Cyborg and the Symbolic Forfeiture of Blackness

John Semper Jr.’s Cyborg run is important for its societal implications and social commentary. Specifically, a scene in Cyborg (2016) #5, which takes less than ten pages to tell, interrupts the main plot of the ongoing series and places the reader in a situation that can remove comfort, disrupting the tone of the series by bringing racism into focus. While social issues play a role in Semper Jr.’s ongoing story, this scene stands out from the rest with its bluntness. In this essay, I’ll provide an analysis of John Semper Jr.’s metaphorical portrayal of being black in America in Cyborg #5. The scene I will discuss includes a conversation regarding black America’s diversity, blackness in the eyes of the white law, and the implications of the symbolic removal of blackness.

Cyborg is a superhero whose body is mostly machinery. Mortally wounded in an explosion, he was merged with technology to survive. In merging with machine, he became a cyborg. And in doing so, he may have become less of a person, a dilemma Cyborg is forced to deal with early on in this run.

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Cyborg (third from left) and Blue (fourth from left) walk and talk in the foreground [Property of DC Comics]
The scene opens with two new friends, Cyborg and Blue. Both are black men, discussing the streets of Detroit. The two calmly debate the safety of the neighborhood they’re walking through, shown to be predominantly black and of lower income. Blue states his feeling of safety and security around the citizens, but Cyborg disagrees, pointing out potential threats, but Blue rebuts each one.

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Cyborg’s “potential threats” that Blue has known “since they were kids” [Property of DC Comics]
Using his facial recognition, Cyborg pulls up information about the men, women, and children they pass, giving the reader a sense of diversity within the black community. Cyborg’s facial recognition display features a “More” button, implying there is more to the men, women, and children than what he sees displayed: their name, threat level, and list of weapons they carry.

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A police officer disguised as a prostitute (far right in first panel, right and left in second panel), Cyborg (second from the right in first panel), and Blue (third from the right in first panel) [Property of DC Comics]
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Cyborg (far left in first panel), Blue (center in first panel), and Xenephon “Exxy” Clark (far right in first panel, center in second panel) [Property of DC Comics]
Blue gives Cyborg, and in turn the reader, information about the citizens not listed by Cyborg’s facial recognition. Blue serves as the “More” button, telling the reader there us more to the people than simple first appearances. This tells us that every man sitting on his stoop and every woman leaning against a lamppost is an individual character with a background and history that’s different from the others. This is furthered by the citizens not discussed by Cyborg and Blue as they move through the city. From the black woman with natural hair wearing a purple dress standing in front of Cyborg in the foreground on the bus to the black man in a pink jacket carrying groceries in the background, the reader can see these characters as more than just set pieces to help the reader grasp the setting. Every man, woman, and child seen has a different human life, each full of different emotions, different fears, different histories. While black Americans are lumped into a broad category of degrading and oppressive stereotypes by the white media and popular culture, they all stand apart in all categories, including country of origin and socioeconomic status.

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[Property of DC Comics]
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[Property of DC Comics]
This status differentiation within the black community is reinforced throughout the scene as Blue notes Cyborg’s disconnect from the city and is solidified when Blue labels Cyborg as a “bou-zhee” outsider, out of touch with the reality of the black humans living in the city. These short interactions present to the audience an image of diversity within the black community, something commonly ignored in white pop culture and media that portray and reinforce stereotypes that have existed and evolved for decades.

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Cyborg and Blue continue their discussion on the bus (1/2) [Property of DC Comics]
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Cyborg (second from left in first panel, second from left in second panel) and Blue (third from left in first panel, far left in second panel) continue their discussion on the bus (2/2) [Property of DC Comics]
While the two men walk, a police cruiser pulls over and two male officers exit the vehicle: one white, one black. The two officers immediately begin questioning Cyborg and Blue, the white officer with much more intensity while the black officer stands back. Through his facial scans, Cyborg recognizes that both men have high threat levels and are well armed. The white officer is written to personify a legitimate threat to the entirety of the black community, despite the previously discussed diversity, due to his inability to see the black community as diverse.

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Blue (left in first panel, far right in second panel) and Cyborg (right in first panel, second from the right in second panel) are questioned by two police officers (far left and second from the left in second panel, left and right in third panel) [Property of DC Comics]
The white officer’s embodiment of ignorance serves to contrast the reader’s new insight into this previously discussed diversity and through this stark contrast, the reader can recognize the officer’s fundamentally flawed perception. He threatens Cyborg, who responds by removing his hoodie and sunglasses.

