THE EMANCIPATION OF AUNT JEMIMA AND UNCLE BEN
after “Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben” by Renée Cox, 1998 dye destruction print
I’m writing a comic book. Two characters. One man. One woman. Both black.
The woman can look like Storm from X-Men. Holy white hair down to the waist.
Body of a goddess. Her speech eloquent with the king’s English yet able to click
and roll her tongue with her native African language. She commands attention
with a perfectly sculpted midriff bridging the rise of ample breasts and firm glutes.
Thighs and calves rock solid. Biceps and triceps in peak form. Deltoids like granite.
She wears black thigh-high boots and the black rendition of Princess Lea’s brass bikini.
By her side another god. Luke Cage in all black. Chiseled from bronze. Skin
delectable. His bald dome intense. The bulge in his tights is a lady’s dream. Nipples
perked. Knees locked and ready for action. But do they really need flight? Do they have
to bend steel or shoot lightning from their eyes? Can they just be? I just want them
to exist. You see, the drawings on the pancake and rice boxes were supposed to be
my heroes. I was supposed to believe they had powers. To cook for the masses.
To feel pride in serving starch to white folks. I was conditioned to believe these were
black icons. Respectable representations of my existence. My past. Bridge to my
future. Like most American folklore, these began in infamy. I would like to believe
these caricatures were mild-mannered secret identities of heroes. Under the head scarf,
a crown. Behind the bowtie, a gadget of destruction. Beneath the wrinkles, the grace of
youth. Above the pasted smiles, righteous indignation. I would like to believe they
are not just happy to be used for consumption and capitalism. They don’t feel humble
for being trapped on the boxes. They don’t bless every day their skin mirrors the
texture and complexion of the products they are made to peddle. They don’t believe
the quality of the dishes they are chained to in caged circles in the corners of
boxes are better than any other. I would rather there be white faces on the labels
instead of exploited prisoners. I want them to understand the irony of their labels
that the products branding on them are The Original. Wait, that can be their team
name. The singular title given to them together. The drawings of their blackness
becoming real for the first time. Do they really need storylines? Do they really
need words. When I say I’m writing a comic book, I mean I’m writing a story
in pictures. They tell something greater anyway. I see them killing their masters.
Destroying the poorly constructed narrative around them. Banishing blaxploitation
backward in time from Foxy Brown and Super Fly to the first iteration of a happy
slave in a textbook. Just let me frame them, construct them, mold them…no, not
again. Just let them live. The way they wish. The way I want to live. Outside the
boxes. Off shelves. Off tables. I want to be free. Even free from cataloguing this
wicked history. Free from this pen. These computer keys. Rescued by The Original
LEN LAWSON is the author of Chime (Get Fresh Books, 2019), the chapbook Before the Night Wakes You (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and co-editor of Hand in Hand: Poets Respond to Race (Muddy Ford Press, 2017). His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He has received fellowships from Callaloo, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Weymouth Center for the Arts, and a scholarship from the Emrys Foundation. His poetry appears in Callaloo Journal, African American Review, Verse Daily, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. Len is also a Ph.D. student in English Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His website is www.lenlawson.co