On July 23, writer Jordan Clark (Puerto Rico Strong, Bitch Planet: Triple Feature) and artist Ahmara Smith (Sweaty Palms) released a mini-comic called The Black Experience. It’s a first person look at being Black in America where each choice can have a profound impact on the rest of your day, if not your life. When simply existing can be seen as a criminal act, how do you live?
I reached out to Clark after I read their comic because I had to know more about how this comic came into being. It’s a brief comic but days later, I am still reflecting on its contents. Jordan Clark lives in Baltimore, MD and has been writing comics for five years. The concept for The Black Experience came about over a year ago. Please be advised that the interview will discuss in detail the final few panels of the comic, so consider this your spoiler warning.
“Originally [the comic] was going to play out so you never saw the hands of the “character” and as you walked around people would interact with “you” differently (an older white woman clutches her purse as you get in the elevator, or an employee is following you around a store), and so the reader is guessing, “well, what is it that’s scaring everyone so much?” And at the end you would look in the mirror and see that it was just because you were black, but it was going to get really complicated in terms of staging it in a way that didn’t spoil the reveal until the end.”
Clark says he put the comic away for a little bit and ultimately came back to it a few years ago with the decision to present the comic as a kind of Virtual Reality game. His partnership with the artist Ahmara came about after locating them using the Cartoonist of Color Database. Clark credits Ahmara with bringing the entire story to life.
As noted above, the comic is presented a VR game, something the reader doesn’t know until the end. The final few panels reveal the individual playing the game is White. The character is asked if they wish to give the game another try but they decline, citing the game’s unrealistic feeling. The White character says they’d rather go read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel Between the World and Me again. I asked Clark if he was saying something about how White people, especially White liberals want to feel good about themselves for reading Ta-Nehisi Coates but don’t actually want to confront the experience of Black people in America?
It’s a real frustrating time right now. We’re getting stabbed at train stations. Cops are pulling guns out and arresting children. People are calling the cops on us for selling water and setting “hard” screens in pick up games. We need strong and dedicated allies more than ever. And no one’s perfect, I know that. It’s impossible to do the right thing 100% of the time, but I don’t think it’s enough to simply voice your displeasure around only those who agree with you anymore.
To me, being an ally means you stand up and use your privilege for those put in harms way or at a disadvantage simply because of things they can’t control. But for example, if I’m only speaking up for women when my friends who are women are around, am I really an ally? What am I saying and doing when my friends aren’t around? Am I speaking up for women I don’t know who are being mistreated? When it’s only men around, am I calling them out when they say something misogynistic? Being an ally is a full time job, and not always fun. So although you may not get it exactly right in the moment, you also can’t pick and choose when want to speak out and act.
This isn’t a new thing though. Slave abolitionist abhorred slavery, but not all of them were comfortable living with and giving black people equal rights. Communist and counter culture groups in the 40’s and 50’s had a lot of radical ideas for America, but mostly ignored how class and race are inexorably intertwined for black Americans. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin all spoke about their dissatisfaction with their liberal white counterparts and how they failed to truly grasp their message.
So for me, the ending really comes down to white people keeping their blinders on, even when the truth is right in front of their face. It’s also a commentary on how so many people want to engage in black culture (music, style, slang, food) but don’t want the realities that come with being black. Some of those people don’t even want to engage with black people themselves. Also, here’s another reason Ahmara is so good. In the script I didn’t specify anything about the sales person talking to the white customer, but Ahmara made the choice for them to be black, which I thought was another brilliant layer of commentary where this white person is telling a black person their experience isn’t authentic, right to their face.
This comic begins to confront the way White people consume and in some cases, commodify the trauma of People of Color. As someone with white friends, I’ve seen and am guilty of myself, centering the trauma of others within my own White experience. What does that mean? It means I center a tragedy on how it makes me feel, how enraged I am, how upset it makes me. You can watch this happen with certain phrases like, ‘America is better than this’. This phrase neglects and erases America’s 250 year history of oppression. The Black Experience does so much to convey this moment in America. It’s layered in ways I am still unpacking, I asked Clark to reflect on this.
