What does Luke Cage have in common with Frederick Douglass?
Answer: more than you might expect. At New York Comic Con in October, David F. Walker discussed the parallels between black heroes from fiction and real life, and the importance of both. “I wouldn’t be up here on stage talking to you if it wasn’t for the fictional heroes [like Luke Cage] and the historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.”
For the past few years, Walker has been bringing humanity back into black superheroes, such as giving Cyborg back some of his body. Recently, he turned his hand towards a hero from history, penning The Life of Frederick Douglass, a graphic novel designed to give an overview of Douglass’s life to young readers, or anyone who’d like to know more about history. It will be released January 8th from Ten Speed Press.
We spoke to David F. Walker about #BlackLivesMatter, the history of racism, and the importance of black representation.
What made you decide to write Douglass’s life as a graphic novel?
Patrick Barb, editor at Ten Speed press, asked would I be interested in writing a [graphic novel] on Frederick Douglass.
I thought to myself huh, this was not a direction that I had really been thinking about with my career at that particular time. But I had this philosophy that if someone comes at you with a really interesting proposition […] then you should definitely think about it.
I immediately went out and bought Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. I read it in a day or two. By the time I finished I was like, oh yeah, I have to do this project.
What was it like digging through Douglass’ life?
At times it was definitely overwhelming. Much of what you’re reading is about the history of slavery, the history of abolitionism, the history of reconstruction, the Civil War, none of which are light, easily digestible topics. The emotional toll of that really begins to weigh on you very heavily, at least for me.
I come from a family of slaves and the reality is if you’re the descendants of slaves in America, you’re also the descendant of slave owners. The two almost always go hand in hand. And so, there were some parallels within my own family, and Frederick Douglass and his family. And that sort of opened up this weird existential self-examination of my own family history.
Can you share some of the similarities?
This is stuff that I’ve known for decades because I’ve been obsessed with personal history and genealogy for most of my life. My great great grandfather, Nelson Hancock, was born as a slave in the 1850s. […] Before he was 5, his mother, who was a slave, was sold to another plantation and according to family history he never saw his mother again. And his father was also his owner.
[…] In some minor ways and in maybe some major ways that mirrors the life of Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass’s mother was a slave, he was separated from her at birth. He saw her only a handful of times. She died when he was about 6 or 7 […]. And he was never certain of who his father was, but […] it was very clear that his father was a white man who owned slaves. It was just a question of which one it was.
And that story isn’t actually that uncommon among the larger narrative of slavery in America. But to read him talk about that, and talk about the emotional toll that it took on him growing up and always wondering who his father was, never really getting to know his mother. That got me to thinking about my own family. And it’s more than just my great great grandfather Nelson, because there’s similar stories within the family tree.
So in getting to know [Douglass] you’re getting to know a lot of people’s narratives. And that’s sort of what I was hoping to get across at least a little bit, is that in getting to know Frederick Douglass’s story, we get to know a version of a story that a lot of people shared.
What messages do you want people to take away from the book?
I think the biggest takeaway for me is I just want people to know more about him than they know. Most people just know he was a guy who escaped from slavery and then he fought to end slavery. And I mean, Frederick Douglass really did so many things.
This is sort of the fun fact: Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, more so than any American president. Douglass was not only one of the first African-American celebrities, he was also one of the first celebrities in America, period. He had a very astute and profound understanding of public perception and he used what was then the mass media to his advantage. And it’s so fascinating to look at that.
So I think more than anything I would like people to come away with a broader understanding of who he was, but also the beginning of a broader understanding of slavery and the impact that had and the causes the Civil War and things like that. I try to treat this book as much of an introduction to this particular chapter of history, the Frederick Douglass chapter of history, than anything else.
You intended this for young readers right?
Yeah. I didn’t want to go too young and too simple. I wanted this book to be a good starting point for if you were in high school and you wanted to write a paper on Frederick Douglass … but also if you were in college and you wanted to do a paper on Frederick Douglass.
By any stretch of the imagination, I would be mortified if this was the only thing someone read on Frederick Douglass and they decided to write a paper or a thesis or something. It’s better than if they just went to Wikipedia mind you.
Slavery feels far away for kids, but it’s really not far away.
