These are two words that we all have been hearing a lot lately, and I can imagine that some of you reading this may at this point be kinda sick of it. I can imagine that to you, it sounds like a bit of a broken record. And that’s why I’m writing this blog post today. Yes, if you’re reading this post and are renting a cabin at Camp Sickofhearingthisbrokenrecord, I am writing this blog post more or less for you. Because I don’t want to tell you that representation matters.
I want to help you understand why representation matters.
So let’s start with the basics. I’m black. Technically speaking, I’m bi-racial (white mom, black dad), but I think we can all agree for the purposes of this discussion that this technicality doesn’t really count for anything. At the end of the day, I look much more like T’Challa and Luke Cage than I do Peter Parker or Tony Stark, and because I live in the United States, that’s not something I am allowed or even able to forget. Especially in a post-Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Philando Castile (and so many others) world.
I list all of these names because they are all of vital importance to my life, and here’s why.
I grew up in an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class neighborhood. One where almost everyone I saw and interacted with on a daily basis was white, only two other students in my entire school were black, and history class taught us all that racism and discrimination died upon passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This status quo was further reinforced by virtually all of the media I consumed. With the exception of Blade and Will Smith movies, throughout all of the movies, video games, books, and cartoons I enjoyed, literally every hero and protagonist I connected to, identified with, and aspired to be like was white.
Let me repeat that last bit, because I feel like it is the single-most critical piece of information here: As a black child growing up in America, literally every fictional character I loved and drew inspiration from did not look like me. Sure, Blade and Will Smith were cool and all, but their stories weren’t the ones I turned to for refuge when the world grew dark, cold, and hostile. Those stories belonged to the Harry Potters, the Spider-Mans, the Batmans, and the Luke Skywalkers of the world. Theirs were the stories that became not only my most cherished escapes from an… unpleasant childhood, they were also my greatest sources of hope and inspiration to keep fighting through my darkness and not give in to my growing rage and despair.
For twenty-three years, I couldn’t even begin to conceive of how the whiteness of all my childhood heroes could possibly be a problem. After all, my mom was white, all of my friends were white and besides, racism was dead anyway, right? It had been dead for more than 40 years!
Then Trayvon Martin was killed, and I had to watch in abject horror as so many more unarmed men and women who looked just like both of us followed in a grisly trend. And each time a new name was added to that list, I would see their face reflected in mine every time I looked in the mirror. For years, all I saw in my own reflection was the threat of death and injustice, of agony and grief for the people I love should my name ever be added to that list.
This was how I finally realized what it truly meant to be black in America, after being raised my entire life to believe that racism was a long dead-and-buried thing of the past, and being sheltered from the fact that it was not. And absolutely none of the heroes in the movies, books, and TV shows I’d relied on to get me through every other nightmare life had thrown at me could free me from this one. Because Peter Parker would never have to worry about a neighborhood watchman accosting him for being “suspicious” for walking home with a bag of Skittles at night. Bruce Wayne would never have to worry about getting dragged to the ground and choked to death because he was selling individual cigarettes on the sidewalk. And Harry Potter would never have to worry about getting shot dead by police within twelve seconds of them arriving on scene after being told he was playing with a toy gun in a park.
I don’t think I will ever be able to properly convey in words the effect these realizations had on me. I felt betrayed, like I’d been lied to my entire life, and that I’d had some final piece of my hope and innocence stolen from me. Over the course of perhaps two or three years, I grew to feel astonishingly disempowered. My heroes were no longer my heroes. Not really. Not in the same way they used to. How could they be? When the Avengers went home after fighting off an alien army, they didn’t have to worry about the same cops they just risked their lives to save shooting them dead because the color of their skin branded them a potential threat. But if I was an Avenger in that scenario, I would have to worry about that, and so what would be the point of becoming an Avenger in the first place? Why be a hero, why try to excel at anything at all if society is just going to label you a thug anyway?
I couldn’t find an answer to that question.
And so my last little flicker of hope went out.
But then on September 30th, 2016, something changed.
