I don’t remember if Bill Cosby actually told us to pull up our pants; the night before graduation was long, and Morehouse’s ceremony was mercilessly early in the morning.

I do remember feeling like he just told 500 college grads, the best and brightest of a generation, to pull up our collective pants. He preached “respectability”: freedom, employment, and, well, respect must be earned by acting the part. If Black people deviated from these “respectable” norms that just happened to look and sound and feel Eurocentric, then whatever misfortune befell us was rightfully earned.

I remember endless conversations: Were long locks professional? Braids? Was my own hair texture not professional? What about using slang (or is it AAVE)? What about my accent? Certainly I wouldn’t sag my pants in an interview, but what if I wanted to wear a certain style while walking around my neighborhood? Was I inviting trouble simply by existing as I saw fit?

I thought this conversation was simply academic. Authenticity, I convinced myself, did not require consistency, and “respectability” was simply a second language I used to communicate to masses.

Clothing and hair choices were simply chameleon’s skin, a subconscious reaction to changing environments. And a chameleon, red or blue, was still a chameleon after all.

Or was it?

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

I remember the horror of realizing my laugh was not my own.

It was a laugh, yes, and it came from me, but it wasn’t mine. My laugh was pantomime, conceived to make others comfortable, perfected through years and years of performance.

Had I been living my whole life as someone else, for someone else? Was I living for me or for “them,” the amorphous “them,” unidentifiable yet omnipresent?

If I didn’t know my own laugh, how could I possibly know my own voice? How could I know who I was?

What of me was for them? What of me was for me? For us?

And if I didn’t know the answer, how could I or we ever be free?

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

Three young men are seen fawning over the “Black Panther” poster at a movie theater. One jokingly embraces the poster while another asks, rhetorically: “This is what white people get to feel all the time?” There is laughter before someone says, as though delivering the punch line to the most painful joke ever told: “I would love this country, too.”

To understand the Milestone Comics character Icon and how he got a fan in Clarence Thomas of all people, you’ve got to understand the history of the comic character and of the comic’s creation.

An alien, separated from his race, adopted by kind people, learned to use his power in the (literal) field. He could fly. Run fast. Lift heavy things. Project energy. Project power. He was power.

He would learn the law. He would work hard and fight the good fight. He would fall in love.

But though he was immortal, love would not be eternal. His love would die, and with it, his empathy.

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

He would become colder. More callous. Judgmental of how his adopted people, Black people, should look, talk and act. And if they didn’t look and talk and act right then, well, their problems were self-inflicted.

Agustus Freeman was what success in the system looked like. The system was survival, and Icon, after all, was a survivor. His appearance was clean. Cropped hair cut. No facial hair. Pants didn’t sag. No hint of any anti-police angst or reveling against the man.

It’s clear why Justice Thomas would see himself, the conservative lawyer/superhero saving a people from themselves, in Icon. To the credit of Icon’s creator, the legendary Dwayne McDuffie, Thomas could see his beliefs fully and empathetically fleshed out, not simply a amalgamation of half-baked stereotypes.

But there is irony (surely intentional) that the safe, clean-cut image the character cultivated in the comic would also be a reason people in the real world were drawn to the comic.

Agustus Freeman would “look the part” on the cover of a comic, even if you never bothered to read a word. He was designed so you could judge a book by it’s cover for a world that always, always judged Black books by their covers.

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

Dwayne McDuffie and the Milestone team knew the world they lived in. Yes, they actively sought to create a diverse range of characters to cover the many nuances of Black thought. But Icon? The capstone hero of their nascent company? He couldn’t — he wouldn’t — look any other way.

If you’re going to compete with Clark Kent, then you’ve got to look the full part.

Barrier breakers don’t have freedom of expression. They conform and adapt in hopes that enough adaptation and confirmation would propel them forward. They must learn to laugh in ways comforting those who would do them harm.

Readers keen enough to look past the glossiness of his image would understand the tortured, subversive Genesis of his ideology.

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

He would learn the law. He would work hard and fight the good fight. He would fall in love.

But though he was immortal, love would not be eternal. His love would die, and with it, his empathy.

He would become colder. More callous. Judgemental of how his adopted people, Black people, should look, talk and act. And if they didn’t look and talk and act right then, well, their problems were self-inflicted.

Agustus Freeman was what success in the system looked like. The system was survival, and Icon, after all, was a survivor. His appearance was clean. Cropped hair cut. No facial hair. Pants didn’t sag. No hint of any anti-police angst or reveling against the man.

It’s clear why Justice Thomas would see himself, the conservative lawyer/superhero saving a people from themselves, in Icon. To the credit of Icon’s creator, the legendary Dwayne McDuffie, Thomas could see his beliefs fully and empathetically fleshed out, not simply a amalgamation of half-baked stereotypes.

But there is irony (surely intentional) that the safe, clean-cut image the character cultivated in the comic would also be a reason people in the real world were drawn to the comic.

Agustus Freeman would “look the part” on the cover of a comic, even if you never bothered to read a word. He was designed so you could judge a book by it’s cover for a world that always, always judged Black books by their covers.

Dwayne McDuffie and the Milestone team knew the world they lived in. Yes, they actively sought to create a diverse range of characters to cover the many nuances of Black thought. But Icon? The capstone hero of their nascent company? He couldn’t — he wouldn’t — look any other way.