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The white officer (second from left in first panel, left in second panel) harasses Cyborg (far right in first panel, right in second panel) and Blue (second from right in first panel) [Property of DC Comics]
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Cyborg (right in first panel, right in third panel, right in fourth panel) removes his hoodie and the police leave

The hoodie and sunglasses, for plot purposes, serve as a disguise for Cyborg, a celebrity due to his superheroism. In removing the disguise, he warns the officer to back off, for the officer is threatening a superhero and a man who could present more problems for the officer than the officer expected. Heeding the warning, the officers back off as Blue notes that “they sure left in a hurry.” But the hoodie also has a much deeper meaning: hoodies have become part of a black stereotype in the agenda pushed by a primarily white media and pop culture. Hoodies have also become a symbol of a movement pushing back against this oppressive aura. Brought on by the murders of innocent black men, such as Trayvon Martin, slain for looking “suspicious” in a hoodie, the hoodie has come to symbolize blackness and the imminent threat of execution of black men and women. When Cyborg removes his hoodie, the officer realizes he is harassing a superhero and quickly leaves. It’s important to note that the officer left because Cyborg is a superhero. One must recognize then, that the only way for a black man to not be treated as subhuman is to be a black superhero, an impossibility of reality. Occurring on the surface, this scene is straightforward, but the nuance of it brings a much more important and meaningful message.

When Cyborg removes his hoodie, he removes his metaphorical blackness and the oppressive stigma attached to him by being a “suspicious” black man in a hoodie. Once this particular form of blackness is removed, he can be looked at as a man by the officer and, by extension, the law. In removing his blackness, a part of himself, Cyborg isn’t just looked at as a man by the officer, he’s looked at as a “white” man, for the privileging stereotypes of white men include respect for police and authority, the opposite of the degrading stereotype that labels black men as “thuggish” and disrespectful. Cyborg’s blackness is both the same and different from other black Americans. As the reader now knows, Cyborg is his own black person, with a different life from every other black person. But his blackness also binds him to all of the black community through one shared experience: racism. And in removing his hoodie, a symbol of his blackness and the stereotype imposed on him, Cyborg demands respect from the officer.

The metaphor can be taken further, however. In previous issues, Cyborg has been established as a character facing an identity dilemma of man vs. machine. The subplot, bordering on the philosophical, asks what makes us human and how technologically far we can go before we’re more machine than human. This internal debate can be simplified into a more basic dichotomy of human vs not human. In doing so, the psychological stakes of the story are raised. For if Cyborg were to accept he is not human, he would not be human. Only in the constant reassurance of his humanity can he remain human. His body is almost entirely robotic and if the key human piece, the brain, were to fully accept his mechanization and therefore dehumanization, he would cease to exist as a human. This internal conflict furthers the nuance of the scene by showing the reader how black men are seen by the white law, even when forced to remove their blackness for survival. After Cyborg’s removal of his blackness, one would expect the officer to look at Cyborg as a human, but because the audience has been previously introduced to Cyborg’s internal dilemma, we have difficulty seeing Cyborg as entirely human. The massive piece of metal covering half his face is a concrete reminder of this perceptual problem: Cyborg cannot be seen as truly human when he does not look truly human. And at the same time, when we must see Cyborg as subhuman, the panel also looks over the officer’s shoulder at Cyborg, showing the way the officer views Cyborg. The audience’s perception, combined with the panel from the white officer’s perspective in looking at Cyborg, tells the audience that no matter what black humans do, in the eyes of white America, they are not entirely human. The only reason the officer then backs off is because of Cyborg’s superhero status which is impossible for black men to achieve in the real world. This creates a paradox: black men must remove a part of themselves to be treated as equal humans, but even in removing a part of themselves, they’re still seen as inferior. Not even Cyborg, a superhero embodying excellence, can be seen as equal. Although the police officer departs, he does not leave because he now sees Cyborg as equal; he leaves to avoid conflict with a superhero. This luxury (or privilege) cannot be enjoyed by non-superhero black men because they have no superpowers; the ones with the power are the white officers who control through threat of violence.

The diversity in the black community shown in the issue tells the audience that the black “thug” stereotype is detrimentally false, helping to hold the entire race down. The establishment of the hoodie as a symbol of blackness and its subsequent symbolic breaking of that blackness then tells the audience that the only way a black human can be seen as human in the eyes of the white law is by looking a certain way, fitting a white mold, that serves to take control and power away from the black body, black mind, and black soul. This disempowerment of black lives tells these black lives that they do not matter and that they are still owned, just not in the physical shackles their ancestors were forced to bear. But even when the blackness is willingly stripped away to fit the white mold, John Semper Jr. tells the reader that it doesn’t matter. No matter how hard a black human tries, they’re never seen as truly equal, never seen as truly human. In the end, we realize Blue was right: he should feel safe around his peers; the danger comes from the outsider, the white law. This scene is powerful and important, telling the reader the extent to which the oppression of the black human and the theft of the black life reach in America.

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5 thoughts on “Cyborg and the Symbolic Forfeiture of Blackness

  1. Having read this I thought it was extremely informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

    Like

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