“Burn His Words”: Abbott and the Illumination of Whitestream Culture

Editor’s Note: Today we are privileged to publish the second of Nicholas Miller’s posts in his role as a Regular Writer on The Middle Spaces, exploring BOOM! Studios’ limited series, Abbott, by Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivelä. Be sure to check back in at year’s end when Dr. Miller’s third such post in this role should see the light of day.

The recent headlines from the Detroit Daily feature Elena’s article on the murder of a fourteen-year-old Black boy. From Abbott #1 (January 2018).

As a literary and media studies scholar—and a writer more broadly—it is hard to look at our contemporary moment and not reflect on the role that writing plays in maintaining white supremacy. As I compose this, concerns remain about media coverage of protests in response to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others. Critiques of news stories that painted protestors as violent emerged early and often and, as many were quick to note, this coverage often evaporated when protests continued without the violent presence of militarized police. Despite the importance of a free press to informed political discourse, it often appears that whitestream journalists are more invested in the “if it bleeds, it leads” strategy than in substantive coverage of civil rights uprisings. I employ the term “whitestream” intentionally here; as Daniel Morley Johnson notes, “scholars have used the term whitestream when referring to the North American mainstream in order to underscore the reality that the dominant-dominating culture (the self-appointed ‘mainstream’) remains inextricably linked to whiteness.” In this essay, I reflect on how writing practices in academia and journalism help to construct and maintain whitestream culture.

Yet how does one condemn journalistic practices without falling into the uncritical rhetoric of “fake news” peddled by the likes of Donald Trump? Similarly, how does one criticize academic discourse without emboldening the anti-intellectualism of conservative movements? While I cannot fully answer those questions within the scope of this essay, those questions do inform my turn to the collaborative and hybrid form of comics—a form that is well-situated to interrogate the assumptions that undergird many writing professions. By engaging with the critical facets of image and text, I demonstrate how the rhetoric of whitestream culture undermines activism through its investment in the status quo. Specifically, I look to Abbott (2018), a five-issue series by Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivelä that has become increasingly relevant in the two years since its initial publication. Set in Detroit in 1972, Abbott highlights how racist practices in journalism and academia help to exculpate police violence and support white supremacy.

If you are unfamiliar with the series, Abbott tells the story of “hard-nosed, chain-smoking reporter,” Elena Abbott, a queer Black woman who investigates brutal crimes that the police have either covered up or ignored. Elena made a name for herself by publishing—in a predominantly white-circulating newspaper—an exposé of the police shooting of a Black teenager, making her a hero in Black communities but a perceived threat to her board members and the local police. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the brutal crimes that Elena has been tracking are supernatural in nature, and they lead her to uncover the nefarious work of a white supremacist professor named P. H. Bellcamp. She discovers that Bellcamp is harnessing the supernatural powers of something called the Umbra to stitch humans and animals together into monsters, and that she has been chosen by benign spiritual forces as the Illuminator to shed light on his scheme and destroy him.

My turn to Abbott is fueled not only by its relevance in light of the #BlackLivesMatter protests but also my experience teaching it recently at Valdosta State University. While I have been talking about the series since it was published, when I assigned Abbott in May, I had no idea how timely it would be. Students started the series the week after George Floyd was killed and completed it the day after protestors in Minneapolis occupied and burned down the local police precinct. While students were quick to locate parallels between the series’ depiction of 1970s Detroit and our contemporary moment in terms of police brutality, they also interrogated how news stories get told in Abbott—and by whom. Indeed, they immediately recognized how the series exposed a white narrative about Black communities “inciting” violence that is echoed in contemporary stories about protestors “rioting” and “looting.” To their credit, my students quickly identified these as white supremacist narratives, and they were eager to point out numerous instances of unprovoked police violence captured on video and circulated online that counter this narrative.

