Lesson in Black History – THE VANPORT FLOOD

vanportThe Vanport Flood—Vanport City was founded in Oregon, just north of Portland, in 1943. A makeshift community that was built to house the shipyard workers who had come to work in Portland and Vancouver, Washington, during World War II, Vanport was the second largest city in the state of Oregon. It was also home to approximately 6,000 blacks, who made up rough a third of the city’s population. At the time, Portland had a reputation of being incredibly racist and unwelcoming to blacks, which led to the formation of Vanport City, a public housing community that served as a means to keep the “undesirables” out of the rest of the state. Although the Vanport was never meant to be an actual community, it thrived in the years after World War II, with its own school system—including Vanport College which would go on to become Portland State University—and local business community. Unlike Portland, Vanport was a heavily integrated city, with blacks and whites going to school together and living the same neighborhoods. After a winter of heavy rainfall and snow, the Columbia River that bordered Vanport on the north was in danger of flooding. On Sunday, May 30, 1948—Memorial Day—the river broke through the railroad dike and the river came rushing in. Within hours the city of Vanport was wiped off the face of the Earth. There were only 15 reported deaths, but urban legends of hundreds of deaths, including a school bus full of children and a warehouse full of corpses hidden from the public, still persist in the Portland. With almost the entire black population of the state displaced by the destruction of Vanport, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon was grudgingly forced to desegregate.

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Lessons in Black History – MATTHEW HENSON

matthewhensonMATTHEW HENSON – Robert Peary is most often credited as the first man set foot at the North Pole, but technically and historically that distinction goes to Matthew Henson, a fellow explorer and associate of Peary. Both men had worked together, including several expeditions to the Arctic. Henson has spent a significant time living with the Inuit, spoke their language, and had considerable experience working with dogsleds. He joined Peary in 1909 on the explorer’s eighth attempt to reach the North Pole. His health failing, and unable to walk, Peary went by dogsled while Henson led the way by foot. Although Peary is credited as having “discovered” the North Pole, Henson had set foot there first. Peary was lauded as a hero, receiving many honors and awards, while Henson lived much of his life in the shadows. In 1944, Congress recognized Henson’s contribution to the Peary expedition.

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On This, My 5th Spiritual Birthday…

A friend of mine calls it her Spiritual Birthday—the day she almost died. I like that more than Re-Birthday, which is what I’d been calling the anniversary of my own brush with the Grim Reaper. It is a day filled with so much trauma and dread that it is almost crippling. I’ve tried to turn it into something positive, because despite what happened, it really is an incredible day—it is the day I didn’t die. It is the day that the pneumonia that sent me to the hospital with a “heart attack” didn’t do me in. I’ve written about this day before, and I’ll probably write about it in the future, because it’s a reminder of second chances.

On this day, five years ago, I went to the emergency room with severe pain in my chest. All the doctors said I’d had a heart attack, but it turned out that is was just massive inflammation around the heart, caused by pneumonia. Not technically a heart attack, but still capable of killing me. I’m told that I was lucky to survive, and that had I not gone to the hospital, I would’ve died. That’s a difficult concept to wrap your brain around. I still struggle with it—especially given the number of friends and family members that have died since my own experience. The difference between almost dying and dying is as vast as anything you can think of—and even then, it’s vaster than that.

Last year at this time, I was struggling with depression and anxiety—two of the constants in my life after my illness. I had never experienced either—at least not like I have these past five years. But last year, as I was celebrating my 4th Re-Birthday/Spiritual Birthday, I was optimistic about the year that ahead. To be clear, as I turn five, this year gone by has been anything but easy. The struggle with depression has been constant, and the anxiety…well…that shit has, at times, been unrelenting. At the same, no matter what the depression and the anxiety would have me believe, this year has been pretty damn good. I can see the positive, and on the good days, I can appreciate it as well.

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A Thing or Two About THE WIZ (or, Some People Just Don’t Get It)

the wizLast night, NBC aired a live broadcast of the musical, The Wiz, based on the all-black Broadway play that first debuted on Broadway in the 1970s. The Wiz had been an adaptation of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which in and of itself was an adaptation of the literary works of L. Frank Baum. Not surprisingly, there were people who freaked out about last night’s broadcast of The Wiz.


