Diversity and complexity

A recent discussion about diversity on television prompted me to take a look at something I didn’t know much about: the history of African-Americans in Federal law enforcement. It all started with a conversation about the renewal of Agent Carter and a comment by veteran comics editor Rachel Edidin that it would be nice to see greater diversity in the series (of which she is a fan). I have not seen the show (which is not out in the UK), but the conversation this started raised some interesting points.

agent-carter-768

Some people on Twitter responded by saying that a US government agency in the 1940s would not be a place where you’d find a lot of minorities. Edidin replied by pointing out that in fact the first African-American FBI agent, James Wormley Jones, joined the Bureau in 1919 — by which point he’d already been a police officer in Washington, DC and an officer in the army.

So a) it isn’t necessarily implausible for there to be black agents in an intelligence agency and b) even if it were, Marvel has a long (if not always consistent or particularly well-managed) legacy of promoting inclusion. Take the original lineup of Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos, which included a black soldier, Gabriel Jones, even though the US military was not integrated during WWII (that is, there were many black soldiers, but they served in all-black units).

Curiously, colourists do not always seem to have got the message that Gabe -- the guy with the trumpet next to Dum Dum -- was black.
That’s him there with the trumpet. Kirby adds black character with cornball gimmick — hold the front page.

Anyway, James Wormley Jones. An interesting guy — but what I hadn’t seen mentioned in this discussion is what Jones did at the Bureau. After all, why did J. Edgar Hoover need black agents? He needed them to spy on “subversive” organisations campaigning for black rights — like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was Jones’s beat. I’m sure he did other things as well — after all, he was a regular cop in Washington, not some undercover red-hunter. But that’s the one that stands out the most.

garvey
I realise tradition demands that I present a photo of Marcus Garvey in a big silly hat, but nah.

So on the one hand, yes, there were African-American FBI agents early in the agency’s history. On the other hand, they were still at least partly agents of a racist agenda. On the other other hand, they present Hoover’s agenda in a more complex and interesting light, with lots of potential for character development and compelling story. But if you don’t want to do that — like, say, if you’re just a spy show about action and hijinks and stuff — you can’t hide behind “but they didn’t have black people back then.”

Which isn’t to say that every period of history in every part of the world looked like modern America, which some people sometimes assume it did. But this is modern America we’re talking about here. More or less.

Anyway, I thought Jones was an interesting guy and I was pleased that that discussion pointed me to him.

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Diversity and complexity

4 thoughts on “Diversity and complexity

  1. The point is more that yes, they were there, but they were the exception, not the rule, especially in New York were back at this time 95% of the population was white. It’s not like the show doesn’t feature any non-white characters at all. But if you look at the roles or the main cast, there is simply not one character for which being black would make any sense.
    Peggy, Howard and (to a certain degree) Jarvis are characters which have been established previously.
    Chief Dooley is, well, the chief, and his main role is to make sexist remarks towards Peggy. A black actor would simple a nonsensical fit for this role.
    Thompson has the role of the privileged, misogynistic white male who knows exactly that life has dealt him a good hand and uses this to his advantage.
    Sousa is a crippled war veteran. The whole point of him is that he used to be the guy who had everything but now he isn’t seen as a “whole man” anymore.
    The only character from the main cast which they could have made black without undermining the story they were trying to tell is Peggy best friend Angie. And that would be problematic too, because at the start of the show Peggy is pretty much withdrawing from the world and Angie cajoling her out of the shell. He very outgoing and caring nature could have easily come off as a stereotype.

    The writers had eight episodes to tell their story. In those eight episodes the addressed sexism, the treatment of war veterans and the treatment of the physically impaired. I think we can excuse them for shelving the issue of racism for later. Now that Agent Carter has been renewed, I fully expect it to play a role in the second or third season. If it doesn’t happen until then, I will be disappointed, too.

    1. Thanks for the comment! As I said, I’ve never seen Agent Carter, which is not available in the UK, so I can’t comment on any of that. I think the general conversation about the difference between people’s perceptions of what existed in the past and what actually did was fascinating, though.

      1. I think what is really funny is that many people claim the sexism in the show is too “on the nose” when it is actually very accurate for the time in question.
        you should watch it. It is worth it. You don’t even need to know anything about the MCU, the show works very well as stand-alone, too, and has a concluded arc in the first season.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    Adding more nonwhite characters would mean that the new Agent Carter series could feature white men getting punched by someone other than white women. I guess that’s an improvement?

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