Beyond Children of the Atom: Black Politics, White Minds and the X-Men
by Morpheus Reloaded
"By any means necessary."
The famous quote by black political icon, orator and legend Malcolm X is well known to many. However I couldn't help notice the surprise on a friend's face when he heard the line uttered not by the 1960s black visionary, but British actor Sir Ian McKellen in the role of another icon that rose to prominence in the turbulent 1960s: Eric Magnus Lehnsherr, better known as Magneto. The first of these luminaries may have been flesh and blood while the other exists only as ink within Marvel Comics X-Men Universe, but that didn't matter: because in that brief moment I had been vindicated.
Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), left, and Magneto (Ian McKellen), right, in X-Men movie. In this scene McKellen utters the famous Malcolm X quote.
Let me rewind so you can better get my point….
When I first ran along the pages of the X-Men comic world as a kid, I was hooked. It was a fascinating story filled with characters with names like Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler. These were heroes with powers that boggled the mind: the ability to heal from any wound and brandish claws made of the strongest metal on Earth; control the weather to create cyclones or maelstroms with but a thought; or equipped with a body that could not only perform amazing acrobatic feats but teleport and reappear again with a quick smell of brimstone and a BAMF! These characters went off on adventures to far off worlds filled with Kree, Sh'iar or the terrifying Brood, battled prehistoric beasts in hidden jungle realms and even tangled with demon lord sorcerers in nether realms called Limbo.
From left to right, just a few characters of the X-Universe: Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Rogue and Gambit.
But what set this story apart for me from so many other comic titles that sat upon shelves and racks was the theme it espoused.
The main characters (both heroes and villains) in the X-Universe belong to a group called mutants, humans born with a special "x" factor in their genes that gives them varied powers. These mutants are oppressed and hated by the majority, who fear them. They suffer acts of brutal violence, people don't want mutants in schools with their children, nor do they want them to have any type of equality. There are hate groups claiming to be for normal human rights that think mutants should be rounded up. In the 1980s mutants are enslaved in the mythical nation Genosha, which not only practiced mutant-apartheid but quite intentionally lay off the coast of South Africa. Like something from a modern day AIDS conspiracy theory, a terrible engineered disease strikes down many of them. There's even a derogatory word for mutants, "mutie." And of course those who sympathize with mutants are labeled "mutie lovers." Like some ultimate COINTELPRO operation, even the US government conspires against them, not above carrying out unethical medical experiments on this hapless and persecuted minority.
A familiar hateful slogan from history refitted for comic book fantasy.
It doesn't take a rocket-scientist to see the parallels (all rocket-scientists out there however, keep up the good work).
As I thumbed through the pages of my X-Men comic book at a young age I would casually switch mutant for black, "mutie" for [place your racially charged expletive here] and gene for race. I was well aware that the subjugation of mutants was symbolic of various forms of intolerance, bigotry and persecution beyond the black plight. Yet it wasn't very hard to notice that it was the black plight that was initially used as the backdrop of the story. If the struggle against the dominant society wasn't enough to convince me of this fact, reading of the inner-struggle of this oppressed group confirmed matters.
Most mutants keep their powers hidden, hoping to assimilate into society and thus "pass." Others hate what they are and seek ways to change the way they were born. A few even think they are cursed. But most interesting in the X-Universe are the two major factions who vie for power among the mutant masses and react in similar, yet widely divergent ways to the hatred meted out to them by the larger human society.
One group of mutants (the X-Men) are led by Professor Charles Xavier, a wheel chair bound psychic with a peaceful demeanor who hopes for a better world where little mutant girls and little human boys will one day hold hands. The other group is led by Magneto, a powerful and fiery minded mutant with the ability to control magnetism. A survivor of Nazi persecution, Magneto pushes for mutant liberation: preaching mutant pride and declaring that his people should fight on their feet rather than live on their knees. Professor Xavier hopes a destructive gene war will never happen, and appeals to humanity's brotherhood. His one-time friend and ally Magneto however is more cynical, believing the gene war is inevitable and that mutant violence in the name of self-defense is not violence at all---but a struggle for freedom.
For years I had been telling many that Professor Xavier, the white leader of the X-Men, was a symbolism for the philosophies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like the Civil Rights icon, Xavier worked feverishly for better relations between humans and mutants, holding out for what was often referred to in the comics as a "dream." And Magneto, the equally white, impassioned master of magnetism who is more interested in mutant freedom than integration, was in my mind none other than an allegory for Malcolm X. I was usually met with scoffs and disbelief, with most telling me I was taking things too seriously. It was just a comic book they would say. True enough, I would concede to the doubters, the mutant dilemma symbolized many an oppressed minority group and was not singly focused on blacks. But I argued that the many interconnecting factors in the comic pointed to a Civil Rights vs Black Power ideological clash as its main symbolism, namely through Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
One of many ideological battles through the years between Magneto and Professor Xavier's X-Men
Personal confirmation had come for me years ago in a Wizard magazine article. Therein it confirmed that comic book creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had indeed come up with the X-Men concept while following the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of 1960s that unfolded daily on their television screens. In fact right before the release of the first X-Men movie, an Entertainment magazine article stated that the director for the motion picture version of the comic did not come onto the project until the X-Men was pitched to him as a classic battle between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. For my hardheaded friend however it would take Magneto's final words to convince them of my theories. So when I was in that dark theater watching the first X-Men movie and saw acceptance slowly settle onto his face, I couldn't help but smile with a smug "told ya' so."
