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?
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?