Black Panther and the Politics of Black Heroism

*This post is part of our new 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.

Still from the film Black Panther (Photo: Marvel Studios).

Black heroism is political. For African Americans, universal heroes who fundamentally changed the way we think and live include people such as Martin Luther King, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Muhammad Ali. And the list goes on. Black heroes are game-changers, they are cultural icons, and they affect our material life.

Our Black heroes are also everyday people—our mom, our dad, an aunt, and an uncle. In American media, the spectrum of Black heroism and Black possibility has been deliberately stifled. For too many of us, struggle, inequality, and plunder give birth to our heroes. Both fictional and non-fictional Black heroes have encouraged us to hope, persevere, and dream beyond the confines of a very harsh reality.

The concept of Black heroism means beating the odds. Black heroism inspires the masses to hope, despite an American cultural determination that seeks to create a different and grimmer reality. Politics saturates Black heroism—the politics of struggle, the politics of (in)visibility, the politics of success, and the politics of representation. Cultural gatekeeping in comics has limited the type of Black heroism we see on the screen.

Released in theaters nationwide on February 16th, Black Panther is steeped in the matrix of historical, economic, cultural, and political implications that are too numerous to list in this space. The origin of Black Panther is suffused with racial inequality, struggle, and the politics of Black heroism. After all, the highly anticipated Black Panther was not created by anyone Black, yet Black people, en masse, have taken ownership of the character and film. What does this say about Black heroism? For one, the matrix of historical, economic, cultural, and political impacts that have shaped the production of the film and anticipation of the film is significant.

The historical impact includes the long trajectory of Black people fighting to create their own comics content, organizing their own comic conventions and using the tools around them to self-publish, creating their own comic-book companies, and galvanizing their own support systems. The historical struggle to demand that the comics ecosystem include Black content and Black creatives is too vast and numerous to mention in this piece. However, several books–such as Looking for a Face Like Mine, Black Comix: African American Independent Comics , Encyclopedia of Black Comics and Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representationpreserve this history.

The economics and politics of Black representation, and by extension Black heroism in comics, have been tricky. Like the film, the presence of Black people in comics or behind the scenes has been a roller coaster ride. There have been periods of acceptance of diverse content on the mainstream level, and then there have been long and significant periods of little representation of Blacks in comics. For example, Black Panther was created in the 1960s and is considered by many readers to be the first Black superhero in comics. Before the 1960s, mainstream newspapers refused to publish comic strips by Black creatives, so they were forced to release their work in Black newspapers. People such as Jackie Ormes published comic strips in the 1930s and was syndicated almost exclusively in Black newspapers. There are still only a handful of nationally syndicated comic strips by Black creatives (The Boondocks, Wee Pals, and Where I’m Comin From, to name a few). Black people have had to prove time-and-time again that there is a fan-base that is more diverse than a white-male market.

In studying the long history of comics and representation, specifically the Black Panther film and the history of the Black Panther character, there is a nagging politics of representation at play. In the mid-1960s, in the midst of racial tension and the Civil Rights Movement, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created their first Black superhero. Though the Black Panther political party was not the inspiration for the Black Panther character, it would be uninformed to ignore the emergence of this superhero during such a racially charged period. The existence of the Black Panther character gave Black comic-book fans something to be excited about during a tumultuous and often depressing time.

Yet white people created this character for us, gatekeeping our Black imagination and negotiating our sense of escapism from the real world. If I am honest, I am still taken aback by the lack of agency Black people have had in creating mainstream Black characters that have gone on to become major box office hits. This reality is astonishing. For all the excitement of Black Panther and what Black Panther means at this moment in space and time, I have questions: Can we imagine a Black American king with lineage to a specific country in Africa? What does it mean that a technologically advanced African nation that has never been colonized is such an exotic notion? In material life, can an African nation ever protect itself from the self-interest of outsiders who want to take its precious resources?

Still from the film Black Panther (Photo: Marvel Studios).

These questions speak to Black heroism, the idea that such realities, for Black Americans, have been stripped away, mangled, and distorted, yet we still succeed. Black Panther today is our hero because for so long Black people have not been afforded this source of connection or relationship in the comics ecosystem. To date, there has been no ethnically bound reference point of this magnitude in a comics film along the lines of identification for the African American community. Black Panther is genuinely culture-bound, regardless of who created it and regardless of its origins. Black Panther is a unifying force of Black cultural mythology.

As we strive to live day-to-day in the face of an openly racist president of the United States, Black Panther is the politics of Black heroism that defines this current moment of imagination and possibilities. Though I long for Black creatives to have the agency to build a Black comic book character of their own that becomes a blockbuster hit, Black heroism in this moment maintains the hope we need in both fantasy and reality.

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Sheena Howard

Sheena Howard is an Associate Professor at Rider University who works on popular culture, race, politics, and sexuality. She is the author of The Encyclopedia of Black Comics (Fulcrum Publishing, 2017) and Black Comics: Politic of Race and Representation (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). Follow her on Twitter @DrSheenaHoward.