Tin Man meets the Wiz in the original Broadway production of The Wiz.

I’m not going to respond to those people directly…because they aren’t worth my time. But I do want to share an excerpt from a much larger piece I wrote several years ago. In my essay “Worlds Without Color,” I discuss at length The Wiz, and how it factors into what I call “oppression through omission.” The essay is included in my book Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture. Here is the excerpt for “Worlds Without Color.”

When The Wiz first debuted on Broadway I was about eight-years-old, and by that point I had become so used to worlds without Black people, that I had started to think it was normal. The Wiz made no sense to me, and sounded like a bad idea, because I had been conditioned to think of that particular type of reality as not including Black people. This is what happens with omission of entire groups of people for prolonged periods of time. And as bad as it is for Blacks, it is far worse for Native Americans and other groups, whose level of omission runs much deeper. By not seeing images that reflect ourselves in these realities projected upon the screen, our very existence is compromised. It is as if we don’t exist, because there is no one in Oz that looks like us—and in turn we become dehumanized. This dehumanization is just another extension of the same dehumanization that justified slavery and the genocide of Native Americas. We were robbed of our right to be human in this country, and then as a type of mythology emerged in the form of motion pictures, we were either misrepresented—further dehumanizing us—or we were denied visibility, making us non-existent in the realm of story and myth.
The purpose of mythology and story is to explain the existence and experiences of humans. Story and myth are the ways in which we process and express who we are and what we’ve experienced. It doesn’t matter if these experiences are triumphs or tragedies; there is an innate human need to tell stories to make sense of our lives. It is through story and myth that we define who we are in relation to all that surrounds us, or has happened to us, and helps us deal with the traumas we have endured. The problem in the United States, however, is that the stories and myths used to explain the American existence are informed by the racial ideologies that dehumanize people of color. This results in a mythological construct that either dehumanizes people of color, as is the case with The Birth of Nation, or ignores them all together, as is the case with The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings, which in turn dehumanizes through omission.

To read more of this essay, please check out Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture.


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Black Superheroes in Film (and TV): An Almost Complete Guide

black heroes 2Yesterday, the first trailer for Captain America: Civil War dropped, and people went nuts—especially for the brief footage of Black Panther. Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a black character in a superhero movie, but you wouldn’t know that by the way folks have been losing their minds on the Internet. It’s almost as much as they lost their minds last week, when Jessica Jones debuted on Netflix, and we got our first glimpse of a live-action Luke Cage.

black heroes 3The reason so many people have lost their minds—especially blacks folks—is because black superheroes have been so few and far between in movies. Yes, in recent years we’ve had Falcon, War Machine, Storm, and Nick Fury to name a few, but those are about it, and they are all supporting characters. Even in Jessica Jones and Captain American: Civil War, Black Panther and Luke Cage are playing supporting roles. And yet we all go crazy. The reason is simple: black folks don’t often get a chance to see themselves in the role of the superhero. And when we do…well…all too often it is either as the sidekick, or in some kind of comedy.

With that in mind, here is a look at some of the black superheroes that have appeared in live-action film (and television). For the record…I consider a superhero to be someone with either supernatural powers, or someone that fights crime while wearing a costume and/or using special equipment or both. In other words, no matter how badass Jim Kelly may be in Black Belt Jones, for the sake of this piece, he’s not a superhero.









ABAR: THE FIRST BLACK SUPERMAN – Tobar Mayo stars in this bat-shit crazy, Z-grade blaxploitation flick. The title says it all. See my review.

6000$ nigger








THE $6000 NIGGER – Yes, this is a real movie. It stars chitlin’ circuit comedian Wildman Steve. It is terrible.

brother charles







WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES – This blaxploitation classic from director Jamaa Fanaka must be seen to be believed. SPOILER ALERT: It is about a guy who has the power to make his penis eight-feet long, and uses it to strangle his enemies. See my review.






PETEY WHEATSTRAW: THE DEVIL’S SON-IN-LAW – There’s no doubt that Rudy Ray Moore played some pretty heroic characters, but in this film, he has supernatural powers that he uses to take on an army of demons.







THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET – One of the greatest movies of all time, starring Joe Morton, written and directed by John Sayles.







M.A.N.T.I.S. – Anyone remember this short-lived television series starring Carl Lumbly?