No, it’s not far away at all. My grandparents, their grandparents were slaves. So that makes me … I’m just three generations removed from slavery. Not within my lifetime but within my parents’, and my grandparents’ lifetime, they had family members who were enslaved. It’s been just under 150 years since Lincoln signed the emancipation. That’s not a very long time.
You know, when we look at things like the telephone or motion pictures, most of those things have been around roughly the same amount of time as it’s been since slavery ended, give or take like 30 years, 40 years. Slavery ended in 1865 if I remember correctly. The first motion picture was 1880-something. So we’re talking there’s just twenty years’ time between those two things, right?
We don’t necessarily think about how young the film industry is or how recently slavery was but it’s still there. And the fact of the matter is that we never talk about it. As a society we never talk about it properly. And I think that’s part of the reason why it feels so far removed. We talk about horrific things that have happened over the course of history and people say “never forget.” And yet we forget.
You know, I was talking to a friend of mine who has a son who’s 14 and I was explaining to him what it was like to fly before 9/11. And just something that simple, like before 9/11 you could go with someone to their gate at the airport and hang out with them. And we talk about ‘never forget 9//11,’ but we should also never forget how much that changed some of our daily activities. And yet people have forgotten. That was 17 years ago, and it’s amazing to me how much people have forgotten what that was about. And even someone who’s 16, 17 years old, they don’t know what the world was like before 9/11. And unless they’re curious they’re not going to contextualize or investigate what that’s about, and I think that’s a shame.
Especially when it comes to something like slavery, because so much of what this nation is was built on slavery. Not just so much, everything. It’s not an exaggeration. And I get in this argument with people where they’re like “my family never owned slaves.” That doesn’t matter. This entire country benefited from slavery, in the North and the South. But it was also – not only did it benefit, it was also cursed. And we’re still reaping the benefits from slavery but we’re not dealing with the curse or the disease that it inflicted upon us.
What parallels do you see between Douglass’s time and now?
I think slavery in this country flourished because of the myth of white superiority. It was built on the notion that white people of European descent were racially superior to Africans and their descendents. And that notion of superiority and inferiority still lives on today. The very foundations of racism are rooted back centuries. And we haven’t gotten over that and we don’t really talk about how bad it was. You look at the recent midterm elections and a lot of these ideologies are still being played out, and there are people in this country today who would love to either see black people enslaved again or still think of us as inferior.
Frederick Douglass [and other abolitionists] were fighting just to prove the humanity of black folks, and that fight continues to this day. It’s difficult to talk about but the moment we look back on the Black Lives Matter [movement] of the last few years and we see unarmed innocent black people being killed… people stand up and say “Black lives matter,” and people on the opposite end of the political spectrum stand up and shout back “All lives matter.” And that’s not that different from what was going on two hundred years ago with slavery. And it’s like, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about you’re killing us and getting away with it. And then when we try to assert our humanity you throw back “Well, we’re human too.”
And it’s like, yeah, but we’re not the ones saying you’re not human. You’re the ones saying we’re less than human.
So a lot of these fights that were still going on then are still going on, we’re just using different terms.
During slavery it was perfectly legal for a slave owner to kill their own slave. And if a white person killed another white person’s slave the only thing he had to do was pay financial restitution for that loss of property, because that’s all black folks were. If you were a slave you were considered property. You weren’t considered a person.
And how was that really that different than when, say, a police officer or worse, a self appointed vigilante like George Zimmerman, guns down an unarmed black teenager like Trayvon Martin? There really is no difference to it other than the time and place. But the context and the ideology that drove it and allowed it to happen and allows someone like Zimmerman or all these police around the country to go unpunished is the same mentality.
And so in that regard, yeah, black people aren’t slaves anymore, we can’t be bought and sold, but our humanity is still being questioned and it’s being put to the test almost on a daily basis where if black folks try to assert their humanity just by saying “Hey, we’re human too,” there are folks who go “What about us?” And my response is, “Well, what about you?” [laughs] The first battle cry of the oppressor is “Well, what about me? I’m oppressed too. You’re oppressing me.”
Men do it all the time to women. and rich people do it all the time to poor people. And that isn’t to say all rich people or all men or all white people but it’s interesting to see how people respond to accusations of being an oppressor as if that’s the worst thing you could call them.