Wardell greets Elena at the diner and refers to her as “the Black Lois Lane” and Miss Henrietta greets Elena at the Hall of Records calling her “our very own Brenda Starr.” From Abbott #1 (January 2018) and Abbott #4 (April 2018). [Click to Enlarge]

One student, Danielle Bond (who I reference with permission) was quick to point out the moments in which Elena is compared to other women journalists in comics: specifically, Lois Lane and Brenda Starr. Danielle noted how Elena is referred to as a “Black” Lois Lane and “our very own” Brenda Starr by other Black characters—even though she shares little in common with her white counterparts. This is particularly true in terms of artwork; while concept art for Lane and Starr were originally drawn in a feminine pin-up tradition (a style that came and went throughout the years), Elena is described by white characters as masculine. The misplaced comparison that Bond noted, however, speaks to more than just questions about fashion or physical appearance. It speaks to how the institution of journalism functions differently for a Black woman than it does for white women. While the Black characters who refer to Elena in these ways are eager to claim space in predominantly white institutions, the use of qualifiers like “Black” and “our very own,” also draw attention to the fact that Elena can never be just a racebending Lois Lane or Brenda Starr. Instead, her work is scrutinized through the lenses of gender and race, exemplifying the interlocking of oppressions Kimberlé Crenshaw describes as intersectionality (a lens through which you can see “where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects”). Variously dismissed by white men as a “broad” and a “jigaboo,” Elena’s character speaks to the intersection of heteropatriarchal assumptions and white supremacist structures in ways that Lois Lane and Brenda Starr cannot.

The decision to make Elena a queer Black woman also reflects the often-ignored (or erased) histories of such women leading major movements against police brutality and white supremacy in the United States. From Marsha P. Johnson and Audre Lorde to Angela Davis and Kayla Reed (one of many queer activists in Ferguson), these women have been central to liberation movements more broadly. Indeed, as Angela Davis remarked in her speech in Ferguson, “within the Black movement, we have engaged in these struggles around gender from the beginning of the twentieth century—and especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, we see a movement that values radical Black women, that values radical Black queer women.” By foregrounding the narrative of a radical Black queer character—one whose story is set in the 1970s but speaks to the present—the creators of Abbott resist the historical tendency to strictly whitewash and lionize charismatic Black men like Martin Luther King, Jr. In establishing Elena as a journalist, they also provide an important critique of whitestream media practices in the United States.

Although Elena is praised by Black communities for voicing their concerns in a predominantly white newspaper, her efforts do not lead to universal acclaim. Instead, her investigation into police brutality subjects her to anger and ridicule from authority figures, puts her job in jeopardy, and threatens her physical well-being. Even as the first image of the series features a mass printing of the Detroit Daily with Elena’s story as the headline, there is no time to celebrate her presence above the fold. The next page immediately shifts to a crime scene where white journalists are speaking with a detective about the mutilation of a police horse. As Elena walks in, they are all speculating as to whether this act of violence was committed by the Black Panther Party. Their comments operate under the assumption that “Negro agitators” with an anti-police agenda are responsible. Elena interjects to highlight the lack of evidence for this and is met by scowls, as this white press corps is eager to participate in racist speculation. While examples of such journalistic complicity today are mostly restricted to tabloids and “fringe” partisan outlets, this scene invites us to reflect on the broader failures of whitestream media to “pursue truth” in favor of sensational narratives that appease the capitalist demands of boards and investors. While journalists are often rhetorically “generous” toward certain institutions, likely in an attempt to retain access, such generosity rarely extends to communities without visible institutional power.

Elena explains to her editor, Fred, why it is important to use precise language when discussing her news stories. From Abbott #1 (January 2018).