BLADE – Gotta give credit where credit is due. Wesley Snipes remains one of the few black superheroes to carry their own film (not to mention an actual franchise).









BLANKMAN – Once upon a time, this is what passed for a black superhero movie.

meteor man 2








METEOR MAN – And then there’s this.









STEEL – There is a reason why so few people talk about this movie.









CATWOMAN – Just like there’s a reason why so few people talk about this movie.

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New York Comic Con 2015 Schedule

nycc 2015 scheduleI’ll be at the New York Comic Con this year, appearing on several panels, and doing some signings. Hopefully some of you can swing by and say “hello.” Here’s my schedule…

THURSDAY, Oct. 8th

3-4pm SIGNING – DCE Booth SC-01

6:30-7:30pm – #BlackComicsMonth: Diversity in Comics – Room 1A18

SATURDAY, Oct. 10th

11:15am – 12:15pm – All New, All Different Marvel – Room 1A10

12:15pm – 1:15pm – DC Comics: Heroes to the Core – Room 1A06

SUNDAY, Oct. 11th

3-4pm SIGNING – DCE Booth SC-01

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FTWDOkay, so we’re only two episodes in to Fear the Walking Dead, the prequel to The Walking Dead, and I’m already done with this show. There are plenty of reasons to skip this show, but at the end of the day, in two episodes they’ve managed to introduce three black characters, and kill all of ‘em off. Even The Walking Dead, which has killed it’s fair share of black folks, didn’t start off this fast and furious. I could give the show points for introducing some brown folks, and not killing them just yet, but the show still sucks on so many other levels that there’s no point in defending it.

As it is so far, Fear the Walking Dead has introduced a black guy who turned out to be a drug dealer, another black guy who was a recycled character from Lean on Me, and then there was the poor sap having the relationship with that girl that may or may not be bi-racial (but clearly he was being punished for having a relationship with someone who was not black). Hey, at least he got the opportunity to die off-screen (you think we’ll see him again as a zombie?). I get it…in a show about the zombie apocalypse, a lot of motherfuckers are gonna have to get offed. The problem is that we as black folks have been getting killed as a means of advancing the story for far too long. Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead are guilty of confusing diversity with disposability.

I’ve written about this subject at great length in my essay “Why’s the Brotha Gotta Die?“—which is part of my book Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

Planet of the Apes served as my introduction to the Disposable Brotha when I was five years-old. By the time I was in high school, I had seen some of the most traumatic on-screen deaths of Black characters ever witnessed. I was emotionally devastated when Duane Jones was shot to death in Night of the Living Dead. I was dumbstruck when Jim Kelly was beaten to death in Enter the Dragon. Paul Winfield being eaten by deadly cockroaches in Damnation Alley and Yaphet Kotto getting torn apart in Alien both left me sick to my stomach. The culmination of these on-screen deaths, as well as all the others I witnessed, was a bitter cynicism that continued to grow, giving way to mantra I found myself repeating over and over again—“Why’s the brotha gotta die?” It has taken me decades of watching and studying film, immersing myself in the art of storytelling, and simply living life as a light-skinned Black man in America, to fully understand the cause, effect, and meaning of all the deaths of Black actors (and occasionally actresses) that have been portrayed in motion pictures. And now I am prepared to answer the question—Why’s the brotha gotta die?
Ultimately, the answer to this question is tied to the ideological constructs of racial identification. To that end, this particular question—seemingly posed with tongue firmly planted in cheek—is not unlike so many other questions asked about race. And to be sure, this is a question about race. After all, as an audience we are asking specifically why the African American character seems to die so often. So, whether we want to or not, we must discuss race, and understand that the answer to this particular question requires a working understanding of both the history of the United States, as well as the American film industry. The understanding of these two subjects brings us to two of the fundamental truths of the Black experience in America. The first of these truths is the forced enslavement of Africans and their descendants, which is the key defining factor in the formation of ideological constructs that serves as racial identification in America. The second fundamental truth are the racial ideologies that emerged from slavery, filtered through biased perceptions of history and mass media, to create a mythology of racial inferiority and superiority.

You can read the entire essay in my book, Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification and Popular Culture, available from Amazon.

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T-Shirt Confidential #12

confidential 2Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.