And it’s like, I might be calling you that but the only thing worse than being called an oppressor is being the oppressed.
It’s not quite the same level as the Black Lives Matter movement, but you’ve been bringing humanity back into black characters for years.
I don’t consider myself to be an overly political person but I do consider myself to be someone who will fight for not only my humanity but the humanity of others. And part of the equation of recognizing humanity, serving humanity, acknowledging it, is representation in mass media.
When I was a kid growing up there weren’t a lot of black characters in mass media. It was actually the beginning of seeing more representation, but that representation was often couched in stereotypes.
And as a kid I recognized that. I couldn’t articulate it at ten the same way I can at 50, but I always tell the story of being ten years old and watching Superman the Movie, and in 1978, the only black character in that movie with a speaking line was a pimp.
I remember being in this theater, it was mostly white people and white kids, and they all just started laughing. And I was just infuriated. I remember in that moment thinking “I have to do something to change this.” And that was it. I’d never really questioned if I wanted a black superhero before … I mean there were black superheroes and I liked them, but I never felt the need to see the image of black people change more than in this moment. I remember thinking, I would rather have not had any black people in this movie than the only one being a pimp.
And so that’s sort of driven where I’m at. Because I felt like as the older I got, and that’s one of those memories that I’ve held onto my entire life. That was a really terrible feeling and no kid should ever have that feeling.
And I’m not just talking black kids, I’m talking [no] kids should ever have that feeling of like the only representation is something that’s both negative and comedic at the same time.
And so as I grew older and started creating things and having the opportunity to work in comics at a very high level in the mainstream corporate structure, I was like well, let’s try to at least steer this ship in a direction that can give young people something that I didn’t have very much of when I was their age.
And then with this Frederick Douglass project, when that came around, in a lot of ways it was a very eye opening thing for me because it’s like, it felt much better than writing the superhero stuff. Because I was like OK, wait a second. Frederick Douglass was a real live superhero. But he wasn’t superhuman. He was flawed and he had weaknesses and that makes him so much more interesting. And that’s sort of what I realized I like to do more with my work is to shed a bit of light on the complexity and the humanity that exists within, for lack of a better term, the black American experience.
What could the average person do to be more like Frederick Douglass’s kind of hero for our generation?
Frederick Douglass wrote about what he perceived to be his own cowardice, which I think is amazing because he was actually an incredibly brave human being. He talked at times about what he thought were the cowardly things that he did. Yet he never backed down from the fight. He didn’t just speak out about the rights of slaves, the need to be free, the need for equality for black folks. He was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights, the suffrage movement. And I think that he recognized that the plight of the oppressed, no matter who they are, is tied together.
After the Civil War ended Douglass often spoke out about the Chinese labor, the Chinese immigrants that were coming over, who were basically the new slaves during the building of the new railroads He spoke out against the oppression of Chinese, he spoke out against the oppression of women.
And I think the problem that has plagued this country for a long time is that you may be a champion of “justice”, but it’s a very limited, narrow view of what justice is. The key is that, Martin Luther King said this, an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I think that Frederick Douglass was thinking like that and acting like that a hundred years before Dr. King was born. And to me it’s very interesting because he understood that the battle is never going to end. There’s always going to be one person trying to oppress another person. And the key is that liberation has to come for all.
And I think that’s what we all should be thinking about. It’s disturbing to me when I see people screaming for the rights of their oppressed group but not willing to stand firm with someone else that they don’t identify as being. And then falling upon some bullshit reasoning behind it. You know, you fight for the rights of your fellow black folks unless your fellow black folks are gay or transgender, and then suddenly it’s like oh no, we can’t do anything for them. And it’s like no, screw you. If you’re only going to find your liberation by stepping over the body of somebody else, then you don’t deserve it.
Did I just say that out loud? [laughs] I guess I did.
Why did you decide to narrate the book in Douglass’s own voice?
I’ve read tons of non-fiction graphic novels and some of them are great. Some of them are really dry. And I didn’t want this to be a dry read. I didn’t want this to be lacking […] in character.