This awareness of the dynamics of power is visible in Abbott’s attention to the need for careful language in reporting. Elena is often featured pushing her editor and other reporters to be more precise, not only in her resistance to unfounded narratives about the Black Panther Party, but also in correcting her editor, Fred, about his use of “Negro” vs. “Black” and his tendency to conflate “people” with “white people.” This resonates with our contemporary moment in various ways, from the praise of more accurate CNN chyrons, to terribly-worded tweets by the New York Times, to the issue of journalists using phrases such as “racially-charged” in lieu of explicitly naming certain behaviors as racist. Indeed, a journalistic reliance on “copspeak” and the passive voice has conditioned cops to feel removed from the very racism that they practice, which has led them to angrily deny race as a factor when confronted with their own acts of brutality. Unable to see themselves as anything but the heroes of their own stories—a phenomenon rooted in our popular culture investment in “copaganda”—the officers in Abbott throw a fit when Elena is called to a crime scene by her Black ex-husband, James (the “one good cop” on the force), to take photos and investigate the story. One officer accuses her of pandering to Black readers with her exposé on police brutality and then refers to Black boys as violent young “hoodlums.” It is only through the intervention of James that Elena is brought in to witness this latest violent crime, one that James worries will get covered up by the whitestream media in cooperation with his own police force.

This scene also provides a link between these crimes and supernatural forces, as a mystical darkness temporarily incapacitates Elena. This is not her first experience with the Umbra, but it is the first time that somebody—in this case, James—believes her. In the past, her attempts to share these incidents led only to gaslighting and ridicule. This supernatural darkness serves as a commentary on the journalistic penchant for passive voice—or the rhetorical suggestion that things simply happen by themselves, as opposed to being enacted by specific agents or institutions. Indeed, journalistic narratives are often (in the words of editor, Osvaldo Oyola), “written as if some occult source is responsible for oppression and its constitutive actions.” Moreover, in addition to being an easy metaphor for the supernatural power of racism (much like we see in other comics like Bitter Root), this moment also speaks to the ways in which Black writers are kept from sharing their stories in whitestream media. Elena, as both a journalist and the Illuminator, is charged with documenting the challenges that face Black people in Detroit, and as such, represents the struggle of Black communities more broadly as they attempt to shine a light on racial injustice only to be gaslighted by the police and the media. The supernatural elements of Abbott allow others to dismiss Elena’s accounts of violence, in a striking parallel to how contemporary narratives about police brutality get dismissed as a figment of the liberal imagination. In other words, the shadowy monsters speak to racism as a phenomenon that is somehow deniable to white America, even as its realities continue to haunt Black people in the United States. In our contemporary moment, where visual evidence of racism is widespread, a white cultural imagination uses that evidence—when it chooses to even acknowledge it—to construct a purportedly liberal narrative in which racism is seen as a recent development. For Black people like Elena these monsters, even as they allow white people to imagine racism as mere shadows, have always been there.

Naming these monsters as racism, however, can be dangerous. As recent months have shown, considerable violence and anger has been directed at journalists broadly and against women of color more specifically. Often, they are seen by whitestream institutions as bad actors who name that which should not be named (white supremacy) and disrupt the status quo. The rhetoric used in these moments is familiar to Black women who write in the public sphere. As Tressie McMillan Cottom notes in Thick (2019): “Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else: whiteness defends itself.” Elena knows her whites and knows that she will be held to different standards by white editors and their imagined reading public in order to protect that whiteness. In Abbott, she regularly has to affirm the airtightness of her work, demonstrating an attention to evidence that is missing from white reporters, and writing with a precision that is not expected of others. In the scenes where Elena types up her stories, they are always carefully worded, because she knows that her claims about the police will be under close scrutiny. As Cottom describes, from her own position as a Black woman, Elena will never be given “carte blanche to talk about any mundane things for a national readership, with no repercussion for failing to find either accuracy or an audience.” Whereas white media writers are repeatedly given the opportunity to explore the broad spectrum of human experiences (David Brooks of The New York Times being the go-to example for Cottom), Black writers are never given the same opportunities to experiment or fail in their efforts.

Elena explains to her editor, Fred, and two newspaper board members that her story about police brutality is “airtight.” From Abbott #1 (January 2018).

