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The Changing Face
of Ebony White

September 13, 2009

If you are a fan of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, you have to be aware of his long-time sidekick-partner Ebony White as well.

Since his first appearance back in 1940s, there has been an on again-off again controversy surrounding his appearance and his relationship with The Spirit. And it goes a little bit like this:

Is Ebony a physically ridiculous comic relief character created to make fun of African Americans, or a genuine attempt at racial inclusion and dignity? Was his creation merely to be a farcical “Man-Friday,” or as a full fledged partner of one of the comic medium’s most enduring detectives?

Whatever opinion you have, there can be no denying that young Mr. White has changed dramatically over his 60+ year history. Even though he was noticeably and deliberately missing from the overly promoted (and sparsely attended) Spirit live action movie in 2007, he still has a very visible presence in the recent Spirit comic book published by DC.

Will Eisner is quoted as having said he created Ebony White as “really an attempt to introduce a Negro boy in a meaningful role. He had a dignity all his own.” In personal conversation before his untimely passing, Eisner shared that on any given day, opinions about young Ebony could be a crap shoot. He could be lauded one day and condemned the next.

While I caution anyone from measuring things from the past with a yardstick from the present, allow me to recommend that we all take a long measured long at where we’ve come from, and gauge from that where we want to go. Take a look at some of these images, an Ebony White time line if you will, and see what you think.

The controversy continues.

Racial connotations
The character is cited as an example of racial stereotypes in mainstream 20th century United States culture. His name is a racial pun, and his facial features - including large white eyes and thick pinkish lips - are typical of blackface caricatures. The size of a small child, he resembles a stereotypical pickaninny. As a loyal assistant to the white hero, he has been compared to the Uncle Tom stereotype. (Midnight, a character created as a substitute for the Spirit, had a talking monkey as one of his sidekicks.)

Eisner reported receiving letters of both praise and criticism for the character at the time. In a 1966 New York Herald Tribune feature by his former office manager-turned-journalist, Marilyn Mercer claimed, "Ebony never drew criticism from Negro groups (in fact, Eisner was commended by some for using him), perhaps because, although his speech pattern was early Minstrel Show, he himself derived from another literary tradition: he was a combination of Tom Sawyer and Penrod, with a touch of Horatio Alger hero, and color didn't really come into it".[1]

Eisner later expressed mixed feelings about his portrayal of Ebony White. He acknowledged that he was conscious at the time that he was using a racial stereotype, but was unapologetic about it, defending it by stating that "at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity." In reference to his graphic novel Fagin the Jew, Eisner acknowledged parallels between Charles Dickens' use of racial stereotyping for that character (which Eisner criticized) and Eisner's own portrayal of White, but asserted that his own work had not "capitalized on" the stereotype.

In DC Comics' Spirit comic-book series, which began in 2007, White is portrayed as a fourteen year-old street kid, illegally driving a taxi. In an early appearance, the script alludes critically to his historic racist portrayal, with a character asking if he "will be standing on the Spirit's lawn with a lantern". He is portrayed as putting his street experience and his daring attitude to work at the Spirit's service. His origins are now tied to Colt's, with White being the cabbie who brought Colt to the place in which Colt apparently met his demise. Knowing of his death, a guilt-stricken White acknowledged that his previous prejudices against Colt, whom he had considered an amateurish detective afraid to sully his hands, were harsh, and that White could have helped him more. Colt, who had already awakened from his apparent death, then asked White for help. The youngster gladly accepted, keeping himself on call for his new friend.

Other media
Ebony White appeared in the 1987 Spirit TV Movie, played by Bumper Robinson. Here, he is a young hustler who becomes the Spirit's sidekick following Denny Colt's awakening.

The character did not appear in the December 2008 motion picture adaptation of Will Eisner's series.

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