As far as the structure of the comic, I think one of the reasons it works so well is because it’s short. We kind of get in, make our point, and get out, so it permits a few re-readings. I feel like some things might stand out more once you know the twist. And the fact that it’s presented as an interactive thing forces the reader to also consider each choice, and its consequences. Also, I think the shortness allows us to build to quick and tense climax that makes the ending more impactful. If it was, say 15 or 20 pages, I think it wouldn’t have the same punch.
In terms of form, Ahmara really brought it all together in an amazing way. In typical writer fashion, I had sent them a much wordier script, but they came back with something more streamlined and it really informed so much of the final book, so I’m grateful to them for that. I think the simplicity of it gives things a better, tighter pace. For example, just that first choice: Sink into depression or Internalize and move on is such a real choice a lot of black people make everyday. Just getting out of bed and seeing news stories like that can make each day a real struggle, but you kind of have to go one way or the other. There really isn’t an in-between. So many of the choices also emphasize safety over personal preference, but even those choices are couched in what we might perceive as making white people feel safe, and that’s not always a guarantee of our safety.
What this moment in America shows us are people telling us what their lived experience is. People are telling us and showing us that each day, each second is fraught with decisions and considerations that White people rarely contend with. The response to this, for much of the country, has been to say, “We don’t believe you.” I wanted Clark to talk about this a little bit more and perhaps expand on how his comic unpacks this.
Cell phones and social media have really brought this idea to boiling point, because for so long it would just be black people saying “hey this is happening to me” and then white people saying “well what did you do? There’s got to be some logical reason that happened to you.” But now with video and all these social media platforms it’s black people saying, “Hey, literally look at this, this is real live video of injustice happening,” and yet there’s still people saying, “Well what happened before the video?” “Let’s wait and hear both sides.” I’d like to know what the two sides are to Eric Garner’s death are? Or Phillando Castillo? I don’t know how you can watch either of those videos and say anything other than those men were murdered in cold blood. But it’s always this moving burden of proof for certain groups of people. The comfort of willful ignorance is more important to them than equality and freedom I guess.
As the this comic continues to be passed around and gain popularity, mostly through word of mouth, I wanted to know what the reception to the comic has been like. I also asked Clark to address you, the reader.
I guess for black readers I would tell them that they’re not alone. I think people still underestimate the power of representation both on the page and behind it. To see yourself in the media you consume, but to also know it’s made by someone like you, kind of looking out at you to say “I see you,” means a lot. When I first read Ben Passmore’s Your Black Friend I was floored. It was my life and feelings on the page and it felt so real and kind of made me feel less crazy and paranoid about certain things.
For white people I hope they get two things. One, I hope it makes them give a second look at not only the black people they know, but the black people they don’t. As people, we’re all just trying to get through each day, but for black people it can often be more literal. James Baldwin said “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” If I can be bold and add to that idea, I think it’s also to live in a state of paranoia that can be hard for others to understand. I look at so many situations on the news and think to myself “why not me?” Why couldn’t that same thing happen to me today? So you never know what someone is trying to deal with personally, so when your black friends open up to you, really listen to what they’re saying.
Secondly, I hope it makes them want to educate themselves more about a lot of the systems in place that cause black people to live with these kinds of thoughts and feelings. Educate yourself about voter repression happening where you live, about redlining, about biased hiring practices and other systemic issues. And then talk about them with other white people. Don’t hide from the injustices around you, help us fight them.
Overall the response has been really positive so far. And it’s sparked a lot of meaningful conversations between myself and other black people that I think we don’t have enough, in terms of working through some of these experiences and the effects they have on us. So I think we’re both just hoping it continues to reach more people because I think it’s hitting at the right time.
If you’d like to read The Black Experience, which I highly recommend you do, you can pick up your copy on Jordan Clark’s website or via Ahmara Smith’s website. You may also find the writer on Twitter @Jrsosa18. Ahmara Smith is also on Twitter under the handle @ahmarasmithart.
^Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.