FeaturedOpEd

Rep. Cummings, HBO’s ‘Watchmen’, and How Black Creatives Can Battle Erasure

HBO’s Watchmen ignited its season with three things that most blerds love: masked heroes, alternate timelines…and Regina King. King’s character, Angela Abar (dubbed ‘Sister Night’ in the series) isn’t in the original comics, but proves her mettle as a healthy addition to the story and cast from the moment she dons her mask. Also, as the story unfolds, she effectively pulls Abar into a space that intersects the alternate present depicted in this series, with the very real horrors of our inalterable past. Couple that with the time-jumping maze of circumstances fans of Alan Moore, and Dave Gibbons –co-creators of the DC comic that birthed the HBO series–have come to know and love, and we have a season opener that is evocative and affecting. I’m sure the latter is what writers were shooting for, and they certainly hit their mark. But I wonder if they realized that they inadvertently took aim at another target with their premiere–the erasure of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

If you just scoffed at the notion that there’s been an erasure of this event, then congratulations; you’re part of a good chunk of folk who are so well-versed in history that you view not knowing about the massacre too great of an indictment to bear. But, if you didn’t know about it until you Googled it after the first episode of The Watchmen, you’re not alone. 

Regina King as Angela Abar / Sister Night

In step with the theme of the series, let’s pause for a moment and consider the timing of this premiere. It intersects with a recent event that will, if the fates allow, also be in the history books of the children of Generation Z. 

The death of politician, long-time voting rights activist, and civil rights leader Rep. Elijah Cummings gives us a chance to look at what the erasure of crucial historical events costs Americans with regard to our ongoing discourse about inequity and justice, and how fighting those exclusions has always been an uphill battle. The events of Cummings’ life, and many of his contemporaries who flanked him throughout the civil rights era, haven’t yet been immortalized in a way that can capture the attention span of a digital, device-driven audience, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t raged against the soft deletion of their collective efforts to combat bigotry in their districts, on the Hill, and in general.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings

Despite not having been there, Cummings cited “Bloody Sunday” in some of his speeches and legislative writing because it was a historic protest characterized by a standoff between civil rights activists and the racist police officers who gassed, hosed, beat, and sicced dogs on them as they attempted to march to Montgomery, Alabama. The lesson in this is that he not only used the story as a cautionary tale about the constant threat of voting rights suppressions, he also did it to remind those who are often far removed from it aside from a short blurb they read about it in their history books, that the event still represents the potential violence that froths beneath seemingly calm political waters in instances when vulnerable populations fight for their rights.

Cummings used the House floor and the pen as his weapons of choice against erasure, which has been and is effective to a point. But what of today? Traditionally, most Americans under 35 aren’t as civically engaged enough to skim the headlines for legislative news or keep track of all the figures, policies, dates, and events that gave way to the privileges they enjoy today. Luckily, many black creatives are aware that what young, distracted minds are not detached from, are Netflix series. TV., movies, graphic novels and comics, cartoons–all of the former have an impact on public opinion in a way that speeches and pictures alone don’t (anymore), because the generation who’ll take up the mantle against injustice doesn’t care about those mediums as much, or, they don’t care about those mediums alone.

Considering that people of all ages and walks of life are not only familiar with Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Nat Turner, and Shirley Chisolm, but also enamored with their stories, furthers the point that the reach and impact of broadening the conversations around these figures outside of history books is what made uphold the continuity of their legacies. 

The good news is, it’s been going well for the people who’ve been doing that work. Black creatives have a good track record, countless stories about unsung heroes, and a quietly adhered-to collective trajectory: tell it all and tell it well. In truth, the names and events central to Black history that has endured, concretely, are those that have already been illuminated by talented Black writers, directors, actors, and other creatives. The minds, pens, lenses, and theatrical acumen of a new wave of creatives has brought the world stories about how Black people have impacted the world. 

Cummings knew that the story of Bloody Sunday is worth remembering, just as the writers of Watchmen knew that the Tulsa Massacre is worth sharing, too. Even when the story isn’t perfect, it can prompt an audience toward further research and discourse and start a fire–just as the DuVernay-directed Central Park Five did. Even if one effort to further a story fails, another can grow in its place. Such is the case with Cummings’ push to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill. The measure was delayed indefinitely, but a new Tubman movie was just released which may renew interest in the campaign to replace former president and slave owner Andrew Jackson’s face with hers. All of it speaks to the idea that history is shaped by powerful storytellers, and reinforces the idea that Black creatives should continue to recount Black American history in a way that shifts the conversation about it and forces people’s eyes open. 

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M’Shai S Dash is a freelance writer and blogger from Washington D.C. She’s a pop-culture connoisseur and Legend of Zelda fanatic who writes about blerd culture, social justice issues, and Afrofuturism. Dash is currently a staff writer for Blacksci-Fi.com.

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