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Thursday, October 15, 2015
Reviewing While White: First Man
by Sam Bloom
In late 1909, Robert Peary and Frederick Cook feuded bitterly—and publicly—over whom had first “discovered” the North Pole. At that point in time, Matthew Henson was a virtual unknown; after all, he was a Black man living in the U.S., so why would the fact that he actually beat Peary (a White man) to the Pole count for anything? As Simon Schwartz writes in the introduction to his latest work imported for readers here in the U.S., First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson (translated by Laura Watkinson and published by Graphic Universe), “Western culture seems to be based in an objective view of history and the world in which we live” (p. 4). A good point, but regrettably it’s Schwartz’s very own “objective view of history and the world,” and his stereotyped depictions of Greenlandic Inuit, that sinks this graphic novel.
I’m a pretty voracious comics reader, and I’d never read anything from Schwartz, so I was thrilled to see a new title from the German author/illustrator. Plus, I was woefully unversed on the life of Henson, so I started First Man with a great deal of anticipation. I soon learned that Henson was quite the adventurer: sailing the seas as a teenager; accompanying Peary on a surveying expedition in Nicaragua (to investigate the feasibility of a shipping route between oceans that would eventually become the Panama Canal); acting as Peary’s “faithful black servant” on many journeys to Greenland and attempts at the North Pole. It was on these trips to the far north where Henson made a lasting impression on the Inuit, who dubbed him Mahri Pahluk (“Matthew, the Kind One”). This fact, according to Schwartz’s introduction (pp. 4-5), led him to create First Man.
I absolutely burned through my first reading, gobsmacked mostly by the brilliant job Schwartz does portraying the “historical injustice” of “Henson’s lack of recognition” in the history books (p. 4). It’s obvious that Schwartz is passionate (almost to a fault) about his subject; anything resembling a flaw in Henson’s persona gets swept under the rug, while Peary conversely is raked through the coals (for example, both men had affairs in Greenland, but only Peary’s doings are shown here). But though I was emotionally gutted on my first reading, it was during my second time through that I began to feel really and truly queasy.
When you’re a member of the dominant culture, racism can be hard to spot at times. This is what I told myself after finishing that second reading; I was trying to justify how I had not been previously able to see the stereotypes that Schwartz perpetuates here (and that we see over and over again in literary depictions of people of First/Native Nations).
Throughout the book, Schwartz uses Inuit-inspired art to symbolize Henson (and other characters). (Schwartz does not include any notes of whether he vetted the art, or anything involving the Native Greenlanders, with a person of Greenlandic Inuit descent.) On page 51, a grizzled, elderly Native Greenlander is the first to refer to Henson as “Mahri Pahluk,” a look of wonder in the old man’s eyes. As everyone else goes about their business, the “shaman” (as he is later referred, on page 80) uses his staff to draw a mystical-looking picture in the snow, an image that implies he believes Henson has some kind of powers (and that echoes the “mask” Henson wears in the Inuit art sections of the book). Later, the “shaman” leads Henson to “massive meteorites that are sacred to the Inuit” (p. 155), where Henson has a supernatural experience. All the while, Henson grumbles that he doesn’t know what is going on, apparently following the old man because of the squiggly lines of mysticism emanating off of his body. This exotification of Inuit culture is all too familiar in children’s literature.
In Nina’s review of Jump Back, Paul, she discusses the inherent problems of an outsider writing dialect. Here, Schwartz uses what I thought of as “Inuit storyteller voice”; the results are predictably insulting. After the scene with Matthew, the old man and the meteorites, “[T]he devil Tahnusuk drove the first wedge into the group” (p. 64). Eventually Peary discovers the meteorites and arranges to have them shipped back to New York; the “Inuit storyteller voice” reads, “And while the Oopernadeet [Americans] dragged away the three sacred stones, the Raven cast out the shaman for his betrayal and gave him to the devil Tahnusuk” (p. 81); in the next panel we see the old man falling to his death from a high cliff. On pages 94-95, describing the Americans’ arrival at what would be the expedition in which Henson reached the North Pole, Schwartz uses a two-page spread with Inuit-inspired art and the “Inuit storyteller voice,” including the cringe-worthy line, “The breath of Tahnusuk clung to the visitors” (p. 94).
The book ends in 1962, with a group of Greenlandic Inuit kids sitting around reading a Superman comic book (to Schwartz’s credit, the kids are dressed realistically and without stereotype). An old man makes the kids put away “that garbage” so he can slip into the “Inuit storyteller voice” and share Mahri Pahluk’s tale—as the group sits on an ice floe in the shape of the tracing the “shaman” had made in the snow when he first met Henson—“And among those same Oopernadeet, there was also Mahri Pahluk… who was the first man to defeat Tahnusuk but who could not escape the Devil’s gaze” (p. 152).
In his introduction, Schwartz admits, “I am not a historian but a graphic novelist” (p. 5). That’s all fine and dandy, but some of Schwartz's choices at revisionist history did leave me scratching my head. A timeline in the backmatter clears up some things, but not others, leaving a blurry line between fact and fiction. The sacred stones really did exist, and Peary actually did have them shipped back to New York City. But did the Inuit really admire Henson enough to trust him with the knowledge of those same stones? Was there really a “shaman” who jumped (or was pushed) off that cliff? Do the Inuit really believe in “Tahnusuk,” the devil that is referenced repeatedly by the “Inuit storyteller voice”? And did the Native Greenlanders really live in tipis, as Schwartz depicts here? I am not sure of any of these things, but if I were Simon Schwartz, I would have been absolutely certain to find out (and then name my sources). While I agree that Henson’s story must be told, how unfortunate that in doing so Schwartz perpetuates stereotypes of the very people whose respect toward Henson was the impetus for this story. You see, people of First/Native Nations have had their stories ruined by those outside of their culture for far too long; by continuing that sad tradition, Schwartz leaves his young readers out in the cold.