If you’re going to compete with Clark Kent, then you’ve got to look the full part.

Barrier breakers don’t have freedom of expression. They conform and adapt in hopes that enough adaptation and confirmation would propel them forward. They must learn to laugh in ways comforting those who would do them harm.

Readers keen enough to look past the glossiness of his image would understand the tortured, subversive Genesis of his ideology.

Just as Black people contort bodies and minds, sacrificing authenticity to prove our viability, so too was the image of Icon shaped to prove his worth, both in the comic and outside it. Hopefully readers would not simply judge the book by its cover.

But existence as a Black man is not always hopeful.

The story of Milestone’s Icon — the character and creation, shaped by generational trauma — is the story of endurance. Of how much of us were we willing to change to make it to the top.

But if we must change so much to succeed - if we must sacrifice our empathy and voice and laugh - does it even matter if we make it to the top? Would our reign be for them? Would it be for us? Would getting to the top truly make us free?

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

Barack Obama was separated from his ancestors, adopted by kind people, and learned to use his superpower, his voice, at times necessary and dire.

His appearance was clean. Cropped hair cut. No facial hair. Pants didn’t sag. No hint of any anti-police angst or reveling against the man (even though so many others spent so much time trying to prove the contrary).

He could think. “Speak well”. Work a fadeaway jumper. He could draw crowds full of young people. He was elected and reelected. He could project energy.

Icon, I’m sure, would be proud. Clarence Thomas? Less so.

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

Yet Obama was not perfect. Depending on who you ask, he either would not (because of lack of care) or could not (because of a lack of institutional support) deride racism and its effects on Black people in strong or significant terms.

Even in things he did that were unabashedly for Black people - My Brother’s Keeper for instance - still feel incomplete. I remember his speeches at Morehouse and Howard. Speeches that— in places — were not tonally different than Bill Cosby’s; not tonally different from Icon’s conservative edicts, enamored with Black people pulling themselves up by bootstraps. (Reminder: Black folk have done nothing if not pull ourselves up.)

And while those edicts may well be fine and true, why did Black Superman not provide more and better bootstraps while he had power?

Icon by Dwayne McDuffie; pencils by M.D. Bright; inks by Mike Gustovic

In fact, why did we need bootstraps at all? Why could he not lift us up on his broad shoulders?

I was never sad for him or angry at him. I applauded him. How else could he break a ceiling so preposterous and imposing without a little blood? His inconsistencies and milquetoast edicts never bothered me. Years of contorting my body and my voice and my laugh gave me a superpower too - the ability to see one of my own. In him I saw a kindred spirit. As I was struggling to do, he did. My vote was a reward for him assimilating successfully where I could not.

But as I realized my laugh was not mine, those words I once rationalized, those same words I once applauded, now cut.

Truth is they always cut. Small, imperceptible cuts. Each indignity and each contortion, again and again and again, cutting at my person, shaping me by 1000 small cuts, from authentic autonomy into someone who doesn’t know their own laugh.

These cuts - these reinforcements of respectability - come through graduation speeches and comic book covers. Omnipresent and overbearing collectively, their individual effect is subtle, slowly, cumulatively changing you into something else. Someone else.

True, there is almost certainly an Obama if there’s no Icon. But the influence of 1000 cuts - The reinforcement of this idea that you had to be a certain way to succeed - shaped him. Molded him. Limited him. Icon was surely one of many cuts for Obama; He was certainly one for me.

A life of public service — a life of being a hero — required Obama to sacrifice, as Cosby warned; as Icon felt he had to.

As I still do, unsure of my voice; wary of my own laugh.

I’m short, bald, and wear glasses because of genetics, —not by choice. My first name is Irish, my middle biblical, and my last Anglo. That my existence, full of privileges earned and granted, should require little contortion. And yet I was told I would end up in jail. I’ve been followed through stores and almost arrested. I’ve been pulled over and followed and stopped and frisked again and again and again and again.

Respectability didn’t save me. It’s only taken from me in ways I only now grasp.

The world is different today than it was in the early 1990’s. (And yet, not different enough). Spider-Man has waves and Jordan’s. Black Lightning has a network TV show. Tattooed, bearded athletes live among us as real-life superheroes, speaking truth to power and creating change. Yes, conservative voices still need to be heard. Everyone deserves representation. But what does that voice sound like - what does that hero look like - when it’s not designed for them, to appease them and comfort them, but for us, unabashedly?

Must we still be shaped by those cuts, or do we exist in a world that allows and encourages us to just be?

I hope the next generation, maybe a little more free from the grip of expectations, can live a little more honestly and exist as themselves with a few less cuts. I hope this new generation of Black heroes creates generations of Black leaders that lean into controversy. A new generation of heroes that expands the concept of heroism in new and exciting ways.

I’ve been cut and molded and silenced. No longer. I now walk on the journey of discovering me, whomever that is, however his laugh sounds.

And I hope the next generation of heroes and leaders that will be free to be whomever they are too.

Not for them. For us.

A proud New Orleanian living in the District of Columbia, Jude Jones is a professional thinker, amateur photographer, burgeoning runner, and lover of Black culture, love, and life. Magneto and Cyclops (and Killmonger) were right. You can read more from Jude here.