Will I Live to See My Utopia?

 “Will I live to see my utopia?”—Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias

When I first saw the trailer for HBO’s adaptation of Watchmen, I knew I wanted to see it. Guys in Rorschach masks. “Tick Tock, Tick Tock.” And best of all, Regina King as a brand new hero in a nun outfit. What was there not to like? HBO may have fumbled the ending of Game of Thrones on the one-yard line. But they’d dazzled me with The Leftovers, where Regina King played Erika Murphy, and gave one of the more memorable scenes in television history—as she and Nora (Carrie Coon) jumped on a trampoline[1] to the soundtrack of Wu’s “Protect Ya Neck (the Jump Off).” Now HBO was going to play around in Alan Moore’s dystopian wonderland? Sign me up. When the show premiered I was prepared to be richly entertained.

What I wasn’t expecting, was that it would be so blatantly and unapologetically—BLACK.

HBO’s Watchmen opens with an iris shot onto a silent film, where a hooded figure in black chases a man atop a white horse. In moments, the figure in black pulls the man from his horse with a rope and subdues him before startled townsfolk. It’s quickly revealed that the black hooded figure is none other than Bass Reeves[2]—the former slave turned Oklahoma law enforcement officer plucked from our own history. In this inversion of the Western, like something conceived by Oscar Micheaux[3], the figure in black is both literally Black and the good guy; the man on the white horse is the villain, a corrupt sheriff.

The scene pulls away to a young Black boy in a movie theater, rapt with attention as his mother plays a piano in accompaniment—though the music fails to drown out what sounds like sirens somewhere near. On screen, Bass Reeves prevents the angry white townsfolk from meting out vigilante justice on their sheriff. The little boy gleefully repeats his lines as a familiar mantra, or perhaps talisman: “There will be no mob justice today, TRUST IN THE LAW.” But the mayhem from outside the theater only grows louder, shaking the building. By the time the boy’s father enters in a WW1 uniform, rifle in hand, the tension is ominous. Handing his rifle to his wife, he picks up the boy and the three leave the movie house—and step into a nightmare.

It’s a scene of chaos. A mass of Black bodies, fleeing in terror. Storefronts set on fire. Men and women shot down. An airplane buzzing menacingly above like a dragon. There seems to be struggle, and screams, and death everywhere—more than the eye and mind can take it at once. Like a modern recreation of the final panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s, The Garden of Earthly Delights[4], illustrating Hell. Even the demons are there: garbed in bright white Klan outfits, with hoods peeled back to reveal murderous faces. Before your mind can make sense of it, words in some shade of Watchmen yellow superimpose across the screen: TULSA 1921.

Gotta admit, didn’t see that coming.

Once those two words flashed, what I was looking at resolved into focus. The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921[5]. The Tulsa Massacre. The scene set off a surge on Google[6] as viewers searched for information on the riot—their first time learning about it. Many Black folks, though, didn’t have to go looking. We’d heard some version of this story. I couldn’t even tell you where or when it was passed on to me—one of those bits of common knowledge that travels along Black intra-community networks, written down in our Scriptures on the Sins of White Folk. The story of the all-Black and self-sustaining community that rose up in the middle of Jim Crow. That prospered, with its own businesses and professionals. Black Wall Street, they called it. Even if you didn’t know every detail—like the discrepancies about airplanes dropping dynamite on buildings, or the disputes over mass graves[7]—you had heard something about Tulsa. It was a story of Black excellence, and Black horror. A tragic tale of a lost world like the city of Atlantis, or doomed Krypton—only snuffed out not by natural disaster or hubris, but by the reckless fires of white supremacy.

Still, the cold open of an HBO production was the last place I expected to see this. I’d gone my entire Black life and never seen a single recreation—not once. Our stories didn’t appear in mainstream productions like this. Our histories certainly weren’t centered this way within a major speculative canon. Our perspective wasn’t supposed to fit into stories of superheroes as jaded vigilantes, a physics- bending blue guy, and the greatest hoax ever played on mankind—à la interdimensional psychic squid.

But here we were. This was happening.

