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Lois Lane Tries To Understand Racial Prejudice Firsthand

Story: "I Am Curious (Black)"
Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane issue 106, Nov. 1970.

The second best thing about this absolutely crazy attempt by DC to explore the racial divide in post-Civil Rights movement America is the title, which does double duty as a reference to to things the average comic book reader's parents would NEVER have wanted them to see. Most directly, it may refer to Redd Foxx's 1970 comedy album "I Am Curious, Black", but it also calls back to Swedish film director Vilgot Sjöman's groundbreaking duology, "I Am Curious (Yellow)" and "I Am Curious (Blue)", which both viciously skewered reactionary politics, and featured extremely explicit nudity and sexuality (including one scene in which the protagonist kisses her lover's flaccid penis). The more you know!

The best thing about it is that it has Lois Lane using a machine built by Dahr-Nel, a time-traveling Kryptonian scientist who previously tried to woo her away from Superman, to turn herself into an African American woman.

At the start of the issue, Lois finds herself walking through "Little Africa," Metropolis' black neighborhood, which is plagued by poverty and high crime. She passes a man delivering a speech to fellow residents about black pride, and is called out by him for being representative of the socioeconomic reality which privileges the white majority at expense of the black majority. Shamed by the association ("he's wrong about me, but right about so many others!"), Lois decides she needs a firsthand look at the black experience in America. Emerging from Dahr-Nel's device in the height of 1970s fashion, she is given 24 hours to live as a black woman. She returns to Little Africa where she meets the activist, who turns out to be a reasonable guy named Dave Stevens.

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Dave, it turns out, is a constantly vigilant activist who, when he isn't delivering MLK-cum-Malcolm X style speeches, works tirelessly to combat the influence of criminals in his community. Noticing some local boys skipping school, he follows them, only to stumble upon some local mobsters responsible for flooding the ghetto with drugs. Thinking he's a cop, they shoot him. He survives, barely, thanks to a blood transfusion from Lois. The next day, once Lois has become caucasian once again, she and Dave reach an understanding, with Lois learning how hard it is to be black, and Dave learning that not all white people are bad AND YES THIS IS DEEPLY UNCOMFORTABLE.

It can't be denied that the story is, especially to modern eyes, full of unfortunate implications. More than once, it relies on rather stale stereotypes of black masculinity (Dave is kind of sexist), features some very awkward use of "black" slang written by white writers, and of course is powered by the problematic notion that there's a kind of exact middle ground in the struggle for racial equality. But all that is to be expected, given the time period and the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority. What makes it work is they way the story subtly portrays Lois as an unreliable narrator and makes the reader complicit.

When we first see Dave Stevens, he's depicted as a somewhat scary depiction of black rage. However, when we meet Dave again after Lois' transformation, he's... different. Nicer. Yes, part of this is that he meets Lois as a black woman, and no doubt there were many white readers - or at least their parents - who heard shouts of "black is beautiful" in real life and recoiled in terror. Hell, it's well-documented that Nixon's appeal to the "silent majority," a very, very current thing at the time this comic was produced, was in part rooted in stoking fear of unrest in the inner city. It's possible that the writer of this story subconsciously absorbed some of that. But it's hard not to feel as though we weren't seeing "Dave" at the beginning of the story, but only Lois' projected fears as she walked through an unfamiliar neighborhood.

Yes, there's still the unfortunate problem of portraying the black experience as written by white people, and yes the dialogue and basic concept are absolutely hilarious now. But it's a definite A for effort from DC Comics at a time when the industry was only beginning to explore aspects of American culture that weren't lily white.

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