We wear the masks

The TV series "Watchmen" deserves credit for how it put unsung elements of black history into mainstream culture.

Still from HBO's Watchmen.

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s cult and admittedly pasty white graphic novel Watchmen, superheroes first appeared in the late 1930s, but they have profoundly changed the course of history, most notably in the Cold War. Dr. Manhattan, a god-like, blue-skinned demiurge born in a lab accident, won the Vietnam War for the United States, the Asian country becoming the 51st state of the Union. Set in 1985, the graphic novel followed members of America’s most prominent (and now disbanded) superhero group as they discovered the massive conspiracy organized by Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the most intelligent man on Earth—to ward off the threat of nuclear war between the USSR and the USA, Ozymandias makes up an alien attack that wipes out half of New York’s population and convinces the blue man to go into exile on the red planet, Mars. And that is as much color as we’ll get.

The HBO television series Watchmen picks up in the year 2019 of this parallel world. What harmony the alien enemy may have first brought appears not to have lasted long, though in many ways these United States have profoundly changed. Under President Robert Redford, the country at large has made efforts to curb systemic racism, for example with the passing of the Victims of Racial Violence Act granting reparations (or Redfordations, in the parlance of the day) to victims of racist terror, most notably descendants of people killed in the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma Massacre (an actual historical event). It appears the government has also attempted to tackle police violence, their training and new rules of engagement have forced strict oversight notably in their use of weapons. These changes have not come easy. The white supremacist secret organization the Seventh Kavalry (whose members sport masks spray-painted with Rorschach motifs in homage to Watchmen’s eponymous fascistic and deranged vigilante) has violently opposed them all. For example, on December 25, 2016 they organized a widespread attack on police officers throughout Tulsa. In the aftermath of the “White Night,” legislation was passed by which police officers go masked at all times, some adopting superhero-like costumes and identities. Prominent among them is Angela Abar, aka Sister Night, played brilliantly by actor Regina King. As the series begins, the Seventh Kavalry has become active again.

During Watchmen’s run in late 2019, comments made in a 2016 interview by the original graphic novel’s writer Alan Moore to a Brazilian magazine started making the rounds online:

Save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.

This argument, eloquently made a few years earlier by Chris Gavaler, hovers over the entire season and most significantly in episode six, “This Extraordinary Being,” in which Angela Abar, having taken the memory drug Nostalgia, gets to experience episodes in the life of her grandfather, Will Reeves. In the process, Angela discovers secrets of her family’s past. Much like her grandfather and myriad superheroes, Angela became a masked vigilante in the aftermath of tragedies, which, for being personal, are imbricated in much broader systems of violence and oppression (Jim Crow-era systemic racism for Will and the aftermath of the annexation of Vietnam for Angela) that each of them first only recognized partially. Much like him, she lived under the false assumption that she could right systematic wrong through feats of individual bravery.

As she explores her grandfather’s life, Angela uncovers a secret history of the US. It involves a nationwide racist conspiracy: the Seventh Kavalry turns out to be but the latest incarnation of Cyclops—once the psy ops branch of the Ku Klux Klan with deep roots in the police—whose 1940s plan to use subliminal messages in order to exterminate the US’s people of color was only thwarted thanks to the intervention of Hooded Justice, America’s first superhero and Angela’s estranged grandfather. They are back with a vengeance and so is he: or, as the series suggests most pointedly, neither ever left.

In Watchmen, a show self-consciously obsessed with popular culture, history does not repeat itself: it rewinds, reruns, and is remade, new characters appearing under new titles and masks to reenact the same old story. Even as they are revealed, each layer provides but a partial picture, and what we are ultimately left with is the disturbing notion that there is no nation beneath the masks. The US has been and will continue to be—as long as it fails to properly address this history and its consequences—the racial masquerade itself.

