Recently, I finally had the chance to read all of David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Green’s Bitter Root vol. 1. In “Deep Roots/Rich Soil: Race, Horror and the Ethnogothic” (a back matter essay to Bitter Root), John Ira Jennings lays out what him and Stanford Carpenter call the “EthnoGothic,” a term I want to look at some today in relation to Bitter Root and some other comics, specifically, that I have been reading lately. Jennings writes that “the EthnoGothic deals with primarily speculative narratives that actively engage with negatively affective and racially oriented psychological traumas via the traditions of Gothic tropes and technologies.”
I have been, for the past few years, very interested in the ways that race serves as an undercurrent thread in Gothic literature. I have written about it multiple times, and it is nothing new. Jennings and Carpenter’s “EthnoGothic,” along with work by scholars such as Maisha Wester, is important, and I see works like Bitter Root, David Walker’s Cyborg, Milestone’s Dakoteverse, and even Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black through the lens of the EthnoGothic.
Jennings continues by noting that three things interested him about Bitter Root, from a scholarly standpoint. One of those items is something I see running throughout David Walker’s work, and something I really noticed in Cyborg with the Technosapiens. Jennings writes that the EthnoGothic “turn[s] how black people are sometimes seen by society on its ear.” The creators do this by asking exploring the following questions: “What if black people aren’t the grotesque, hungry monsters that they are depicted as being? What if white people have a sickness that makes them into monstrous demons that lurk just beneath the skin?”
In Cyborg, the Technosapiens and Robert Zorroinski are “the grotesque, hungry monsters” that seek to consume Victor Stone for their own survival. They are manifestations of the disease of racism and hatred that afflicts so many, and they become that manifestation throughout Walker’s run. Jennings uses the same language when describing how “[r]acism and hatred are caustic diseases” and there are only two ways to get rid of them; they “must either be exorcised or destroyed.”
The disease transforms the Technosapiens and Robert, but it does not kill them. During the final battle, the Technosapiens plead with Victor not to kill them, and he tells them, “Not taking anything away–I’m giving you back your humanity. . . . I’m not rewriting an operating system . . . I’m curing a disease!” He cures them by removing the “caustic disease” from their system.
While Cyborg takes place in a more contemporary moment, Bitter Root occurs during the 1920s, and specifically against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance. The Sangeryes hunt monsters, curing the monsters of the disease of hatred that grasps their souls. After a couple of jinoo (the monsters), attack a Black couple in Central Park, the police bring the two jinoo to the Sangeryes who work to cure them. They do, and the couple turn back into a white man and a white woman.
Cullen and Berg take the unconscious couple to St. Nichols Park, and two white policemen approach them, guns drawn. A panel shows the two policemen, and behind them is the outline of another monster, bearing down upon them. At this moment, we do not know that this is not a jinoo, but the framing makes it looks like the monster is the policemen’s subconscious, the manifestation of the disease that will turn them fully into jinoo.
In Mississippi, Ford save a Black man from being lynched by the Klan. As he shoots them, they turn from men into monsters, grasping for his body. Only one Klan member does not change. He remains human. Later, after Ford saves the Black man, Johnny Ray-Knox, the white man who didn’t turn, asks what happened. Johnny says he’s never lynched anyone, and Ford tells him that’s partly why he isn’t infected. Ford leaves Johnny amongst the dead jinoo and tells him, “Keep your soul clean.”
Ford believes that the jinoo cannot be cured. He believes the time has past and that amputation and eradication is the only solution. He tells the Black man and his grandparents, “Days of purifying are over. There’s no curing the jinoo. Ain’t enough rootwork n the word to purify ’em all.” The man’s grandfather asks, “But ain’t they. . . human deep down inside?” Ford lets this question hang in the air and gives the family a gun with some shells that will stop any jinoo who may come against the family.
As he leaves the house, Johnny stands outside and asks Ford to tell him why the men looked like monsters. Ford tells him he doesn’t have time for Johnny, but Johnny persists, even telling Ford he knows where more jinoo reside. Johnny takes Ford to a gatekeeper. Whereas a jinoo is, as Ford says, “a man with a corrupted soul . . . a human turned devil,” a gatekeeper is “a devil pretendin’ to be a man.” How does one go from “a corrupted soul” to “a devil”? How does one lose the humanity that the grandfather asks about? How does the infection spread so much that it corrupts every pore of one’s being, turing the human into evil incarnate?
Bitter Root addresses these questions, not just in regard to whites but also in relation to the ways that racism and racist thought becomes internalized in the minds of those its aimed at. I do not want to go into this today; instead, I want to conclude by looking at Lieutenant Merritt in Morales and Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black. For me, Baker’s visual depiction of Merritt needs to be read in relation to the EthnoGothic.
In the first few issues of Truth, Merritt appears as an optimistic character, at least in his facial expressions. He is, throughout, overtly racist in his words and actions. Yet, his appearance, at least during the World War II issues, has a look of innocence and nostalgia. Later, in issue #6, we see Captain America and Agent Spinard interrogating him in the present. The first image of Merritt we see flashback that shows the 1940’s Merritt gazing up at reader, who is in the position of Captain American, admiringly. The next panel shows an aged Merritt, with comics on the table in front of him, grinning. However, the innocence is gone. He looks wrinkled and haggard.
The grotesqueness and hatred that Merritt harbors manifests itself in his appearance. While he has smiles here and there, his face looks distorted and aged; time has not treated him kindly. He tells Cap and Spinard that he comes from a military family, and a closeup panel of his face shows him smiling as he talks about the dream he had of becoming like Captain America one day. In the next panel, his face turns to anger and he raises a fist as he says, “Imagine my disgust that no one running the project cared what it meant to real Americans. Testing on swamp guineas like Mr. FBI here was all well and good, but sending them out on missions!?”
The disease that inflicts Merritt manifests itself in his words, mannerisms, and physical features. He saw testing the supersoldier serum on Black soldiers as all well and good. He did not see them going on missions in the same light. Merritt continues letting his racist thoughts known, even espousing connections with Hitler’s thoughts on racial cleansing. Throughout, his grotesque appearance makes him look monstrous. While he is physically feeble, and always has been, he still has thoughts, and those thoughts have infected him entirely.
There is so much more I could say about these texts, and others. To me, the EthnoGothic embodies topics I have been thinking about extensively lately, specifically the transmission of racist thought and the ways that those thoughts infect individual’s minds and souls. What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
If you enjoy what you read here at Interminable Rambling, think about making a contribution on our Patreon page.