The back matter of Van Jensen and Nate Powell’s new book, Two Dead, describes it as, “at once a white-knuckled and unputdownable thriller, a roman à clef inspired by true events, and a book about post-traumatic stress disorder and the underlying social traumas of how war and segregation affect their survivors on all fronts.” Today, I want to look at a brief section from Two Dead and discuss the ways that the section, as a microcosm of the whole, highlights the “underlying social traumas” created by racism. I will not give too much of the plot away, but I will provide enough to understand the discussion.
Near the end of the narrative, Jacob Davis, an African American war veteran who served as the leader of the local Black police force, visits Gideon Kemp, a white war veteran who is working internally to get the police chief removed and to bring down the mafia who controls Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1946. At this point in the story, Jacob has started working for the mafia, with his brother Esau, to bring them down.
Jacob and Gideon stand outside Gideon’s house, talking about their experiences during the war as smoke curls from their mouths. Gideon recalls his time Germany he shot and killed another American servicemen, thinking he was a German. When he is finished telling the story, two panels show Jacob’s and Gideon’s faces with a dark background. In the first, Gideon takes a drink from a bottle and Jacob looks forward, stoically. In the next panel, Gideon says, “Nobody knows,” and Jacob cuts his eyes towards the right of the panel. With this, the two create a bond that brings them together, a bond based on their military service.
However, that bond is tenuous at best because of race. The conversation then shifts to the shootout that recently occurred where a policeman was shot. Gideon gets mad when he learns that Jacob was there, but Jacob relates to him the racism inherent in the police force, telling Gideon, “Maybe ask those poor innocent cops who pulled us over for driving while black.”
The panel shows Jacob’s face, illuminated some by the night sky, and the words are in different script. This is a feature of Powell’s work that I have written some about before. In the word balloon, “poor innocent cops” is in cursive, and “driving while black” is in bold. This shift, along with another balloon I will discuss later, highlights the positions of the people that Jacob mentions. The cursive is equated with official business, official rhetoric, the “poor innocent cops” is what the record would work to display. However, that is not the case. They are not poor and innocent; instead, they are racist and oppressive, pulling Jacob over because of the color of his skin. Thus, the bold script for “driving while black” drives this home.
Jacob follows up his discussion of the night’s incidents by relating what happened to him and his men in Italy during the war. He tells Gideon about the private who threatened he would shoot the men in Jacob’s unit at night, claiming it as an accident, “‘cuz we’re dark,” as Jacob says. In an earlier flashback, we see Jacob confront the private and the white men’s racist response, we do not see the private come to Jacob later.
During three panels, Jacob relates the private coming to him, after the incident, and apologizing. In these panels, which still occur in Gideon’s back yard, we see the ghost of the private, who died during an artillery strike, come up behind Jacob and embrace him. The first panel shows the private approaching Jacob as he says, “But then later, in secret, the private comes and find me. And he apologizes. Says he knows he was wrong. That I got through to him.” The image, of the penitent private’s ghost with his hand’s on Jacob’s shoulders appears to be one of reconciliation, but it is far from it.
The next panel shows a closeup of Jacob’s face with the specter’s head leaning against the back of Jacob’s head and his hand on Jacob’s shoulder. Here, Jacob states, “So I tell him, ‘Great that good. Now go tell your buddies– Go tell ’em to knock this shit off.'” Again, the panel appears to be one of reconciliation, and we are left wondering whether or not the private actually confronted his buddies. Did he return to them and confront them for their racist words? Did he tell them that he was racist? Did he actually change? Jacob’s face, in juxtaposition with the ghost’s, tells us that he did not do any of these things.
The final panel in this sequence shows Jacob’s face, slightly turned to the right of the panel, looking that way in anguish, as the specter’s ghostly hands wrap around his neck and face. The fingers on the ghost’s right hand cast dark shadows on Jacob’s face. The image present the ghost as attempting to strangle Jacob, whiteness strangling blackness. Jacob’s words drive this home. He tells Gideon, “But he says, ‘No, man I ain’t a racist, but if I try to fight them, they’d never talk to me again.’ Worst goddamn phrase in the whole English language– ‘I ain’t racist buuuuut . . .”
Like the previous word balloon, the script switches here. “I ain’t racist buuut” appears in cursive, elegant script that again looks official. This movement to official-looking script, like that you would see on legal documents, is telling with this phrase just as it is with “poor innocent cops.” The narrative of policemen being innocent and victims of the shootout and of the private not being racist because he apologized and knew he was wrong privileges whiteness and the power structure, the official record.
Jacob cannot take part in that record. The police force he lead was not even legitimate. The white force allowed the black force to operate so they wouldn’t have to deal with residents on the other side of town. The promise of equality that America espoused during the war was undercut at home by segregation and Jim Crow. When Jacob and his men returned, nothing changed. Some, like Gideon, offered sympathy, but as Jacob points out, “Saying you have values when things are easy don’t rate much. It’s when the shit turns tough–when the road is hard–that’s when a man discovers what’s inside him.”
Gideon is like the private. While he does not spout overtly racist comments against Jacob, Esau, or others, he does not fight back against the racism he sees and encounters. In this manner, he is complicit in the system. Jacob’s call asks Gideon to take a stand, to push back against a corrupt system that denies Jacob any involvement in the official record. He calls upon us, as readers, to act as well and to stand up against individuals and policies that seek to deny anyone a place within society.
There is more that could be said, but I will leave it here for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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