Review of Ian Rakoff’s Shadowboxing: Comics in a Climate of Fear
By Prof. José Prado, PhD.
Department of Sociology
California State University, Domínguez Hills
Ian Rakoff’s thinking, writing, and organizing were informed, as the reader of this memoir will soon discover, by the drama and tension unfolding in his collection of comics, the boxing ring, and fascist post-World War Two South Africa. Early in his life, for instance, 12-year-old Rakoff edited the magazine The Hofmeyer News and organized the Civic Society. He was, as he writes about his extra-curricular activism, bent on contesting as best as any pre-teen could muster, the era’s emergent fascism driven as nascent South African fascism was to stifle and suffocate the seemingly more lax and permissive race relations of the preceding historical period. His stories in the Hofmeyer News were camouflaged reports on boxing, immigration, language, and general South African society meant to alert about South Africa’s unbridled turn to fascism. Young as he and his friends were, they met to discuss the relevance of the era’s comic book culture to the brewing period of unmitigated violence and racial apartheid that held South Africa in its grip throughout the remainder of the 20th century. Years later Rakoff’s own work culminated in corresponding contestation to the culture of conformity and acquiescence in his writing and editorial work on the science fiction series and cult classic, The Prisoner, and Oscar-winning feature and movie classic, Deliverance.
Here then is vision of Rakoff’s beginnings as a child who was, at first, confused and then disgusted with fascist dictates built on the legacy of subtle and often misrecognized practices of wealth accumulation, greed, and empire. Early in his life Rakoff recognized the trajectory of this history and in the immediacies of his life contested the racist designs of South African society. About this he gave fair and appropriate warning even at the risk of his safety. Why wouldn’t a fair-minded child do so? Why wouldn’t he if the fondness that he knew prior to post-war division and brutality figured in his understandings and place in the larger Western world? Western liberalism and its very troubling contradictions around capital and race aside (at least here in this introduction), coupled Ian Rakoff to Black South African society in his neighborhood, in his community, and in his nation. Western fascism — as all fascism — tore Rakoff’s world asunder, tore his ties to those he had loved and esteemed, tore his ties to family, tore his ties to friends, tore at the nation he had known, and tore many from South Africa. If fact is stranger than fiction, here is a a coming-of-age to rival Harper Lees’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. If in some way Rakoff’s autobiography would complete an arc of racial justice imagined some 60 years prior and lived, as the reader will learn, with the reality of boot and blood hovering cruelly over a South African society then the arc bodes vengeance against a descent into hatred, brutality, and conformity equally built on misrecognized logic of exceptionalism and empire. Read here Indian removal, read here the Homestead Act, read here 19th century US industrialization, read here manifest destiny, etc. Each of these provided the model and pattern of South African apartheid-ism and township society not lost on Hitlerian architects of 20th century South Africa and lost — as it reads — on otherwise noble and fair-minded of South Africans. “Where,” the reader should ask, “are we headed?”
Many decades later, Rakoff’s memoir is in keeping with The Hofmeyer News. It is fair warning in times of this generation’s unmitigated racism and violence in Palestine, global economic blockade of Cuba and Venezuela, expulsion and dispossession across Latin America, Africa, and, indeed, in what famed Cuban writer Roberto Fernandez Retamar writes, “under-developing nations.” Read here dispossessed Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Cambodians, Dakotans, Africans, etc., etc. who on account of the ever-encroaching hateful and Sisyphean hand of capital would push the already colonized and dispossessed farther away from themselves and North when not into the recesses of the planet and push them until they are no more. Read here the Sisyphean hand that pushes the reality of capital, coloniality, and empire further into the recesses of our consciousness until we are no more. Fair warning to the noble and savage among us when there may be fewer other places to run but to ourselves.