Black History Month, Black Heroes, and Black Panther

Black History Month has finally ended but the learning and understanding of African culture is constant and this month, the premiere of ‘Black Panther,’ and the work here at the center is only one small step towards reversing the injustices that our African and Black communities have endured. It is not a secret to us how people within the African diaspora are represented within the media and popular culture. Countless times African Americans have been portrayed as inferior criminals that also played as the faces of poverty and slavery in news outlets and even in popular culture. Within the entertainment industry, they are further stereotyped and are rarely seen as lead characters.

Harry Potter is a pop culture sensation that has affected our society, but that doesn’t save its movies from also performing injustices against its black characters. Within this magical school are hundreds of diverse students that are not given a fully-fleshed out character, but once a certain character became significant to the story, the choices in casting took a different turn.

In the Harry Potter books and movies, there is a minor character named Lavender Brown. Until the fifth movie of the Harry Potter franchise, Lavender Brown had no speaking parts and had been played by two young Black actresses, Kathleen Cauley and Jennifer Smith. In the fifth movie, one of the main characters Ron Weasley becomes romantically involved with none other than Lavender Brown, making her a more substantial character with actual screen time and dialogue. At this point, neither Kathleen Cauley or Jennifer Smith were cast as Ron’s love interest, but instead Jessie Cave was chosen, a white, blonde, blue-eyed girl, the polar opposite of the first two, suggesting to its audiences that neither Jennifer Smith or Kathleen Cauley were suited to be a romantic partner to Ron Weasley because of their race.

On the topic of superheroes, the demographic of the super-powered people that saved the day was profoundly white. Until Black Panther, there had only been a handful of black superheroes that graced the movie screen such as Wesley Snipes’s “Blade,” (1998) in which the vampire slayer was portrayed more as a violent antihero plagued by the contradictory combination of morality and bloodlust. Another black superhero could be seen with the movie, “Hancock,” where the Hancock is still characterized by his selfish laziness, a quality not often given to other shiny superheroes. Catwoman has also been a hero tossed around in conversations revolving Black Panther, naming her as a black super hero, but out of the numerous versions of Catwoman, she has been portrayed by black actresses Eartha Kitt and Halle Berry, as well as Julie Newmar and Anne Hathaway, both white actresses. Catwoman, who was also depicted as a thief with questionable morals rather than a hero, was played by black actresses, but it does not make her a black superhero.

The black hero’s character and intentions are very different from the beloved marvel characters adorned with flashy stars and stripes whose job is to protect the sanctity of your white picket fence. These heroes played by black actors were often feared and ostracized by their community rather than glorified or respected with their ‘blackness’ being more of an add-on rather than a part of their identity. What “Black Panther” gives to audiences now that was lacking with past heroes is a hero that feels connected and proud of their African identity, being a black superhero, rather than a hero that was portrayed by a black actor.

T’Challa presents a character that exudes power and pride, feelings that aren’t normally attributed to black men. Most of the time, black men are connected by poverty, violence, gangs, crime, and are often unrealistically portrayed as the face of poverty when compared to statistics. As seen through the many horrific encounters between black men and police, the African-American diaspora is demonized and are often pegged as the perpetrator more often than the victim, constantly seen as the ‘other’ in the place in which they live. The fictional world of Wakanda presents an ideal Utopia of Afrofuturism showing an idealized materialization of what Africa could have been if let to grow without the destructive hand of colonialism, capitalism, and slavery. It gives the community a sense of hope and a realization that black pride and power is still very much attainable if we can move forward passed differences to execute justice. One of the most under and misrepresented minority groups, black women, were depicted as queens, warriors, and irreplaceable gears to what holds the nation and the movie’s plot together. The movie took the reality of Africa and the African-American diaspora and created a step towards moving past prejudice in this Trump-era with a demonstration of what Black people and their allies can truly achieve to have peace.

The social media frenzy that rallied behind the trailer of Black Panther was amazing. Organizations from everywhere organized viewing parties, including local schools like Cabrillo College and we were fortunate to have our monthly Nonviolent Networking Night surrounding the Social Transformative Power of Black Panther. 

We greeted a diverse group of around 20 people from different races, generations, and backgrounds with a potluck and a compilation of reviews of “Black Panther” by people of different political stances. We were struck with a great conversations about the reality of media representation as well as controversial stances of the under representation of the African American diaspora in the movie. We talked about the importance of allies and how the movie’s interpretation of ally ship could be considered positive or negative to how others would see themselves as allies. The group was respectful in that there was an understanding of who this event is for, making listening and participating so important for those telling their stories.

We ended the night with the music video of SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s new song “All The Stars” inspired by the movie “Black Panther which also celebrated the raw reality of African nations as well as the colorful beauty of its culture.  We hope this dialogue can be a ripple for many more conversations about supporting our black communities and talk about the complications surrounding race, representation, and allies, and cultural identity.

 

Next month is Sexual Assault and Harassment Awareness month and on the 29th of April, we will be having our monthly Nonviolent Networking Night Potluck. Join us with a panel discussion and further conversation about sex positivity and sexual assault and we will do our best to be respectful and understanding to everyones’ stories and triggers.

 

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