Cottom, however, is not speaking strictly about journalism. As a scholar and a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her work—much like Abbott—speaks to similar issues in academia. Indeed, the supernatural dangers depicted in Abbott originate at the university where the main villain, Bellcamp, works as a professor. There, the monstrous, umbral creations of Bellcamp, a white supremacist committed to a vision of “Western excellence,” repeatedly surround and attack Elena with their shadows. The pervasive presence of shadows throughout the series echoes the insidiousness of white supremacy, which often goes unnoticed or unremarked in the daylight. Moreover, the frequent depiction of Black people as the very monsters who have been hybridized into satyrs and other figures from Bellcamp’s Western fantasies is an illustration of the ongoing dehumanization and brutalization of Black people in America. One need only look to the reported testimony of Darren Wilson after he killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016), “he sounded as if he were describing an altercation with a monster, not an eighteen-year-old. . . Wilson went on to describe Brown as a ‘demon’ who made ‘grunting’ noises before inexplicably deciding to attack a police officer who had already shot him once and was poised to do so again.” With Bellcamp, the creation of a hybrid Black-monster is literalized in the suturing together of human and animal bodies to give life to his white fantasies about Black people as less-than-human.

The flash on Elena’s camera goes off accidentally, destroying the umbral monster attacking her and releasing the soul trapped within. From Abbott #1 (January 2018).

Yet Elena soon learns that she can destroy these monsters by shining a light on them—an act that “liberates” the souls incarcerated within—when the flash on her camera accidentally goes off in the street. This move echoes decades of sentiments by Black artists—recently summed up by Will Smith in his comment that “racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” Making the violence of white supremacy visible has a long history as a strategy of civil rights protests in the U.S. The open casket visitation for Emmett Till, for example, highlighted the need to show the consequences of that violence. The uprisings following the beating of Rodney King, the killing of Eric Garner, and the shooting of Philando Castile were all motivated by the use of video technologies to capture that violence. Even though police brutality is often known widely in the abstract, whitestream responses to the killing of Black people is still conditional upon having an excruciatingly high standard of evidence. And, even then, such acts of violence are often denied or reframed in order to preserve “white innocence.” In Abbott, this phenomenon is represented figuratively in Elena’s ability to shine a light on the monstrous realities of racism. I should also note, however, that—in addition to the obvious gendered nature of how Black women often get ignored in contemporary activism (which led to the #SayHerName hashtag)—public sentiment is often muted when there is no video or other journalistic evidence of the violence. The case of Breonna Taylor is a prime example here. While Elena’s task is to illuminate, these examples remind us that there are limits to video technologies as “evidence” in a whitestream culture that denies that which is visible (i.e. gaslighting). We should also remember that there are limits to what those technologies can show, especially when body cameras and similar evidence is under the control of predominantly white police officers and other establishment authorities. In other words, the need to make injustice visible should not lead us to mistake visibility for justice.

The need to move beyond mere illumination is made evident in Elena’s later attempts to defeat Bellcamp. While the bulk of Abbott focuses on journalistic integrity, it matters that the villain is a professor. His position highlights the insidious role that academia plays in the maintenance of white supremacy (which has a long history). It is fitting that Elena’s final act is to “burn the words” of Bellcamp (explicitly referencing the spell that he is casting, but implicitly referencing the white supremacist writings that undergird his research), an act that destroys him and his racist fantasies. It is no accident that Bellcamp is a Classics professor, as he stands in for the white men who regularly defend a fictionalized, teleological notion of “Western civilization” as the pinnacle of progress. Beyond the examples of this defense of American exceptionalism from U.S. political figures over the years, Bellcamp’s attitude serves as an important indictment of higher education—a space I occupy, and one that is complicit in our current crises. As I prepare to teach a world literature course on the so-called Middle Ages in Spring 2021, I find myself even more cognizant (thanks, in part, to Medievalists of Color) of how our canons and curricula uphold and are appropriated by white supremacy. This has long been true in my home field of early American literature as well. While few scholars play the grand villain role a la Bellcamp (Jordan Peterson, perhaps, being a notable exception), the resistance to Black-driven narratives remains an academic problem. Attempts by well-known historians like Gordon Wood and James McPherson to belittle The 1619 Project model less explicit versions of academic racism. And, even as Black studies seeks to claim space in academia, we simultaneously maintain space for racism in higher education under the guise of free speech, as white professors continue to use the n-word in their classrooms and defend that as a “right.” That these actions still continue to haunt Black students in our classrooms is captured beautifully in this poem by Jacqui Germain, which describes a professor who “runs right through n—— like it’s not a wall my whole history is pinned up against & n—— sits in the middle of all of our desks & it’s like I’m the only one who can see it & everyone else in the room turns white even though they’re not.” It is not only journalism, but our systems of higher education more broadly should also take a page out of Elena’s handbook and “burn the words” that enable and embolden white supremacy. We need to deplatform this discourse in our classrooms and in our curricula if we are to challenge whitestream pedagogical practices.

