We don’t need to look to comic books to find black superheroes

When I was in New York a few weeks ago, I saw John Leguizamo’s one-man, Broadway show Latin History for Morons at Studio 54. In Morons, Leguizamao is in search of Latin heroes to share with his son, who is bullied for being the only brown kid at his all white private school. As I watched his 90-minute journey through the history of the Incas, Aztecs and Tainos, I couldn’t help but appreciate that I was getting to witness this half Latinx audience be uplifted at a time when their brothers, sisters and cousins’ amnesty was being held in the balance over man made borders.

It then made me think about African Americans and our search for heroes post Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The angst and disappointment that we share as members of underrepresented groups is palpable, but now there is a glimmer of hope. This week, the Marvel movie Black Panther comes out and is already doing record pre-sale numbers at the box office. Black Twitter has lost its mind in anticipation of the unapologetic blackness on the horizon. In fact, there was a similar reaction in 2017 when Netflix released Luke Cage and murmurs have started as DC Comics’ Black Lightning (which you should be watching) catches on for the CW network.

I must say that I find it ironic/delightful that a movie, which also shares its name with a Black empowerment organization that is considered terroristic by the current administration, is about to make hundreds of millions of dollars– draped in kente cloth. But, I digress.

People are already calling Black Panther revolutionary, the answer to every social ill and a film that will change the landscape of superhero movies. People are buying out theaters to make sure that black and brown children can see this movie, with the promise that seeing themselves on the big screen will help them see the possibilities that their lives hold. I hope that it does all of that, and that everyone who is still apologizing for their blackness stops (please stop). But in the event that the hype dies down, and blackness is no longer trending (and therefore not as easily monetized) in art, fashion and film, I want it to be understood that there were Black superheroes before Black Panther and there will be many after.

Everyone who survived the Middle Passage was a superhero. Everyone who walked with Harriet Tubman the 500+ miles to the north was a superhero. Every person of color who learned to read and write under the threat of death is a superhero. Every soldier who fought in a war for a country that sees them as less than human is a superhero. Every musician who found it within themselves to create jazz, blues, ragtime, rock and rap in bleak circumstances is a superhero. Everyone who walked from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote is a superhero. Everyone who shouted “Hands up don’t shoot” in Ferguson, Missouri is a superhero.

I say this not to discount the impact that this movie will have on our collectively held narrative, after all I agree with South African photographer Zanele Muholi that we must tie images to freedom. Representation in media and art are extremely important–the response to the Obama portraits this week has shown us that. However, the images that come to my mind when I think of heroism and freedom are much closer to home than a comic book strip. I think of my grandmother who worked as a maid for 20 years to raise five children by herself. I think of my cousin who was arrested more than a dozen times before her 21st birthday for protesting. I think of my grandfather who only had a 3rd grade education, but owned a gas station. I think of my great uncle who left his job working at a Coca-Cola factory in Selma, Alabama on the promise of working for Coke in Detroit, only to arrive in the Motor City and be told that they didn’t hire black people. He promptly went to General Motors and learned a new trade.

This is the story of most Black families who have risen from the depths to triumph. To say that we stand on the shoulders of giants is true, but it also something of a misrepresentation. We are giants. There is a superhero inside of every one of us, and we can tap into that power any day. To be Black in America now is to be freer than any Black person has been on this continent ever, which means that doing what your ancestors couldn’t dream of is heroic. So, live your truth, love without expectations, take a leap of faith and the next time you’re in search of a superhero, look in the mirror.