Marvel Studios released Luke Cage on Netflix; a superhero show about a bulletproof black man who walks around in a hoodie and uses his superhuman strength and durability to protect his neighborhood from both gangsters and the corrupt politicians who would exploit it. Before watching that show, I’d had no idea how badly I’d needed one like it. I had no idea just how desperate I was for even one story that featured a black superhero facing the same kinds of cruelty and injustice that I was still coming to terms with in the real world. Sure, Luke Cage wasn’t a superhero that would’ve appealed to me ten years ago, but now? Now spending 13 hours watching a bulletproof black man walking, talking, and fighting to overcome our specific adversity all while wearing a dark hoodie ranks as one of the most powerful media-related experiences I’ve ever had. One that sent a renewed spark of hope through my chest and made me start thinking there just might be hope for the world, and our future in it as people of color, after all.
And that was when I got truly excited for Black Panther.
Now, to be clear, I’d been aware of Black Panther as a character for some time. I knew his history, I knew his powers, I knew about Wakanda, the whole shebang. I even got my hands on a couple Black Panther comics at one point. And I loved it all! Perhaps my favorite moment in these comics was when, as part of a flashback, Black Panther kicks the stuffing out of Captain America; supposedly the best hand-to-hand fighter in the entire Marvel-verse! Problem was though, Marvel (and DC) comics on the whole have never really appealed to me. I wasn’t raised with them, and as I grew older, they always seemed like this gargantuan monolith of impenetrable complexity, rife with retcons and contradictions, and devoid of any meaningful consistency. This is why, as much as I enjoy the (very) few Black Panther comics I have, I still longed to see T’Challa and his world adapted into a storytelling medium that I could more easily immerse myself in.
This is why I was both supremely excited and just a little underwhelmed by his live-action debut in Captain America: Civil War. Even though he was played to perfection by Chadwick Boseman and his super-suit was so much cooler than it was in the comics, his actual fights with Captain America were disappointing, and we didn’t get to see any of the really cool stuff that separates Black Panther and Wakanda from the rest of the rather crowded superhero pack. So while I left the theater absolutely loving Captain America: Civil War as a whole, a part of me couldn’t help but feel a little let down by the fact that one of the coolest superheroes I’d ever known about got so little time to really shine.
But then last month, nearly two years after his cinematic introduction in Civil War, Black Panther’s solo film was released and HOLY GODS WAS I NOT PREPARED FOR IT!!!
I cried four times the night I saw Black Panther. I cried for the fact that for the first time in my life, I saw a major Hollywood blockbuster full of people that looked like me where absolutely none of them were playing to a stereotype. I cried for the fact that I’d just watched a major Hollywood blockbuster give life to a glorious Afrofuturistic culture where a young black scientist can both be a woman and create technologies decades more advanced than anyone else in the world. I cried for the fact that a major Hollywood blockbuster portrayed a black man as not only a powerful and principled superhero, but as the wise and compassionate king of his own powerful country.
But more than anything, I cried for the fact that there is now entire generation of young black kids who will never have to know what it was like to grow up in a world without characters like this. Where the superheroes worshiped by mainstream society don’t look like them. Because now, at least one of them does, and that one has more money than Batman, more advanced technology than Iron Man, is a better fighter than Captain America, and has more political power than all of them combined.
For me, all of these things make Black Panther the perfect black superhero, and the fact that I now get to live in a world where he exists not as an obscure, C-list comic book character, but as an A-list fixture in mainstream pop culture with the highest grossing solo-superhero film of all time?! I could never have imagined that becoming a reality before, and now that it has, the parts of me that had died with Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Philando Castile have all started coming back to life.
This is why representation matters. Because this is the effect that it can have when you see yourself reflected as a genius scientist, a powerful superhero, a loyal general, or a charming undercover operative, rather than a stereotypical “thug”, gangster, or drug dealer. Even as a 28-year-old black man who had already made his peace with the reality of being black in America, it can still open your eyes, and your heart more importantly, to doors of possibility you thought were closed to you.
It can teach or remind you that you are allowed to be more than the stereotypes of a previous generation, and that your life does matter.