious and aware of every possible interaction, whether that included police, the homeless, or folks you knew from your neighborhood. Whole new thoughts about the numerous meanings of innocence swirled in my head as I listened. I wondered about the ways that innocence is lost or altered.
I thought of DMX and my youth in Newark as I prepared to teach Victor Lavalle’s graphic novel Destroyer in my Contemporary African American Writing graduate class at Howard University. Ironically, the walks taken by the main character, Akai Baker, were similar to mine. However, unlike the 12-year-old fictional protagonist Akai, I was not murdered at the hands of police, and my mother was no genius scientist capable of placing my consciousness into a reincarnated body rebuilt through nanotechnology. In this interesting addition to Frankenstein mythology, LaValle positions Josephine Baker, Akai’s mother, as a modern-day Victor Frankenstein who responds to the murder of her son by developing technology that would give a second chance at life and a chance at vengeance. Unsurprisingly, Josephine took center stage in most of the student discussion about the novel. That commentary would begin with the mad-scientist depictions of Josephine, which for some reinforced the negative stereotypes of the angry Black woman. For me, that was part of LaValle’s shrewdness with the pen, his ability to flip a trope, the mad scientist, to address the severity of a Black child’s death. It wouldn’t take long before another student would ask in regard to Josephine, “Isn’t she justified in her anger though?” Others would nod and ask about the gruesomeness of some of the artwork.
I spent much of class that day discussing reading strategies: the order in which to peruse the panels, attention to dialogue bubbles, the role of the gutter spaces between the panels, how to find hidden allusions embedded in the panel scenes, and a number of other practices distinctive to comics. As I repeatedly noted, deep reading of such texts can occur just as easily by reading against the natural order of the story as it can by following the left-to-right order of most mainstream forms of paneled literature. Several students remarked that this was the first time they engaged a comic book as serious literature. I suggested a few scholars for the class to check out, including Howard’s own Marcus Singer, an expert in the field and author of Breaking the Frames, as well as Sheena Howard and Ron Jackson, the editors of Black Comics.
Toward the end of class, I directed students to review the author’s letter included at the end of the novel. Most readers new to the genre skip such back matter, but avid comic book readers know this is where important background information on the story and juicy insights about the comic exist. I still remember when Brian Michael Bendis revealed in such a letter that President Obama was the primary inspiration for his decision to write Miles Morales, the current Black and Latino Spider-Man, as biracial. In LaValle’s letter found at the end of the graphic novel, he makes an explicit connection between his work and Mary Shelley’s, the author of Frankenstein, and LaValle notes the interesting discovery in her desk, after her death, of her husband Percy Shelley’s heart wrapped in a silk cloth. The heart survived cremation, and Mary kept it intact among her possessions for decades. In the letter, LaValle connects this devotion to Percy’s memory to the character Josephine’s devotion to preserving the memory of Akai in the novel. At one point in the letter LaValle poignantly muses,
As I write this I wonder which seems more fantastical: that a woman could bring
her dead son back to life, or that our country might ever hold itself accountable
for injustices it has perpetrated. Technology is improving at an astonishing rate;
honest conversation--actual change--move at a much slower pace.
Students acknowledged how helpful the letter was for contextualizing some of the questions they had about the text. The irony for me is that this was not the letter I was thinking of when I directed them to the last pages of the book. The letter I was remembering stuck with me because it was an early challenge to the idea of an innocent bystander. But that letter was nowhere in the graphic novel collection we read for class. When reading the original mini-series as individual comics back in 2017, I was struck by the short sequence of panels that addressed Akai’s death. Readers are shown Akai playing in a Little League baseball game and then leaving for his walk home. One panel reveals the silhouette of a woman on the phone peering out the window at the silhouette of Akai holding his baseball bat. In her phone conversation, she mentions a man carrying a rifle outside her house. She describes Akai as Black and almost twenty. The speaker on the other end notes that officers are on their way.
The Other Letter
Later that day, plagued by the memory of that letter, I went into my personal archive of comic books and found the original six individual issues. Sure enough, in the back of issue 5, was the letter referencing the mystery caller.
The letter begins with a brief reflection on the 1979 horror movie Phantasm. LaValle remarks on the unique use of remote killing machines employed by the antagonist to murder citizens of his town. He then links this idea to the panel of the woman calling the police on Akai. LaValle, always the masterful storyteller, also connects this panel and film to the assault and subsequent paralyzing of Sureshbhi Patel. A caller identifies the 57-year-old Patel as a stranger in the neighborhood, and police soon interrupt Patel’s peaceful stroll with tragic consequences. LaValle observes,
I’ve seen this comic discussed as being about---in part---police brutality. That’s
accurate, yes, but I wrote this one scene, this panel, with great specificity.
Conversations about police brutality tend to be treated like a line---at one end
there's the police and at the other the person being brutalized. But sometimes
police brutality is a triangle: the police, the person being brutalized, and the
person who called the cops.
The letter reminds me of the first time I was stopped by the cops. I was about 13 and attending a house party with a friend. The party ended early due to a noise complaint in the East Orange neighborhood, a suburb of Newark. The music stopped, and we were given a familiar directive, “You ain’t gotta go home, but you have to get up out of here.” So we started walking. My man, Maverick, informed me a few paces into the walk that his aunt lived not too far down the way and that we could walk to her house to call his parents to give us a ride home. It was late, maybe 10, but he seemed confident.
As we were about halfway to our destination, a patrol car made a sharp U-turn and pulled next to us with the siren going. The cop asked us where we were going, and Maverick gave them his aunt’s address. The officer gave us a quick pat down, during which Mav let him know that his father was Newark police and quickly gave his dad’s name and badge number. The officer looked at him closely, before noting, “Oh yeah, I know Tim.” The officer told us to get to our destination quickly as it was gang initiation season. He hopped back in the patrol car and drove off.
Shortly after arriving at Maverick’s aunt’s house, his Dad arrived and drove us home. He told Maverick that as soon as we were stopped, he should have told the officer his father was Newark police. Maverick said he really didn’t have time to think because the officer rolled up on us so quickly. His dad accepted that reply, fell silent briefly, then told me to do the same thing if I ever got stopped again. His voice wasn’t really angry, but there was an audible tension in it. Maverick would change the subject by asking his dad about the jazz music playing on the radio.
As LaValle noted in the letter we read in class, his goal was to preserve Akai’s optimism against the pervasive cynicism born from normalizing tragedy. Both letters made me think about how I still keep my head on a swivel when walking to the bookstore or around town. I thought about how DMX among other artists were still playing in my headphones during these walks. I’ll likely share that letter in the back of issue 5 with my students during our next class. I hope they will appreciate it as much as I do.
Rest in Peace, Daunte Wright
Rest in Peace, Earl Simmons