It was fitting that HBO’s adaptation of Watchmen was set in Tulsa. The show’s creator, Damon Lindelof, whose imagination had taken us through Lost and World War Z, admitted never having heard about the massacre until his 40s—crediting his immersion into this dark piece of Americana to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.”[8] White innocence abounds. But once learning about it, he says he knew the story had to be set there. This adaptation of Watchmen needed to have an “undefeatable evil,” he claimed, on par with the Cold War fears of the original. And what evil in the end is more undefeatable, enduring, and stubbornly persistent in America than racism? It’s one of our inexhaustible natural resources.

The destruction of Black Wall Street was not the first or the last of its kind. Anti-Black riots had been part of the United States since the antebellum era; they raged through the Civil War and roiled Reconstruction. By the early twentieth-century, anti-Black riots became a common event: New Orleans[9], Atlanta[10], East St. Louis[11] and elsewhere, even Springfield[12], home to Abraham Lincoln. Anything could set it off. When boxer Jack Johnson beat his white opponent James Jeffries in 1910, white mobs across the country attacked African Americans in multiple incidents[13]–one Black man on a streetcar reportedly having his throat slashed ear to ear for talking about Johnson’s victory. The most infamous were in the Red Summer[14] of 1919, where anti-Black riots roiled the country from Chicago to Omaha, as the sight of Black men returning from WW1 in military regalia drove whites into frenzy. Private William Little was even lynched in Early County, Georgia, for his refusal to stop wearing his own uniform. Riots for most of American history worked feverishly to maintain white supremacy. The lessons were blunt. Black people were not to have heroes, be it Jack Johnson or Private Little. And any utopia like in Tulsa, or Rosewood after it, would be greeted by a veritable carnival of fury.

It’s interesting then that HBO’s Watchmen depended greatly on the idea of Black Utopias—their aspirations, strengths, and fragility. Despite the relentless repression, Black Utopias have filled the Black imagination for ages. For hopeful revolutionaries like Gabriel Prosser[15] and Denmark Vesey[16], that utopia was Haiti—the Black avengers of the modern world, who had risen up and dispatched their masters. Black Emigrationists, from Mary Ann Shadd-Cary[17] to Marcus Garvey, sought to make their utopia elsewhere, hoping to hop a Black Star Line to a promised land on some distant shore. Black authors like Edward A. Johnson in his 1904 book Light Ahead for the Negro[18], imagined that utopia in the future—where time had finally ground race prejudice to dust. Writer and editor Pauline Hopkins[19] joined a host of Black thinkers who pined for utopias lost in the distant past, regaling readers with “the Early Greatness of the African Race,” and creating fantastic fiction with ancient cities of Meroe, whose Black inhabitants use futurist technology based on crystals, suspended animation and telepathy. Through social action, religious ideologies, romanticized histories, Black radicalism, and the sheer imagination to dream in the face of terror that sought to destroy the body, and degradation that attempted to crush the soul—Black Utopias have been sought after, dreamt up, and held out the promise of something better. They are inherently imperfect, often won through struggle, and encroached upon by forces seeking their destruction.

In that sense, the Black Utopia dreamt up in this latest rendition of Watchmen shared a similar theme. It exists decades after the events in the original graphic novel. The world has found some relative peace in the wake of Ozymandias’s hoax. Robert Redford is president, and with his liberal agenda, reparations have been granted. I almost fell out my chair when I saw that part. Turns out, in this reality police protect Black people from racism. Fell out my chair a second time. There’s even a psychological test given to measure one’s level of anti-Blackness and propensity for violence. In this world none other than GOD—the enigmatic Dr. Manhattan—has decided to be Black. I fully ran out of chairs, and just decided to sit on the floor.

Of course, for a Black Utopia to exist, whiteness[20]—its accumulated privileges and trappings of power—has to be diminished. If white racism is the impetus for Black Utopias, it is also its single greatest threat. Unsurprising then that for some, this brief Black heaven created in Watchmen is a white Hell. “It’s extremely difficult being a white man in America right now,” one of the show’s villains relates. Reparations are derided cynically as “Redfordations”—perceived as a handout at their expense. Now that the police work to protect Black people, white nationalists in the form of the dreaded Seventh Kalvary target law enforcement as their enemies. Like its predecessor, this Black Utopia in Tulsa at once prospers but teeters on the edge of a white hot blade.