Again, Elena is not so naïve as to imagine that illumination is sufficient to produce justice in a society that is educated and informed by predominantly whitestream institutions. As the narrative closes, she is depicted with her head in her hands knowing that some of what she has revealed through her investigations will remain hidden. She is aware that some of the evidence will never emerge and that some of the stories will never be told. By the end of the series, she has been fired from her job, she has lost friends, and racism has (obviously) not ended. Eliminating this powerful figure of white supremacy, we might say, has cut off the head but not destroyed the monster (if I am permitted one “Hydra-as-Nazi” reference). Indeed, Abbott is not a prescriptive story. Even as it exposes the failures of whitestream journalism and the reality of police brutality, there is no clear sense of reparation. Elena takes a different job as senior reporter for a Black-owned newspaper—a dwindling print tradition that has its roots in nineteenth-century abolitionist work—but the whitestream media remains mostly intact. By extension, their white readership remains safely within the structures of white supremacy. As I say that, however, I want to be clear that this is not a critique of the ending—indeed, as Patricia Hill Collins has noted, the move to predominantly Black spaces are themselves activist in nature, as Black women undermine “oppressive institutions by rejecting the anti-Black and anti-female ideologies they promulgate.” In other words, Abbott concludes with Elena taking a new job with a Black-owned newspaper, where she is better positioned to practice a Black feminist consciousness that Collins argues is “nurtured and articulated in this safe space.”

Elena is announced as a senior reporter for the Detroit Chronicler, one of the country’s oldest Black-owned newspapers. From Abbott #5 (May 2018).

As Abbott concludes, the newspaper announcement of her new position tells us that her press looks forward to her “candid insight” into the city of Detroit—and “all the problems that haunt it.” As we confront a pandemic, police brutality, and the almost-supernatural persistence of anti-Black racism, we have a responsibility to be candid with our insight into how whiteness functions in our communities and our various institutions. With that responsibility in mind, it seems appropriate, as a concluding note, to turn to the words of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who powerfully articulates a version of the same concerns that undergird Abbott:

“The prevailing ideology in a given society consists of the ideas that influence how we understand the world and help us make sense of our lives—through news, entertainment, education, and more. The political and economic elite shape the ideological world we all live in, to their benefit. We live in a thoroughly racist society, so it should not be surprising that people have racist ideas. The more important question is under what circumstances those ideas can change.”

According to Taylor, those circumstances can only be found when people are in a position to fundamentally alter their reality through collective action, and that action relies on solidarity around the idea that racism shapes our lived experiences and liberation—even if we do not personally experience the particular oppressions of Black people. In that way, if I can return to my earlier questions, we are not just left yelling “fake news” into the void or practicing an uninformed anti-intellectualism. Instead, we reimagine the collective work required to disrupt whitestream culture. That solidarity—and the writing practices that accompany it—can only be made possible when mutual interests are laid bare; or, as one might say, illuminated.

Nicholas Miller (@uncannydazzler on Twitter) is a regular writer for The Middle Spaces and Assistant Professor of English at Valdosta State University, where he teaches multicultural American literature, gender and a/sexuality studies, and comics studies. His essay, “Asexuality and Its Discontents: Making the ‘Invisible Orientation’ Visible in Comics,” has been published in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society (2017) and his essay, “‘Now That It’s Just Us Girls’: Transmedial Feminisms from Archie to Riverdale,” has been published in Feminist Media Histories (2018). You can visit his website here.

2 thoughts on ““Burn His Words”: Abbott and the Illumination of Whitestream Culture

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