Watchmen is at its best when it addresses the role played by popular culture in stamping race in the American collective imaginary. The first episode’s opening scene proves a template, the first instance in the recurring frame narration that characterizes the whole series’ structure. It purports to be an excerpt from a silent film, all jumpy black and white footage and jaunty piano music: a white man dressed in white clothes and a white hat rides his white horse, turning to shoot at the ominous black-cloaked figure chasing him on a black horse, twirling a lasso. Soon the rope cinches around the white rider and he is thrown off his horse in front of a skinny white church. The all-white congregation exit in a panic: the man in white is their sheriff, but as the man in black reveals, he is also the cattle rustler who has been stealing from them. The man in black drops his mask, revealing himself to be “BASS REEVES! The Black Marshall of Oklahoma!” The congregants call for the thief to be lynched, but Bass Reeves will have none of it: “There will be no mob justice today. TRUST IN THE LAW.” The title card is spoken out loud with infectious glee by the lone little boy watching the film in what turns out to be a Tulsa, Oklahoma movie theater in 1921. Moments later, the boy and his parents have to run for their lives as a rabid white mob rampages through Black Wall Street, shooting African Americans on sight.

On top of exposing an atrocious and still widely forgotten episode in actual US history, the scene packs several origin stories: the little boy, Will Williams, will see his parents die, survive the massacre and rename himself Will Reeves after his childhood hero. Like Marshall Bass Reeves, he becomes a lawman. When faced with corruption and terror within police ranks, in the guise of Cyclops, he also decides to take the law into his own hands. He becomes Hooded Justice, once again inspired by the Western hero of his youth—himself a movie take on a real life, relatively unsung, black hero of the West. The scene proves a way station in the US’s history of race, and provides a glimpse into its codes and conventions of representation.

In “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” Ralph Ellison discusses blackface as an inherently American form; “its function was to veil the humanity of Negroes thus reduced to a sign, and to repress the white audience’s awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities pushed behind the mask”(103). Positing blackface as one of the typically American instances of mask-wearing, albeit an ideologically charged one, Ellison went on to say that “[Americans] wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defense, when we are projecting the future and preserving the past. In short the motives hidden behind the mask are as numerous as the ambiguities the mask conceals” (109).

This is as broad a statement as it is insightful, simultaneously recognizing the weight of racial thinking and the possibility of individual complexity within and beyond it. The statement also resounds with the echoes of an older, more pointed statement by Frederick Douglass, who on seeing the minstrel show fad take Great Britain by storm in the mid-19th century, declared blackface to be “a mode of warfare … purely American.” By the time we find Will Reeves at the movie theater, this mode of warfare had become a crucial thread in the cultural fabric of America, pervading its popular arts.

In 1896, African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar became nationally renowned for his verse, some of it notably written in so-called Negro dialect, or African American Vernacular English. He soon found that the freedom to use the vernacular could also be a prison: the expectation of white audiences raised on minstrelsy and related sense of black authenticity meant that little distinction existed in the public sphere between that legacy of racist entertainment and the new forms black artists managed to put out in the world. The “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” was also “Prince of the Coon Songs,” and the authenticity of his speech was painted over by the stage conventions of minstrel shows: mask upon mask, as Dunbar famously lamented:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Those subtleties, Dunbar found out, were lost on most of his audience. No way around masking in Jim Crow USA. The rising myth of Dunbar’s day was that of a hero of blinding whiteness, the cowboy as a modern-day knight bandied by the likes of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt and his college buddy Owen Wister, author of bestselling novel The Virginian (1902). In the novel, a western judge justifies the western practice of lynching cattle rustlers, which according to him proves “that Wyoming is determined to become civilized,” by contrast to southern lynching which in its use of torture and reliance on spectacle, proves the South to be “semi- barbarous.” “When your ordinary citizen … sees that he has placed justice in a dead hand, he must take justice back into his own hands,” the judge continues, defining vigilantism as the “fundamental assertion of self-governing men.”

Not by chance is this the very situation in which we find Bass Reeves in the film that does so much to impress Will Reeves. Wister’s Virginian did not think twice about stringing up rustlers, even friends of his. (White) civilization demanded it. That Bass Reeves would refrain from it on film is shown as evidence of his humanity, and as such is echoed in the seemingly naïve trust Will’s father, Will himself, his son, and Angela, last of the line, all put in the US military and police, putting their lives on the line to defend institutions that all harm them in varied ways. “Trust in the law,” Bass Reeves’ tagline, seems paradoxical in a context when nothing is quite what it seems, lawmen are criminals and justice seekers are forced to go masked. Reeves speaks of the law, but he means justice; he pronounces his tagline but simultaneously, unwittingly, “mouths a myriad other subtleties” young Will won’t be able to hear for a long time.

