“Don’t you do it,” my grandmother said as I stood at the top of the staircase dressed in Superman Underoos with a red towel tucked in my collar for a cape.
I was preparing to leap in a single bound. But, I heeded the warning from Rosa Josey Craft because grandmas in the ’80s, well, time out didn’t exist in those days.
My superhero phase didn’t last long. I didn’t outgrow superheroes as much as I disconnected from them. They were replaced with Magic Johnson and Walter Payton, who didn’t have super powers, but looked like me.
Black superheroes were nearly non-existent when I was a kid, and the few that did exist received so little attention that they didn’t have cartoons or even costumes you could buy at Halloween. “Saturday Night Live” once did a skit where DC comics’ African-American superhero, Black Lightning, went to a Justice League party and none of the other superheroes knew who he was.
Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine myself as a white man, so playing superheroes was like pretending to pretend. If no one who looks like you has super powers, you doubt your ability to have them and in doing so set limitations on what you can be within your own imagination.
On Feb. 16 Marvel will release “Black Panther.” African-Americans are preparing to walk into movie lobbies all over the country; many dressed as Wakandans, the people of Marvel Comics’ fictional African nation. Celebrities, such as Octavia Spencer, from “The Help” and “Hidden Figures” fame have rented out entire theatres. The pre-show sales have broken records. Selling more pre-show tickets than Marvel’s super hero film “Civil War,” it is now No. 1 in pre-sales forsuper hero films. The Bull City has “Black Panther” fever as well. I know of at least three huge events planned for opening weekend.
Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Comics, along with the great illustrator Jack Kirby introduced the world to the Black Panther in 1966. The character and comic were created at a moment in history when many African countries had just rid themselves from the shackles of colonialism. What Lee imagines in the Black Panther is an African nation that has never been colonized, that is rich in mineral wealth and is able to protect itself from usurpers. That nation is Wakanda. A meteorite made up of a fictional element, vibranium, provides the country with great wealth and its leader, the Black Panther, is tasked with protecting the nation while at the same time developing an advanced society of scholars and tech geniuses.
One of my hopes is that the film will inspire people to learn about the great empires that existed in Africa, prior to the slave trade and colonization.
King Mansa Musa of Mali, who flooded the world markets with gold, Mali being one of the wealthiest nations on earth at the time, also hosted the great university of Timbuktu. The Songhai dynasty, Nubia, from which Egypt is born, the list is long and knowable, but most haven’t ventured or wanted to know.
Instead, with all of the contributions to the world that Africa has made, some like the president think of Africa as a land of s---hole countries. That attitude doesn’t come from thin air. The majority of what we see in media about Africa is turmoil, poverty, war and chaos.
What if the only footage about America the world saw was mass shootings, opiate overdoses, people fleeing from floods or burning hills and mudslides? What if instead of exporting images from the New York or LA skyline, the world only saw images of America’s housing projects and the poverty-stricken areas of Appalachia? Because there is such an abundance of this kind of coverage about Africa, “Black Panther,” with its positive images of Africa and Africans is needed and yearned for.
“He looks like me daddy,” my son said when he was looking through one of my Black Panther comics and came to a page where the Black Panther was unmasked. Watching the look on his face as he turned the pages and tried to imitate the Panther battling bad guys, kicking and punching away in his computerized super suit, made me smile. We went to Toys R’ Us and we were able to get a Black Panther costume straight from the shelf.
The first president my son saw was Barack Obama. He believes he can be president if he wants. “Black Panther” has stripped away barriers of what he can be in his imagination. Being a superhero is also an option, and because of that, he gets to remain a kid just little bit longer.
Howard Craft is a playwright who lives in Duham. Wrote to him in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org and share your reaction to this column at email@example.com