Black History, Sequential Art, and the Power of Representation
*This post is part of our blog series on The World of the Black Panther. This series, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason, examines the Black Panther and the narrative world linked to the character in comics, animation, and film.
Adequate—and accurate—representation of one’s culture is critical to any racial group’s collective self-esteem. Because we live in a visual society, images of people, events, religion, and places are often perceived as truth. These depictions, whether they are accurate or inaccurate, tend to define one’s reality—regardless of statistical truth. For people of African descent, it is essential that we become wise stewards of our own collective representation.
Mainstream narratives in the media continue to portray Black people as void of a past—and future—they can call their own. With the release of Marvel’s Black Panther the ideas of Black self-sufficiency, Black nationalism, and Black liberation are placed at the forefront.1 Although the film has been criticized for its perceived failure to display African ethnic and regional diversity, director Ryan Coogler was still able to capture the spirit of Africa. The neck rings worn by the Dora Milaje was inspired by the Ndebele people of South Africa. The writing of Wakanda draws from the Ejagham people of Nigeria. The kente cloth, worn by T’Challa, hails from the Ashanti people of Ghana. Through these and other examples from the film, various regions of Africa were represented.
The aesthetic of Black Panther and Wakanda, which audiences fell in love with, was mainly due to the imagination of Black comic book writer Christopher Priest and the run of Reginald Hudlin. It was Priest who evolved the character from his superhero roots to embrace the concept that the Black Panther was not a superhero, but instead, a king of a powerful African nation. Furthermore, it was Priest who brought the traditional African aesthetic and successfully merged it with future technology and created the all-female special forces unit of the Dora Milaje. His historic run is celebrated due to Priest bringing what Richard Majors has termed the “Cool Pose.”2 The “Cool” refers to Black aesthetic that showcases the style and vernacular of Black people. Exploring nuance within Black life is often one of the primary objectives of Black comic book creators. They have often sought to examine areas of Black life that have often been ignored by white creators. For example, the World of Wakanda—written by Roxane Gay—explored sexuality among Black women in the Dora Milaje.
The Black Panther film exemplifies the power of sequential art as a literary and visual medium. Sequential art is unique because it can be a conduit and an essential venue for Black people. It has a literary component and artistry that allows the reader to visualize the application of various Black Ideas. Sequential art, which has a long history of pulling from real-world events, periods, and technological inventions, has centered white heroes and heroines such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. In so doing. whiteness has become synonymous with hero. When portrayals of Black people did occur in screen or in comic books, they were often inaccurate. Within comic books, for example, the African continent was depicted as a land of savages. Black men were shown to be hyper-masculine, violent, and rebellious, while Black women were presented as hypersexual, aggressive, savage and unintelligent. Often lauded for its innovation, The Spirit comic book continued a tradition of negatively displaying Black people in the 1940s.
Outside of documentaries, most popular culture has failed to depict the African people or continent in a nuanced way. The “tragic mulatto,” the “Black brute,” the “comic Negro” and other tropes would soon become staples in the film industry. In the decades following the release of Birth of a Nation, many Black activists amplified their fight for proper representation. In the 1980s, for example, Eddie Murphy, the most prominent Black comedian of the decade, would attempt to bring greater nuance to Black representation on screen. Following his breakout performances in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places, where he played fast-talking con men, Murphy went on to play a police detective, a missing child investigator, an advertising exec, and an African prince.
The release of the Black Panther in 1966—which was released two months before the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense—represented a turning point in the history of comics. Significantly, the Black Panther used a black panther as it symbol, linking that iconography to the theme of Black liberation. Similar to the comic book, the Black Panther film disrupts mainstream narratives that tend to center white characters. The film also represents one example of how Black history can inspire writers. Indeed, Black history is filled with characters that sequential art would define as superheroes. Whether examining maroon communities of the coastal Carolinas, the warriors of the Ashanti nation, women of the Dahomey Kingdom, or the individual actions of Harriet Tubman or James Armstead, to study Black history is to examine the acts of superheroes.
Black Panther’s portrayal of Wakanda represents not only what Africa could have been had it not been colonized but what we as self-determining Black people can strive to create. We need more films that center Africa and Black superheroes. Such representations will not only continue to disrupt mainstream narratives that tend to marginalize Black people but they will also spark greater pride among people of African descent.3 We need to see Wakanda on screen to be reminded of our greatness in this world and envision our place in the future.
- Adilfu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2011), 3-4. ↩
- Richard Majors, Cool Pose: The Dilemma of Black Manhood in America (NJ: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1993), 1-11. ↩
- Kenneth Ghee, “Will the “Real” Black Superheroes Please Stand Up: A critical analysis of the mythological and cultural significance of Black superheroes,” in Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, ed. Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 228-233; Sheena Howard, Encyclopedia of Black Comics (CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2017), 377-381. ↩