LET THERE BE LIT

SPEAKING THE BLACK SUPERHEROES

Tangela Floyd and Brian Oakley transform slave folklore into modern explorations of racial identity

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Daddy Mention can pick a full-grown pine tree right out of the ground, Big Mama Gertrude rides through the air on her patchwork quilt, Uncle Monday shapeshifts into an alligator, and Mama Duck’s photographic memory makes her a super-sleuth spy.

These and other such characters are derived from the folklore of former slaves recorded in the early 1930s. You can meet them in poet Tangela Floyd’s and illustrator Brian Oakley’s comic book Introducing the Black Superheroes and in a Reader’s Theater performance, Stetson Kennedy’s Legacy, Part Two: The Black Superheroes, at 1 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Main Library, Downtown.

And if you like that introduction, there’s more. The full-length graphic novel The Black Superheroes: The Rising, Volume 1 is scheduled for publication in February 2016.

Some of the black superheroes, like Daddy Mention and Turpentine Sam, come straight from narratives collected by writers employed with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Writers’ Project. Other black superheroes are what Floyd calls “amalgamations.”

“I’ve had a hard time finding many women characters in the narratives,” says Floyd, “and if black women aren’t often superheroes, who is?”

So Princess Kitaka, with “superhuman strength and speed” and “high intelligence,” is loosely based on Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley, the Senegalese wife and former slave of Jacksonville’s Zephaniah Kingsley, who built Kingsley Plantation.

And Big Mama Gertrude is almost the archetype of the strong black woman. Though cultural critics have argued that stereotype can be a double-edged sword, there’s a reason the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou are so heavily populated with Big Mama Gertrude types.

Tangela Floyd first made a name for herself as a spoken word poet in 2001, performing with poets like Tiffany Duhart and Al Letson at The Imperial on Forsyth Street.

That’s where she met Emanuel Washington, who describes himself as a “cultural, arts, and educational advocate,” with whom she’s worked ever since. Soon after, Floyd was performing in Atlanta and Los Angeles, then Europe, then Nairobi, Kenya.

It was Washington who got her interested in directing and performing in Reader’s Theater. For each performance, a cast of five or six readers performs an orchestration of literary excerpts from a wide variety of texts on a certain theme.

Reader’s Theater is as collaborative as spoken word is competitive, but as the comic book and upcoming graphic novel indicate, Floyd’s creativity determines what form it needs to take, not the other way around.

Floyd was listening to National Public Radio in her car when she heard a story about the dedication of Stetson Kennedy’s longtime St. Johns County home, Beluthahatchee, as a National Literary Landmark. The story talked about Kennedy’s activism, his collection of folklore, and his books like Palmetto Country.

Kennedy is best known for infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan while reporting to the FBI, which he wrote about in I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan in 1954, published by French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. It was later retitled The Klan Unmasked.

Floyd introduced herself to Sandra Parks, Kennedy’s widow and Stetson Kennedy Foundation president, and then immersed herself in the ex-slave narratives Kennedy had recorded.

She quickly decided that these voices, collected 80 years ago and speaking of childhoods 80 years before that, needed to be brought from the page and spoken aloud once again.

So Floyd and Washington put together the Reader’s Theater production Stetson Kennedy’s Legacy, Part One: The Slave and Civil Rights Narratives.

But giving those voices sound in 2015 is enormously complicated. Not only is the subject matter necessarily uncomfortable, but Kennedy tried to represent the vernacular of his subjects by spelling words phonetically. Sometimes his attempts at historical accuracy can sound like Jim Crow-era minstrelsy — indeed, black novelist Richard Wright referred to the dialogues in Kennedy’s friend and co-worker Zora Neale Hurston’s novels as “the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.”

For example, in Mama Duck’s narrative, she describes fellow slaves being whipped on the plantation. “He make em cross dere hands, den he tie a rope roun dey wrists and throw it over a tree limb. Den he pull em up so dey toes jus touch de ground an smack em on de back an rump wid a heavy wooden paddle, fixed full of holes. Den he make em lie down on de ground while he bust all dem blisters wid a raw-hide whip.”

Floyd says it’s necessary to rework some parts of the narratives as well as to explain, as seamlessly as possible, what unfamiliar words like “pateroller” (slave patrol) mean.

These difficulties are no reason to avoid the material, though. To anyone who might suggest otherwise, she gives the same response she’d offer to those who say discussing slavery is just opening old wounds: We have to understand the past in order to understand the present.

Introducing the Black Superheroes further deals with these complexities by updating the characters. For example, Roy and the Black Falcon operate as a team, Roy as a “genius mechanic,” the Black Falcon as “the superhero car.” It’s “fast, can fly, and is indestructible.”

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