One of the ways they introduced me to these stories was through comic books, though not the kind my son reads today. The comics of my youth weren’t from the DC or Marvel universes: The first graphic novels I ever encountered were about black figures from history, courtesy of the Golden Legacy comics first published by Bertram A. Fitzgerald, Jr. in the 1960s and ’70s. None of my peers or friends got the same introduction to comics I did, but my parents were pretty mindful about the media I consumed as a child. I guess they figured if I were going to lay eyes on storyboards filled with graphic violence, they might as well have been about black history, which itself has no shortage of savagery.
I was probably in the 4th grade when my mother started bringing the books home from a five-and-dime store in the city. Each Golden Legacy comic was basically an animated biography of figures such as the early D.C. urban planner Benjamin Banneker and the arctic explorer Matthew Henson. (I’m pretty sure I read the whole series.) At risk of sounding all Coolie Hotep High, it’s thanks to those books that the first comic superheroes I ever knew were Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.
Of course, I knew who Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were, though mostly from cartoons. Those narratives were cool, but not one scene from any of their story arcs resonated with me like the scene from Golden Legacy’s The Saga of Harriet Tubman “The Moses of Her People” where a slave-master struck Tubman in the head with an iron weight. The illustrations weren’t super pulpy, but they didn’t skimp on the violence either. The artist was able to convey in that scene just how painful the iron blast was: The nasty gash it left on her face made me wince like nothing from Superman did.
Yet the artist also illustrated the narrative in a way that subtly suggested the crushing blow somehow knocked supernatural powers into Tubman that allowed her to envision things many of her enslaved loved ones couldn’t—like freedom. In my mind, those scenes were like the spider bite to Peter Parker. As Tubman led group after group of enslaved black people through the Underground Railroad to liberation at the end of the book, she became the only Wonder Woman that made sense to me.
After that, I didn’t want to read anything about slavery that didn’t feature Tubman’s heroic triumphs. The Golden Legacy comic Crispus Attucks and the Minutemen had the same effect on me, with its portrayal of how the Revolutionary War jumped off with a black man and his clan at the front. And after I’d read the two-part Golden Legacy series on Frederick Douglass, you couldn’t tell me I didn’t know everything that I needed to know about the Civil War.
But, of course, there was much more for me to learn; the Golden Legacy comic books were only my entry point into a deeper well of knowledge. My father, an avid reader, stacked plenty of books about black history around the house that I was more than happy to gormandize as I grew older. These works were filled with the thoughts and ideas of black men like Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and John Henrik Clarke—all of them looking to correct the historical doctrines that sought to paint slavery as an otherwise benign and painless institution. The racial-violence quotient in this literature was far beyond anything I read or saw in the Golden Legacy stories.