So I wrestled with this for a long time and we talked about this for a long time and […] I tried to write it as “what if Frederick Douglass had written a graphic novel in the 1860s or 1870s?” And there was a while where I felt really uncomfortable doing that. But the thing was, if you studied Frederick Douglass’s career as a writer, and as an orator, as a politician, his primary goal was to give humanity back to black folks, and to reassert his own humanity. And my original draft of the script lacked any humanity at all. And I thought what’s the point of writing this? I have to honor what Frederick Douglass was trying to do. So I talked to my editor Patrick about this and […] we both agreed as long as I put something in the introduction, let’s go for it.
Because that’s the thing, I didn’t want to take away from Frederick Douglass’s humanity anymore than it’s already been taken away. And that’s something that I still feel very strongly about.
And when the book comes out next month I’m sure there’s going to be people who will be all over me for it. And they’ve been all over me for over things [laughs] so I’m not going to lose sleep over that.
How do you think your career as a journalist influenced this book?
I was more an entertainment writer than anything else, although I did some investigative stuff. But the idea of rolling up your sleeves and really digging into research, that was driven home when I was working at a newspaper in the early 2000s.
One of the examples I could give you is historically, it’s known that Harriet Tubman and Douglass knew each other but I was having a really difficult time figuring out where and when they met. There was documentation and reports of times when they were together and seen together and it was pretty clear that they had known each other when slavery was still the law of the land and so I went through and got a bunch of books on Harriet Tubman and was re-reading Frederick Douglass’s writings about the Underground Railroad and I finally stumbled across a couple of key stories that both built narratives that was like, this was when they met.
And I can’t remember which book I finally found where somebody sort of arrived at the same conclusion I arrived at. And that was one of the moments of working on Frederick Douglass where I felt like a journalist again. I felt like that investigative reporter that was trying to piece together everything. And that to me is really interesting. I haven’t conducted a real interview with anybody in a long time. But it was like man I just wish there was somebody I could talk to who was alive back then.
But it’s kind of a cool thing to go down these rabbit holes of research. The dangerous thing is when it turns into a form of procrastination. […] I was reading a book on the life of Harriet Tubman and I was like wait a minute, I’m not actually writing a book on Harriet Tubman, I’m not writing a graphic novel about her, I’m doing one on Frederick Douglass. I don’t need to read this whole book. But I was so engrossed in her life as I was trying to read and understand better the connection between the two of them, Douglass and Tubman.
In an interview with Comics Panel you called working as a journalist “soul sucking.” Do you see any positives from having spent so long not working in comics?
There were definitely some positives. It became soul sucking for me in that, ‘Oh, it’s time for the holiday gift guides,’ you know, and here’s your assignment, you’ve got to come up with fifty things for the holiday gift guides. 25 things for under $100 and 25 things for over $100. And writing for the annual best of restaurants guide, and all that sort of stuff.
And because I was an entertainment writer focusing on film it was just, there comes a point where, am I contributing anything to humanity here? […] At the end of the day, it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. It was a great opportunity, I learned a lot, but it wasn’t invigorating to my soul. It wasn’t the sort of thing where when I woke up in the morning I was like man, I love what I’m doing.
But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. honestly, there’s so many skills that I learned from years of working at a newspaper and working as an editor that I carry with me to this day. And I carried it with me during the Frederick Douglass project. […] He had three autobiographies, you know. Between the three of them there’s probably a thousand pages of reading. Knowing how to narrow in and hone in on certain things, I might have learned that somewhere along the line, other than working at a newspaper, but I think that stuff helped.
And there’s days when I miss it but for the most part I don’t. At the end of the day I like comics more than I like newspapers. That’s what it comes down to.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to jump into a field that they’re more passionate about?
if there’s something you’re more passionate about, I want to say go for it. At the risk of sounding like a Nike ad, just do it. That sounds a little contrived. There’s a lot to be said for giving up the security of a regular paycheck. You know, you have to sort of seek down inside. And it’s not just ‘Oh, it seems like it’s going to be fun, so that’s why I want to do it.’ It’s a lot of work.
[…] The key is study what it is you want to do. if you want to move into doing film, or you want to do something like comics, graphic novels, study it and learn about it. Make sure you know what you’re getting into before you give up what you have. And know that it’s not all fun and games.
And if you’re doing it because you think you’re going to make better money than you did as a journalist or whatever, I can dispel that myth right away. [laughs] But you know, I am a firm believer that you have to answer to, I guess for lack of a better term, what that voice in the back of your head is steering you towards. You should at least try it, you should at least give it a shot.
