Legendary comics artist Denys Cowan has created a piece of art celebrating the Black heroes of the DC Universe, released today in honor of Juneteenth. The holiday, which has been celebrated for more than 150 years but this year has corporate America taking notice, celebrates the day that, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln declared an end to non-penal slavery in the United States, a Union general made it to Galveston, Texas, to inform the Black population of the end of legal slavery. That did not put an immediate stop to it -- slavery would not officially be abolished for another six months, when the Thirteenth Amendment was officially ratified -- but it is recognized as the end of slavery because once word had got to Southern Texas, the idea was that the message of emancipation had been spread far and wide.
While Juneteenth (also sometimes called Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, or Liberation Day) is recognized in all but three U.S. states, only four -- Texas, Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania -- treat it as a paid holiday. With the spike in popularity of the holiday this year -- tied with the larger movement to recognize and confront the challenges Black Americans face as a result if institutional discrimination and white supremacy in recent weeks -- activists are encouraging Americans to take the time to reflect on the meaning of the celebration.
You can see Cowan's image below, which was released by DC publisher Jim Lee with the caption "Listen, reflect, and learn."
The image features some of DC's most identifiable Black heroes, including John Stewart, Steel, Black Lightning, and Static, set against a backdrop that lists a more exhaustive list of DC's major Black characters.
DC and Marvel, whose flagship characters were created at a time when segregation was still the law of the land in much of the United States, have struggled to reckon with the lack of significant representation for nonwhite characters. Few serious efforts were made to address the question of represenation prior to the 1990s, and following the comics market crash of the mid-'90s, publishers often say when confronted that lagging sales in the direct market make trying anything outside of the box of traditional, bankable IP a gamble. As a result, many of the most significant characters of color introduced in the superhero market are characters like Steel or Batwing, who have direct ties to previously-existing white superheroes.
In recent years, both publishers have endeavored to acknowledge and confront these issues, and the rising popularity of superheroes in movies and TV have put a finer point on the issue for the corporations that own DC and Marvel.
It's a bit like the history of Juneteenth itself, which was largely ignored outside of the African-American community until the '90s, when the modern Juneteenth movement was born, a flag was designed, and in 1997, the U.S. congress passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as "Juneteenth Independence Day."
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