In my recent book The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture, I argue that questions around the legitimacy of violence in the face of systemic injustice in the Americas all derive from the issue of black politics, and have entered US popular culture by way of it. By the time of the US Civil War, that slavery demanded retribution was clear to all, including supporters of that peculiar institution. It bears noting that the rhetoric of justice was perversely appropriated in the Reconstruction by Secessionists defeated in the field of battle in order to justify their promotion of racist terror as appropriate response to alleged “Negro Rule.” Thomas Dixon’s wildly popular Klan Cycle trilogy and their later adaptation by D.W. Griffith into the blockbuster Birth of a Nation (1915) purported to extend Wister’s western lone man heroism to southern mass terrorism, and for all accounts and purposes, in mainstream US culture it worked. What African American responses were produced in response to this trend tended to simply offer white knights painted black.

Thus among Bass and Bill Reeves’ ancestors is Abe Overley, the hero of R. L. Waring’s 1910 novel As We See It. The novel takes place in 1876, centennial of the US, a year before the official end of Reconstruction and, as it happens, the time when the real Bass Reeves first became Deputy Marshall. Waring’s message for Jim Crow USA is fairly black and white, and intensely Wisterian: there are noble and despicable people in both black and white races, each community’s natural aristocrats should get their due. Enter his main characters, the two Abe Overleys, one black, one white, friends since birth and a living advertisement for the idea that if natural heroes held hands they’d make this world a better place. They are both attending the progressive Oberlin University when black Abe’s mother and sister are beaten to death by a gang of white racists. He turns into “the very incarnation of the avenging demon,” and takes them down one by one, western-style. Speaking of him in light of this decision, one of his white college professors says admiratively: “This Negro is a white man.”

This is how Waring’s hero, though he kills four white men in the South, manages to live—because in the fictional economy of the novel, his action is a form of masking. In becoming an avenger, he’s effectively putting on a white mask that grants him status as an individual. What he loses in the process, though, is an understanding of injustice as a systemic issue. The racism that killed his parents is no longer political, it is personal, a matter opposing just him and the group of men who killed his mother and sister. This choice turns him from racial menace to honorable man by symbolically turning him white.

Reeves’ wife June reads right through it all. In the conversation the two have together after Reeves first becomes Hooded Justice, she makes William retell Bass Reeves’ story: “What color are the townsfolk?” she asks, subtly pointing to the obvious. He can only achieve justice outside of the system, but even then he will have to make all believe that he is white. Black action in Jim Crow USA is necessarily political, and he can only get away with his assault on Cyclops by painting a white mask under his hood, another layer in the masquerade.

There seems to be no taking off the masks—under each layer, Reeves finds another, more disappointing one. Captain Metropolis, the other masked hero who invites him to join the superhero group the Minutemen, has no interest in fighting racism and does not hesitate to peddle racist imagery to sell advertising for bank protection. Both heroes are in the closet, and tellingly Gardner prefers it that way. He suggests they should both wear their costumes during sex. Secret identities have a way of folding upon themselves. Hooded Justice sets out on his own against Cyclops, and it seems that in destroying the warehouse containing their documents and material for national takeover, he erases their threat. We know better of course. Cyclops is but the latest symptom of an ancient disease. There is nothing a single hero can do.

Reeves learns the oldest lesson in the book—because it can only deal with the surface of things, the mask as it were, individual revenge can never satisfy. It ruined Reeves’s life and passed on the trauma of the Tulsa Massacre like a genetic disease. Hooded Justice disappears underground and only returns to pass the torch on to his granddaughter, Sister Night, along with a bit of wisdom. Speaking of demiurge Dr. Manhattan, he deadpans: “He was a good man. But considering what he could do, he could have done more.”

The series stops before we can find out if Angela, now potentially the new goddess in town, heeds this call. But then, maybe it is not just meant for her ears: who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks to us?

Further Reading