Originally posted as T-Shirt of the Week: WEEK 12 (September 2, 2007)

Okay, once again you may notice that I am not actually wearing this week’s shirt. The reason should be obvious enough: I’m a bit too husky to wear such a tiny shirt. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to know that I was once able to wear this shirt without my belly hanging out from the bottom, which of course forces me to acknowledge how much weight I’ve gained over the last two decades. But that’s a story for another time. Continue reading

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T-Shirt Confidential #11

confidential 1Some people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

Originally posted as T-Shirt of the Week: WEEK 11 (August 26, 2007)

The idea for T-Shirt of the Week started about three months ago. I was attempting to clean up my bedroom—a miserable wasteland of clutter and junk that never seems to go away—when I realized that I had way too many t-shirts. It’s no exaggeration when I say that there are several hundred t-shirts in my collection, which I know is far more than any person needs, yet I still have them. And as I went through the dresser drawers that were crammed full, and I started pulling shirts out that I intended to give to charity, I began to realize that every shirt had a story, and that those stories spoke volumes about my life as well as me as a person.

If you checked out Week #5 then you know that in the past I have bought shirts because I loved the design, and then never actually worn the shirt. I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but it has happened more than once. Case in point: this Bruce Lee shirt that I have had for over ten years [NOTE: Now it is more than 18 years], and never worn a single time [NOTE: I still haven’t worn this shirt].

I was walking down the 8th Street in New York City, most likely headed to Gray’s Papaya Prince on 6th Avenue and 8th, where you can get two hotdogs for $1. When I lived in NYC, and whenever I visit, Papaya Prince is always a major staple of my diet—not the healthiest choice, I know, but the hotdogs are Kosher. Anyway, the point is that I was on the south side of 8th Street, which is unusual for me, because I almost always walk on the north side. (Don’t ask me why, because the answer is so ridiculous it will make me seem even more “eccentric.”) As I was walking down the street, either going to Papaya Prince (or possibly Tower Records on Broadway), I passed a shop with this shirt in the window. Being a huge fan of Bruce Lee, as well as someone who appreciates a nice graphic image, and last, but certainly not least, a person with an odd addiction to t-shirts, I had to have it.

So, that’s the story of how I came to own this shirt. I’m not sure when I bought it, but I do know it was in the mid 1990s (most likely 1995 of 1996). I showed it to my cousin and my friends, and everyone agreed it was cool design, and then it went into a drawer—having never been worn—where it sat for over ten years until I pulled it out a few months ago [NOTE: It went back into that draw, where it continues to sit, never having been worn].

Sadly, there’s no great story about the shirt. I saw it. I bought it. I never wore it. I wish I could say that I was wearing it when I met the love of my life, or that I was wearing it that time I got into a fight at Fat Burger in Los Angeles, or that all of my friends have a shirt with the same design, and we would sit around wearing them watching Bruce Lee movies and getting drunk. But there’s no story like that. I don’t even remember the shirt I was wearing when I got into the fight at Fat Burger. The only shirt that me and my friends all had was a Batman design, and that one isn’t with all the other Batman shirts in my collection (yes, I do categorize my shirts. Fuck you for laughing). And I have not met the love of my life.

So, there is no funny story to go with this shirt—no classic moments in the life and times of David Walker that can be directly linked to it. I don’t look at it and think, “I used that shirt to wipe up the mess after I gave some chick a pearl necklace.” (That shirt will be coming later, no pun intended). At the same time, I realize this shirt says as much about me as all the others. Maybe even a little bit more.

Since this is the story of my life as told by the t-shirts I have worn, or, more appropriately, the t-shirts that I own, I won’t let this week’s column degenerate into some sort of therapy session. But I will say this: T-Shirt of the Week started out as a bit of a joke three months ago when I was cleaning up my room. It was never my intention to give it this much thought. Now, however, as I rummage through drawers and duffle bags and boxes filled with t-shirts, I realize that this little project of mine runs a bit deeper and has greater resonance for me than was originally intended. Seriously, this was just meant to be a joke!

