by Starsky Hutch 76
Clark Kent’s experience began while on assignment for the Daily Planet. He had been sitting in the Metropolis Airport lobby when he felt a tingling sensation. Next came a horrible feeling of déjà vu.
“Are you okay, mister?” the child in the seat next to him asked.
“Uh, yes,” Kent said, sweating nervously. “What… what do you have in the shoe box there?”
“A space rock!” the young boy said excitedly, lifting up the lid as he held up the box with his prized possession. “It landed in my backyard. It fell right out of the sky!”
Clark Kent felt sick to his stomach. It was red kryptonite. From the way he was feeling, he could tell the transformation had already taken place. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be too bad. The child had reacted to him in a perfectly normal manner.
“Mickey!” a female voice called out. “C-come sit with Mommy.”
“But, Mom, I’m showing him my space rock,” the boy whined.
“Now, Mickey.” Clark turned to see who was speaking and saw a woman staring at him with fear and suspicion.
“Aw, Mom,” the boy groaned, rising from his seat to join her.
Wanting to find the cause of her reaction, Clark got up from his seat and walked to the rest room. When he looked in the mirror, he saw someone he did not recognize. His skin had become a reddish brown, and the texture of his hair had changed. He was black. He took off his glasses as he stared at himself in the mirror and placed them in his pocket. He wouldn’t need that disguise for a while.
Clark had thought about the idea of living as a black person ever since he had read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me years earlier in college. In 1959, Griffin, a white journalist, had disguised himself as a black man and traveled through the rural South. In the late 1970s, Clark Kent had interviewed a white woman named Grace Halsell, who had followed in Griffin’s footsteps, writing three books in three years about living as a black woman, a Hispanic woman, and a Native American. In 1979, Superman had even used Kryptonian technology to transform Lois Lane into a black woman at her behest for a few days. Her experiences had led her to write a series of articles in her weekly column under the title, “I am Curious (Black).” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “I Am Curious (Black),” Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #106 (November, 1970).]
Griffin had used a derivative of the drug Psorlen to change his skin from white to brown. It was even suspected that Griffin’s early death in 1980 was partially due to liver damage caused by the medication. Obviously, Clark Kent would suffer no such side effects. The change was startling, nonetheless. With his straight nose and full lips, he looked almost Haitian. Someone walked into the restroom, startling him out of his contemplation, and he returned to his seat.
Growing up in Smallville, he’d had a few black friends. Whenever something went badly, they would say it was racism. Education, jobs, crime, poverty, social misunderstandings — they blamed everything on color. “It’s a white man’s world,” they would tell him. He’d sympathized with his friends and wanted to support them. Secretly, though, he’d always felt that they used racism as an excuse. Couldn’t they just shrug off the ranting of ignorant people? Judging from the looks he got from the people he passed in the airport, it was easier said than done. He was thankful that he’d already checked in for his flight, thinking of the white face on his driver’s license.
Atlanta was the first stop on his itinerary. Waiting for his flight, he noticed for the first time how few of the travelers in the airport were black. Most of the black people were working behind metal detectors or push brooms. When he and the other passengers boarded the shuttle to go to the plane, he took the first available seat. It was next to a white woman. He smiled at her, and she cut her eyes to the ground. A white man placed a bag on the vacant seat next to him and continued to stand. Clark wondered why the man didn’t sit and grew perturbed. Part of him wondered if he were looking for things that weren’t really there, but he couldn’t help noticing that the moment he met a white person’s eyes, that person immediately turned away.
After Clark Kent landed in Atlanta’s bustling airport, he went to the information desk, where a kindly gray-haired gentleman behind the counter was answering questions. When his turn came, the man’s manner changed. “What, you don’t have reservations?” he asked in a stern, hard voice. Clark was well-dressed in khaki pants and polo shirt, and he had five thousand dollars in petty cash from the Daily Planet in his pocket. So why was he being put on the defensive?
“We have conventions in town; most hotels are full,” the older man said.
Clark found himself trying to be polite to an extent that was foreign, even to him. He was beginning to understand why a black person would act like a so-called Uncle Tom. He was desperate for just a little respect. Finally, the man suggested Clark take the subway downtown to the Peachtree Station and look for the Comfort Inn, a place he described as, “Pretty inexpensive, at least for the city.”
Reaching the hotel, he checked into the room and, feeling unusually fatigued, decided to take a nap. He figured it must be a side effect of the kryptonite. When he woke up at ten P.M., the city was dark, and he was hungry.
On International Avenue, he walked into a fancy restaurant. The maitre d’ haughtily told him, “Sorry, reservations required.” He could clearly see several empty tables. Clark asked him for an alternative selection.
Several black men loitered around the entrance to the old greasy diner he’d been directed to, drinking out of paper bags. One offered Clark some good weed. He kept moving. If the food was anything like the atmosphere, he wanted no part of it.