But with confirmation also came disturbance.
When I first came to the realization that the comic book I was reading was not as vague as once thought, and was indeed borrowing greatly from elements of a specific real life struggle, I had to reexamine everything no longer from the perspective of just another comic book fanatic---but from that of the oppressed group in question, black folks. And I came to some interesting realizations.
Firstly, while the X-Men comic touts itself as a story with the theme of countering bigotry and intolerance---that's a bit of a misnomer. What the story really discusses, in the main, is how an oppressed group reacts to that bigotry and hatred. And it is a theme, using the black struggle as a central backdrop, borne entirely from white minds. Herein lies the critique.
To my knowledge neither Stan Lee nor Jack Kirby (creators of the X-Men and literal demigods of the comic world; may I not be smote for my sacrilege) conducted any large polling of black people when designing the X-Men. Neither spoke with Dr. King or Malcolm X to ask their take on things. I have no idea if the two delved into long and complex research on the variance of black political thought, but I seriously doubt it. Rather what we had were two white men who decided to tackle the oft-neglected problems of racism in America through the pages of fiction and symbolism (being certain in the racially charged 1960s to even use all white characters). And though it was a noble, well-intentioned deed, an idea hatched by two white men thinking themselves equipped and empathic enough to speak on the black struggle was bound to have inherent flaws.
What we get from the X-Men therefore is not really an understanding and accurate analysis of the black struggle, the multi-faceted ways black people have dealt with persecution, the overall problems of race and racism, or the goals and philosophies of Dr. King and Malcolm X. Rather the X-Men speak volumes more precisely on white perceptions of race, white ideas of racism and white views on the historical and political black reactions to such oppression. And even though these are liberal perspectives from two individuals who themselves know something of persecution (Stanley Lee was born Stanley Lieber and artist Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg -- two men of Jewish heritage who were forced to take on monikers simply to work professionally), the ideas espoused still tend to fall way short of the mark.
In this white created world that hates and fears mutants, the two factions that arise among mutant kind are forever locked in a war---with each other. It is a classical white view on the turbulent 1950s and 60s. Furthermore Lee and Kirby created not only an opposition of political views among this oppressed minority but a clear white statement of who was right and who was wrong, in effect casting moral judgment on real life black politics and how blacks react to oppression.
Make no mistake about it; the X-Men and Professor Xavier are the good guys, just like MLK and the Civil Rights Movement in much of the modern white psyche. What these "good mutants" fight for is right and just. They want to live with humans. They want integration. They fight for peace. And if they could be non-violent, they most certainly would be. The X-Men live for this "dream" of Professor Xavier. It is what he preaches: appealing to liberal humans in the hopes that "we can all just get along."
Professor Charles Francis Xavier, visionary and leader of the X-Men who hopes for peace between mutants and humanity and seeks to protect that dream from those who would destroy it.
Make no mistake about the bad guys. Magneto is a reverse-racist, a Malcolm X type figure tormented by past oppression. He is a fiery militant who at one point even leads a "Brotherhood of Evil," fighting for the liberation of his people "by any means necessary." He is mutant and proud and believes its time to stop depending on humans to give mutants freedom, but to stand up and take it for themselves. He urges mutants to seize the time and, if necessary, use violence to achieve their ends. He even preaches, and for a short time practices, separatism from his oppressors. Magneto and his followers, like the Black Power Movement, have lost faith in the unfulfilled "dream" and doubt that a mutant can ever receive justice from the dominant racial class.
Magneto, concentration camp survivor and one-time friend of Professor Xavier turned fiery, mutant-power militant leader, who struggles to ensure his people win what he sees as an inevitable war with humanity.
In the X-Men's reality while the hatred of the human majority is an ever-present threat, it is the inner political struggle that most consumes these factions---making mutant-on-mutant crime a common occurrence. This viewpoint turns Magneto into the leader of a group of crazed mutant power militants, dangerous to the general public whom they seek to lash out against. Magneto is a fictional character that personifies limited, white stereotypes, fears and fascinations of black leaders like Malcolm X: romanticized as fiery prophets of rage tormented by past demons, consumed with hatred for their oppressors and espousing violence and preaching a type of reverse-racial-superiority. On the other extreme this white perspective turns the X-Men into mutants at times more interested in protecting humans from fellow mutants than dealing with that which oppresses them. Through the symbolism of Professor Xavier, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement are relegated to one-track minded integrationists more concerned with denouncing the Black Power Movement than fighting to end discrimination and for equality. And finally the dominant society (whites) is cast in the X-World as humanity, oppressors who now fear that they will become victims of those they have persecuted. Thus the X-Men, more interested in protecting their oppressors than fighting for their freedom, act as a bulwark against Magneto and his mutant militants. Marvel makes it quite plain, the X-Men are "mutants…(who)…use their awesome abilities to protect a world that hates and fears them." Ensuring equality is secondary.