Enter into this tale, Regina King’s Angela Abar, a police officer. Like other police, she’s been forced to wear a mask: the only protection from the Seventh Kalvary, bent on overthrowing the utopia she’s now sworn to protect. Her persona, lifted fittingly from a Blaxploitation film, is Sister Night: part nun, part ninja, 100% no-nonsense heroine ass-kicker. You love to see it[21]. But as Angela soon finds out, the utopia she’s seeking to defend has enemies from within: literal closets filled not with skeletons, but ghostly robes. Searching through her past, she comes across the roots of her utopia, written in long buried Black pain that runs through her own family tree—back to that little boy watching Bass Reeves in 1921, her grandfather. Through a drug aptly named Nostalgia, she walks through a pain-filled past through his eyes, and views the many events that would lead to the world of masked crusaders she inherited: written in Black struggles against that old “undefeatable evil,” and its many guises.

By Watchmen’s end, this Black Utopia has survived, at least for the moment. Though we don’t know what the revelations now unearthed will mean for the future. The Black God of this world, once blue, it seems is dead—destroyed by the same rage that engulfed Black Tulsa in 1921. Even divinity wrought through science, it turns out, is no match for the determination of white supremacy. But we’re left a glimmer of hope, that in Angela Abar, a bit of that utopia might rise again. And that, perhaps, speaks most strongly to the Black experience—its audacity and daring to dream of the seemingly impossible—than anything else.

 

[1] “The Leftovers – Nora and Erika (Trampoline scene).” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5hFdqityqE

[2] “Reeves, Bass: The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.” Reeves, Bass | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=RE020.

[3] “Oscar Micheaux.” Kansas Historical Society, http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/oscar-micheaux/17713.

[4] The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych – The Collection. http://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-garden-of-earthly-delights-triptych/02388242-6d6a-4e9e-a992-e1311eab3609.

[5] “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, http://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/.

[6] Matos, Clinton. Watchmen Pilot Causes Surge in Google Searches for Tulsa Race Riot. 24 Oct. 2019, http://www.htxt.co.za/2019/10/24/watchmen-pilot-causes-surge-in-google-searches-for-tulsa-race-riot/.

[7] Brown, DeNeen L. “Tulsa Searches for Mass Graves from a Deadly 1921 Race Massacre.” The Washington Post, 23 Oct. 2019, http://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/10/08/tulsa-searches-mass-graves-race-massacre-that-left-hundreds-black-people-dead/.

[8] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, 16 June 2020, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.

[9] Bernardo, Joseph. “Robert Charles Riots (1900). 6 Feb. 2020, http://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/robert-charles-riots-1900/.

[10] “Atlanta Race Riot of 1906.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/atlanta-race-riot-1906.

[11] Wang, Tabitha. “East St. Louis Race Riot, 1917.” 10 May 2020, http://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/east-st-louis-race-riot-1917/.

[12] Yu, Karlson. “Springfield Race Riot, 1908”. 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/springfield-race-riot-1908/.

[13] “Johnson–Jeffries Riots.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 June 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson%E2%80%93Jeffries_riots.

[14] Waxman, Olivia B. “What Is Red Summer? What to Know on 1919’s Deadly Race Riots.” Time, 29 July 2019, time.com/5636454/what-is-red-summer/.

[15] “Africans in America/Part 3/Gabriel’s Conspiracy.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p1576.html.

[16] “Africans in America/Part 3/The Vesey Conspiracy.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p2976.html.

[17] “Mary Ann Shadd Cary (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, http://www.nps.gov/people/mary-ann-shadd-cary.htm.

[18] “Light Ahead for the Negro : Johnson, Edward A. (Edward Austin), 1860-1944.” Internet Archive, New York, The Grafton Press, archive.org/details/lightaheadforneg00johnrich.

[19] The Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society, 15 Dec. 2014, http://www.paulinehopkinssociety.org/biography/.

[20] Guess, Teresa J. “The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence”. Critical Sociology. https://www.cwu.edu/diversity/sites/cts.cwu.edu.diversity/files/documents/constructingwhiteness.pdf

[21] “Angela Abar.” Watchmen Wiki, https://watchmen.fandom.com/wiki/Angela_Abar?file=S1_E2.jpg.

P. Djèlí Clark

Phenderson Djèlí Clark is the award-winning and Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon nominated author of the novellas The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His stories have appeared in online venues such as Tor.com, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in print anthologies including, Griots, Hidden Youth, and Clockwork Cairo. A forthcoming novella, Ring Shout, will be published by Tor.com in October 2020.

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