The First Africans In Superman

I have found something incorrect about Superman… ON WIKIPEDIA!

I’ve noticed mistaken information about Superman on Wikipedia and other fan-written websites before but have generally taken it in stride. This time, I feel compelled to do something about it. While doing research for my most recent Superman versus Bigots article I found this claim on the Wikipedia page for Vathlo Island (the part of Krypton that has Black people):

This is false, but I admit that I don’t know enough about Wikipedia’s rules for editing to just delete the false statement. I know they have rules about “original research” that I don’t actually understand, but I also know that I need some sort of proof of my claim. They have a citation link to an article backing their claim, but even THAT website doesn’t say that the Kryptonian from Vathlo Island is the first Black character. That website says that the Superman comic didn’t have an African American character until the ’70s, then goes on to talk about the Black Kryptonian as a separate entity, which Wikipedia’s editors failed to catch.

So what can a PDR do? Well, maybe I can’t just edit the Vathlo Island article, but I can at least provide the ammunition needed to rectify its mistake. Black people who appeared in Superman’s book prior to issue #234: Here we go:

  • A) During the first year of Superman’s book there are adventures involving several different dark-skinned tribes, most of which are made up of people given trappings of American native groups. But one group, from the presumably-fictional Pogo Island, do bear an appearance suggestive of African descent. I would not cite them as first Africans because we simply don’t have the truth of their origin.
  • B) A Black train porter is seen in Superman #27. The big red lips aren’t good, but this man looks human, which sadly is a victory for a Black man appearing in a comic from 1944. Realistically, this man could be cited as the first “African American” in Superman.
  • C) In Superman #33, the hero goes to “the exotic port of Massua on the Red Sea” and encounters a number of African people, both civilians and pirates. The art is not particularly flattering to them, unfortunately, but I am glad that we see enough of them to be given the complexity that there are good and bad ones, that they’re not just a single monolithic society.
  • D) In Superman #49, some men, presumably Africans, are seen in silhouette carrying Lois Lane in a palanquin for some reason. We never learn why they carry Lois or who they are and never see more of them than this. I’d not really say this one counts.
  • E) Superman #50 has some Africans who are employed by a rich white hunter, and they do all the work and the hunter takes all the credit.
  • F) In Superman #59 we have more Africans employed by another white hunter. This time they are here to provide one of those scenes where the “superstitious natives will go no further” which isn’t as cool as the previous appearance.
  • G) There’s quite a gap until Superman #93, where we find that an African village has been constructed in a Metropolis park for educational reasons. There is a man there who may or may not be a statue, I honestly can’t tell (he appears in two panels and is standing the exact same way in both), but either way is a representation of an African figure within the comic at least.
  • H) Superman #110 gives us superstitious spear-wielding natives living in a “faraway land” that may not be explicitly identified as African, but the group is definitely treated the same way all the previous tribes have been so far: population for an exotic backdrop for an adventure, but barely actual humans.
  • I) At Superman’s funeral in Superman #149 there is more than one Black man visible, which is our first instance of a Black man who isn’t an “exotic tribesman” since that train porter way back. This means 1961 is the point when we finally have Black people in backgrounds in Metropolis more regularly. Among the others seen at the funeral are “world leaders” who may represent African leaders or something.
  • J) There is a single Black child among a crowd of children given a lift by Superman in Superman #153. I assume desegregation of schools has hit Metropolis.
  • K) Some African natives find a chunk of Kryptonite in Superman #173. Oddly, though they appear in three panels, we never see any of their faces. I don’t know why. After a couple of Black people in Metropolis, we’re thrown back to exotic tribes.
  • L) Some dark-skinned natives see Superman stopping a missile in sky in Superman #197, a story being reprinted from Action Comics #282).
  • M) Some Africans are among the many over the world following the race between Superman and the Flash in Superman #199. They are relatively modern, but they do use drums to communicate.
  • N) There is a Black man among the steel workers on strike in Superman #208.
  • O) A single Black child is seen in a class among some other school kids in Superman #218.
  • P) In Superman #219 we once again have a single Black youth among a group. This time they’re playing in the water sprayed by a fire hydrant opened during a heat wave.
  • Q) By Superman #225, there are Black people just showing up in the crowds around the city. There are couple of them spread throughout the issue.
  • R) And again, in #228, there are Black people in the backgrounds around the city, watching Superman do whatever he is doing in the story.

There we go. That’s all I could find. It’s certainly possible I missed some, but it’s also certainly a higher number than the zero that Wikipedia claimed. For posterity I must also note that I ignored several appearances of Egyptians, who are African but are not depicted as dark-skinned in the comics in the way that the Vathlo Island post is clearly talking about. This includes also ignoring depictions of the Sphinx, whose face I assume is based on some ancient Egyptian who could, for all I know, be dark-skinned. Furthermore, the information I’ve gathered here does not include people appearing in advertisements, or gag strips, or educational material in the issues that is not part of a Superman story. I saw examples in each of African or African American individuals, but they were not what I was there for.

And I also want to make it clear that this data comes only from the comic magazine entitled “Superman” because the wording of the claim only drew specific attention to that book. Superman stories have also appeared in places like “Action Comics“, “World’s Finest Comics“, and “Superboy“, and I’d also count books like “Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane” and “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen” as Superman books. Each of these books told hundreds of stories with Superman and I’m sure plenty of those involved “primitive” tribes and witch doctors as well until the 1970s came and they started peppering Black people into backgrounds. I’ll note further that the Superman radio show, the cartoons from the ’40s, and the show starring George Reeves all had African characters from various parts of the offensive representation spectrum (somehow the show managed it best in an episode that included a villain in blackface).

Some further thoughts: Obviously this is not a good amount of representation for Black people in Superman over those decades. There’s not one Black person among those A to R that I would classify as an actual “character”. There are no names, only a handful have lines, and they almost never actually matter to the story in which they appear (something also true of the Kryptonian scientist in Superman #234 whose appearance started all this). But I didn’t go into this hoping I’d find out that the magazine had secretly diverse beyond our previous imaginings. I don’t think superhero comics are as diverse in representation as they need to be even now, let alone before the fight for civil rights. And furthermore: There is not a single face listed above I feel confident in saying is a Black woman. Maybe one of the two in the very last image, but even then I can’t be sure. It’s no wonder it has been so hard for creators to establish a Black Woman of the Daily Planet when it took decades to get a Black woman as a mere extra in there.

So, maybe we can change that one line on Wikipedia now that we have an article to cite, but what would be more important would be to keep expanding representation of not just Black people, but all kinds of people, in our popular culture. It can be done, but to do it we actually have to do it.

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