A little farther along, he found a Mexican place. “Long wait,” said the woman at the door, “very long.” He peered over her shoulder. Inside, he could see there were well-dressed white people and several empty tables. Discouraged and tired, he went back to his room.
The next morning, he went to a nearby drugstore. A white employee watched him as he moved around the store, her eyes practically burning holes into his back. At the drink refrigerator, he turned suddenly and stared right at her, letting her know that he knew she was shadowing him as if he were a potential thief. He’d hoped to embarrass her, but she didn’t flinch. She stared right back, hands on her hips.
“Are you gonna buy something or not?” she asked.
Clark held up the jar of orange juice, raised one eyebrow, and pointed to it.
“It’s a dollar ninety-four,” said the woman.
“Pretty expensive O.J.,” he said.
“Then don’t buy it,” she countered. Clark sighed and put his money on the counter.
Clark checked out of his room and, after a long ordeal of trying to hail a cab, went to the bus station. His destination was Gadley, Georgia. Several lynchings had been reported just outside of town. These deaths might easily have been covered up by the town if not for the fact that one of the young men had turned out to be a popular college athlete. Perry White had sent him to find out what he could. Little did he know, his reporter had just had a huge roadblock put in his path.
A light-skinned black man sitting in the bus station asked, “Where you headed, brother?”
“Gadley,” Clark replied.
“Man!” he said, shocked. “You don’t want to go to Gadley. They got old ways down there — the lynching mentality. You should stay in the city.”
“I’m sure it isn’t so bad,” Clark said. “Things have changed a lot, don’t you think?”
“Okay, okay, man, it’s your hide,” he said, backing away from him. “Be safe, brother. Be safe.”
Clark climbed off the bus in Gadley and went straight to his hotel. The manager behind the desk wanted to give him some trouble about checking in, but he had reservations and had paid in advance. Once his bags were put away, he went out to explore.
Gadley was like the movie set for an old Southern town, complete with a statue of a Confederate soldier in the square. There were three churches within two blocks, some storefronts, and few people in evidence. Continuing up Greendale Avenue, the residential area became a beautiful neighborhood with the sidewalks shaded by majestic boxwoods. Dotting this landscape were signs with the smiling face of Mayor Elmore, who was running for re-election. On one porch, two ladies chatted. As Clark passed, their conversation stopped. He kept walking. When he looked back, they were still watching him.
After a while, he realized he’d gotten pretty far from his hotel and decided to fly back unseen at super-speed. He jumped up, but nothing happened. A surge of panic passed through him. He was in the rural south in black skin and possibly powerless. Clark quickly circled back to his room.
He considered calling someone to get him. He still had his Justice League signal device, and he could easily transport back and wait until the effects of the kryptonite wore off. Then he cursed himself for his cowardice, however brief it may have been. Generations of men without his gifts had been forced to live in the situation he now faced. Only they didn’t have the luxury of waiting for their skin color to fade. How could he think of taking an easy way out?
Finally, he called Kristin Wells, alias Superwoman, needing somebody to talk to. They’d become close ever since last year when she permanently moved to this era from the twenty-ninth century. “Come home, Clark. It’s too risky. I’m sure Perry would understand.”
“What am I supposed to tell him, Kristin? That I’ve suddenly changed race, so I’m not the best guy to try and do a story on lynchings?”
“Back in my own time, I saw the history tapes of what all went on there, Clark. That’s not the best place for you to be right now.”
“The events you’re talking about took place in the ’60s, Kristin. These are the ’80s. A lot has changed since then.”
“You were just telling me they hadn’t.”
“I experienced a little racism,” Clark said. “That’s probably to be expected around here. It’s not as bad as it was in those days, though.”
“I really wish you’d reconsider,” Kristin said. “Be careful.”
His next call was to Earl Sharp, a reporter who had written the most recent story on the so-called Phantom Empire. According to his article, they were supposed to exist somewhere in the area. He’d been supportive when Clark had talked to him back in Metropolis — eager, even. Most people didn’t believe the group still existed, so Sharp was happy to see someone following up on the territory he had covered.
Clark had to struggle to keep his composure as they spoke. He was still confused and angry about the earlier petty indignities he’d been confronted with. Hearing about a white supremacist group was doing nothing to calm him. He recounted the events of the last two days, the drip-drop of indifference and fear from the white people that he had encountered, their lack of patience, and their downright contempt. He’d hardly started on his journey, but he was already furious, almost to the point of paralysis.
Earl Sharp gave him the names and locations he had come across in his own story. One place stood out in particular — Forton County. It was also the site of the most recent lynching. Sharp asked Clark to please keep him informed of any progress he had made, since this story had so much to do with his own earlier story on the group.