I teach part time and I tell my students it’s easier to live with failure than it is to live with regret. Failure means you tried it and it didn’t work out, and you can try again. But if you regret not having tried it at all, then that stuff’s going to keep you up at night. You can always sort of reverse engineer what you did wrong. You know, why didn’t my great American novel work? You can try it again. You should be learning from your experiences.
I think a lot of people think it’s going to be easy because what they see is the final product. You know, you read a book you don’t necessarily see the first 24 drafts that that author wrote. You watch a great film and you don’t necessarily see how many years of intense labor that went into it. And it should look easy when it’s done and it’s done well. But doing it well, getting it done, that ain’t easy.
Do you have any other upcoming projects you’re working on
In the world of traditional comics I’ve got two big projects. [Bitter Root] over at Image Comics, the first issue just debuted. I’m co-writing that with Chuck Brown. Sanford Greene is illustrating that. And over at DC, I’m co-writing a book called Naomi with my good friend Brian Michael Bendis. A guy named Jamal Campbell is illustrating that
Then I’ve got some indie stuff that I’m going to be exploring into 2019. And at least one non-fiction project that I can’t talk about yet, but I actually have proposals for three different nonfiction projects that would carry me through, if not 2020, maybe 2021.
Frederick Douglass has definitely given me that bug and that’s a direction that I would like to explore a little bit more.
Do you have any ideas for other black historical figures you’d like to do a biography on?
I actually have a list now […]. I would love to write a graphic novel of the life of Ida B. Wells, because she was someone who came up during my research of Frederick Douglass. And I knew who she was but the more I studied her a little bit I was like wow, this is a story that needs to be told. Not that many people know who Ida B. Wells is.
It’s also like, if somebody else wants to do an Ida B. Wells graphic novel, please let them do it. I know I’m not going to have time to do every single thing that’s floating around in the back of my head. And some of them I’ve actually written up proposals for. And there are several proposals I’m waiting to hear back from in the next few weeks or next year.
There’s so much stuff out there and there’s so many stories to be told. There’s not a lot about Harriet Tubman out there, there’s not a lot about Ida B. Wells out there.
And in terms of other black abolitionists, there’s so many. There’s so many out there whose names aren’t even known to the general public. Then you’ve got someone like John Brown who’s like, he’s the ultimate gangsta, right? John Brown was like, ‘I think all slaves should be set free, and we kill anyone who disagrees with that.’ Not ‘I’m going to argue with them at a pulpit’; I’m going to take up arms and kill them.
[…] I think the format of the graphic novel is incredibly beautiful. and I love it. I’ve always loved it as a kid. And I’d like to see more people exploring that because I feel like there’s an accessibility and a cost factor in creating some of these things that’s different from a bio pic or a documentary or something like that.
What makes you furious right now?
[Laughs] What doesn’t make me furious? What makes me furious is, I don’t think we’ve regressed as a country in terms of our racial attitudes, but we haven’t progressed. We haven’t moved forward, really. I think the people who were always open minded and decent have remained open minded and decent, but there’s been people who subscribe to the ideologies of superiority have become emboldened.
I think we live in very dangerous times . Not just for people of color, but for women, and LGBTQ people. For Muslims. For anyone who’s considered the “other.” And that infuriates me because like, I just turned 50 years old. At half a century old I’ve seen things that I thought would have gone away with my grandparents’ generation or my parents’ generation, but some of that stuff is coming back. Or it’s not even coming back, it’s just back in the public eye.
And it infuriates me that someone like Brett Kavanaugh can reach the position of power that he’s in. Didn’t we have this conversation over Clarence Thomas? Haven’t we moved past all of that? In terms of treating women like shit, really.
I’m infuriated by a million things. I’m infuriated by the state of this country and its leadership. I’m infuriated by the fact that there are so many people who are still being oppressed.
I’m infuriated by the fact that in what’s one of the richest nations in the world there are so many people living on the streets and that we’re actually arguing over what’s a human right. You know, is healthcare a human right? Is food a human right? Is water a human right? I mean, come on.
So the answer of what makes me furious is absolutely everything. There’s an old saying: ‘What am I pissed off at? What do you got?’
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.