Sentinels: android US government giants, slave era 'paddyrollers' meets Homeland Security, used to police and hunt down mutants. Like something out of 1920s Tulsa, OK, a fleet of the genocidal robots eventually exterminates millions of mutants who had established a haven away from humans off the coast of Africa.
One must beg to wonder if this is the average white view of the totality of the black struggle. In their minds does Malcolm X and any assertion of black empowerment, nationalism, or the like boil down to nothing more than hateful black power militants bent on violent vengeance or a desire to rule whites? Is not even Nat Turner justified in his actions? How about Harriet Tubman? And do whites simply view people like Dr. King as a buffer of "good blacks" whose main goal was to keep such fearful forces at bay? In the common white psyche are the complexities that drove these ideologues recognized, or are these important figures in the black political struggle merely divided into cut and dry camps of "good" and "evil?"
Sometimes, letting my mind wander even further, I often ponder on what other symbolisms are spawned within the white mind of the X-reality: from the African goddess Storm's oddly placed blue eyes, to the ghetto analogies of the underground dwelling mutant Morlocks, to the extreme angry and violent "menace to society" mutants like Sabretooth, to ultimate evil taking the form of a several thousand-year-old immortal, African born, super-eugenicist by the name of Apocalypse who (given his chance to rise up against massa and the plantation) simply proves to be a reverse racist that would make Hitler blush [see the classic, Age of Apocalypse series]. But I don't want to over-analyze and, unlike with the main themes of Malcolm and MLK, these latter thoughts are mere idle speculation. So I'll leave that for others to dwell on. Who knows, maybe in a few years I'll be vindicated again.
The alternate reality known as the Age of Apocalypse, where the ultimate fear of Professor X and humanity come to pass: a global revolution that results in a reverse-racist society where vengeful mutants turn the tables upon their one time oppressors in an orgy of violence, genocide and racial supremacy.
For the record, let me state that I'm not making a conspiracy theory out of all this. I don't think most of this was done with malice or harmful intent, though the effects are still what they are. Rather I believe what you see here is honesty, either subconscious or conscious, and an interesting insight into the ideology of mainstream white society---and perhaps even their deep-seated fears. This article is just a bit of social criticism of popular art and a personal observation. No one has to agree with it or take it up as a philosophy. I'm not calling for a boycott of X-Men the comics or the recent movie. I'm not claiming it had any gross racial or religious slights. Despite whatever shortcomings I see in the storyline, I still welcome the theme and courage to at least bring up a subject (though couched in symbolism) most do not want to speak upon. And over the years there have been attempts to modify the much-maligned Magneto, to at least give meaning and understanding to his anger---if not justification. As in X2, both ideological camps at times find themselves becoming allies in order to fight the greater threat. I'm still a fan of the X-Universe (so sue me) and I make mine MARVEL. None of this however silences me, renders me blind or stops me from being a critic.
However I am left to wonder on what would have been, had this comic been created by black people, using the same themes of Dr. King and Malcolm X and the black struggle. I am apt to suspect, or at least hope, our views of these matters would be much less narrow. Our version of the X-Men probably wouldn't leave Magneto a one-dimensional mental basket case. Rather we would probably understand his side of things much as we understood Dr. King's. We certainly wouldn't have him leading a "Brotherhood of Evil."
Our Professor Xavier, while interested in peace between humans and mutants, might also spend a lot more time fighting for freedom: even making more impassioned speeches against the system on behalf of the oppressed. Our X-Men would hopefully be as adamant about peace with other mutants as they are about peace with humanity.
Perhaps our versions of Professor Xavier and Magneto would rekindle their old friendship and find ways to work together, rather than remain in eternal combat while their mutual enemies gather about them. In that way I suppose our versions of these respective leaders would not seem like hollow stereotypes, but real people who realize the larger struggle is more important than their petty bickering.
The reality however, for better or for worse, is that the X-Men are here to stay as is: an intended expose on race, bigotry and intolerance in society that actually in the end sheds more light on the white psyche than anything approaching reality.
Maybe in the 1960s, when Lee and Kirby were brainstorming on their creations and the all-important message they wanted to send forth, they could have at least heeded the words uttered by a white philosopher from 1948 who actually took the time to examine the complex dimensions of the race, the black struggle and the varying reactions to oppression: Jean-Paul Sartre.
"What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that muted those black mouths," he asked. "That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes?"
Maybe with that bit of insight by the creators, we could have had a very different Magneto and a more fitting legacy for Malcolm X. How different then, our 'Children of the Atom' and their struggle might have been.
Morpheus_Reloaded- Exposin Fake Shyt.
[Released: May 8th, 2003]
The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of Playahata.com.