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An Open Letter Regarding SHAFT

Numerous people have reached out to me about my thoughts on the new Shaft movie, which New Line Cinema recently announced would be more comedic in tone. Here are my thoughts…

Shaft01-Cov-F-SubGreenDear New Line Cinema (and producer John Davis),

Let me start by saying that I never expected anyone to get in touch with me about the new Shaft movie. Likewise, I don’t have any interest in getting involved with anyone who doesn’t understand or respect Ernest Tidyman’s character, so even if anyone involved in the new movie got in touch with me, it probably wouldn’t go well. As it is, with the recent announcement that the creator of Black-ish has been hired, and that a comedic approach is going to be taken, it is clear to me that New Line is more interested in shitting the bed, than making a good Shaft movie.

glyph winnerWhen I first reached out the Chris Clark-Tidyman, the widow of Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman, it was because I wanted to see a character that I grew up with, translated into the world of comics. It was important to me to do justice to Tidyman’s creation, and to the character itself. At the risk of bragging, I did just that. I dropped the fuckin’ mic with the award-winning Shaft comic book, and with all humility, I did a pretty solid job on the novel Shaft’s Revenge—the first Shaft novel since Tidyman’s The Last Shaft, published back in 1975. All of this is my way of saying that I care about the character, I understand the character, and as anyone who has read my contribution to the legacy of character can tell you, I got that shit right. So, please, listen to me when I say, “Don’t make this a comedy. It will suck. It won’t make money. And in doing so, it will ruin the chances of there ever being a decent Shaft movie in the remainder of my lifetime.”

There are several valid reasons to back up the fact that taking the comedic approach is wrong. Let’s start with the reason that means the most in Hollywood—money. While comedies do well, the sort of comedy you’re likely to make does not have a good track record. Low Down Dirty Shame (1994) made $24 million, Undercover Brother (2002) made $39 million, and Bait (2000) made $15 million. There are, of course, exceptions, like the Bad Boys movies, which made just under $400 million collectively, but c’mon…can you really conjure the magic of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and hope for that kind of hit? I don’t think so.

At best, you’ll likely put out a film like Black Dynamite, a movie that has already done what you’re setting out to do. Black Dynamite, despite its cult status, and the animated show that I love—which again, has already done what you want to do—earned less than a million dollars at the box office. Let that sink in—less than a million dollars. By comparison, The Equalizer earned over $190 million globally, and it was a serious action film, with a black man in the lead role (which is what Shaft needs to be).

Layout 1As of this writing, in the month of July 2015, more than 100 people in the United States have been killed by the police. That’s not the number for the year-to-date, but just one single month. And that doesn’t include people like Sandra Bland, who died while in custody. Police brutality has reached epidemic proportions, and white supremacists seem intent on pushing this nation toward a violent and deadly racial conflict. Last month, an armed white man walked into a church, and massacred nine black people. Not since the 1960s has there been more of a need for a black action hero—one that can provide a cathartic escape from life’s day-to-day horrors, and deliver the sort of wish fulfillment that cinema is intended to do. Not since Ernest Tidyman created John Shaft back in 1970 has there been more of a need for someone just like him. And yet your solution is to take the most iconic hero in the history of black popular culture—something that is missing from the cinematic landscape right now—and turn him into some kind of comedic figure. Congratulations for your forward thinking, New Line and Mr. Davis. Because God knows that what black people—as well as the rest of America—needs right now is ANOTHER black man cracking jokes to distract us from all that ails us. We can leave the superheroics to the white guys, but the black hero can only be heroic if he is wrapped in a comedic package. I believe I speak for many people when I say, “No thanks, and fuck you.”

It is clear to me that you have no real concept of the John Shaft character, or why he and all the other black action heroes that emerged in the 1970s were so important to so many people—myself included. This new movie, if it goes the way it is headed, will be terrible, and I will do everything in my power to see it fail, because you deserve no less than that for taking something beloved by so many, and making it something it was never meant to be.

I could go on, but I’ve said enough. Other than the very sound advice to not make a comedy, you’ll get no more free advice from me. If you decide you want to make a serious attempt at producing a good Shaft movie—one that makes money and launches a viable franchise—you know how to find me (I work for one of you sibling companies, DC Comics, and the good folks at Dynamite Entertainment, which published Shaft, also have my contact information). Until then, I will continue to write Shaft comic books and novels that are true to the character, and you can keep taking a shit and trying to tell us all that it is chocolate pudding.

David F. Walker

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