Black Panther, Surveillance, and Racial Profiling

*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.

Photo: Jungle Action Featuring: The Black Panther, “Panther vs. The Klan,” #21

In 1972, the reemergence of Black Panther, and the foregrounding of T’Challa as a central character, took place in correlation with Marvel’s launching of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, a series that looked to capitalize on the rise of blaxploitation films during the period. While the first few issues of Steve Englehart’s Luke Cage fails to confront racism and subjugation in the urban environment, McGregor’s Black Panther directly confronts these issues in the United States in the “Panther vs. The Klan” story arc that occurred in Jungle Action Featuring: The Black Panther #19 through #22 (January 1976-July 1976). While McGregor incorporates references to James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver throughout the arc, racism and subjugation are still exhibited through stereotypical images such as T’Challa eating fried chicken at the Lynnes’s home. Even with these issues, McGregor’s Black Panther attacks and critiques the myth of equality in America.

In the Black Panther: Marvel Masterworks, Vol. 1 (2010), McGregor examines the cultural milieu that led to the creation of Luke Cage and the resurgence of T’Challa as the Black Panther. Most striking about McGregor’s discussion recalling his time at the helm of the Black Panther story arcs is how his comments differ from those of Luke Cage’s writer Steve Englehart. McGregor points out that he fought for Jungle Action to contain an all-African cast of characters since the first story arc, “Panther’s Rage,” which takes place solely in Wakanda after T’Challa leaves the Avengers and returns to find individuals questioning his loyalty to the nation. McGregor also discusses how he incorporates queer characters, Taku and Venomm, into the series; but, as McGregor says, “I could not bring these characters out of the closet at the time.” On the “Panther vs. The Klan” arc, McGregor notes that it starts during “America’s bicentennial, and [he] would joke that it was [his] birthday gift” to the nation. McGregor makes it a point to explain that his work has a political tilt, and this aspect becomes very obvious when he tackles lingering issues that affect our country and the rest of the world in issues #19 through #22.

As Julian Chambliss and Sean Howe point out, McGregor’s “Panther vs. The Klan” received pushback from the Marvel offices because they considered it controversial. The arc centers on T’Challa coming to Georgia with Monica Lynne. In Georgia, T’Challa and Lynne encounter the Klan and the Soldiers of the Dragon while trying to determine the true events that led to the death of Lynne’s sister, Angela. Was it suicide? Or, was it murder? After introducing the arc in Jungle Action #19 (January 1976) when T’Challa fights with the Soldiers at the cemetery and the Klan at the Lynnes’s house, issue #20, “They Told Me A Myth I Wanted to Believe,” opens with T’Challa, in full Black Panther costume, shopping with Monica as two Klan members stalk them around the store.

The scene in the grocery store provides a space to confront and highlight racial profiling through the ways that the other customers in the store, all white, view T’Challa. When Monica points out that T’Challa appears to attract attention from the other customers because of his costume, he comments on the way that the customers view him: “They do not mask their curiosity until I turn to look at them—and then they avert their gaze busily eyeing everything but me with an embarrassed shame not quite hidden in their eyes!” (emphasis in original) Monica responds by telling T’Challa that they stare because he is either “a celebrity or a side-show freak”; however, T’Challa offers a third option, “a threat” because he “wouldn’t imagine many of them are aware that a Black Panther really exists. Wakanda is far from the realm of their concerns”

This conversation takes place within one panel in which McGregor confronts white readers through the ways that T’Challa feels when the white customers look at him. There are two items at work here that we need to take into consideration. The first is the mask. Why would T’Challa, in Georgia, wear the Black Panther costume to the grocery store with Monica? This is what initially sparks the conversation, but T’Challa turns it around and claims that those who gaze upon him “do not mask” their thoughts until he faces them. This imagery must be considered in relation to W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of  “double consciousness” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask.” While in costume, T’Challa does not represent his true self; instead, he represents the superhero, the Black Panther, a masked individual.

We also need to pay close attention to T’Challa’s claim that those who see him in the store appear to view him as “a threat.” Essentially, T’Challa notes that the white customers and the store’s staff are profiling him, keeping him under surveillance, to make sure he does not do anything to harm them or the store. T’Challa then alludes to the staff and customers not viewing him as a person but as a non-entity, invisible to themselves because the space that he, and I would argue Monica, inhabits “is far from the realm of their concerns.” Again, we need to consider literary antecedents to this assertion, looking back, of course to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). The eponymous narrator of Ellison’s novel begins by stating, “I am an invisible man. . . . I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

T’Challa’s pose provides another aspect that warrants examination. Unlike in other panels, in this one he appears to be either cringing or menacing with his crouched shoulders and right arm just underneath his chin. What does this ambiguity say? Does he appear as the threat that the customers possibly view him as? Is he the one who is scared and apprehensive? If this is the case, then the white customers are the threat, not T’Challa.

Jungle Action #20, “They Told Me A Myth I Wanted to Believe”

Unlike Monica who has been to Wakanda, the older white woman Rebecca Winthrop, who eyes T’Challa, has never left the small Georgia town. As goods fall off the shelf at Rebecca’s head, T’Challa saves her from being injured. After the two Klan members attack Monica and T’Challa fights them off, the police enter the scene and a mob begins to cheer on the officers as they attack T’Challa. Rebecca looks on and hits him in the head with a can of cat food. She tells him “I knew you was up to no good when you come leapin’ at me. Scare a body half-to-death.” Even though T’Challa saves her from injury, Rebecca still views him as a threat to her own safety and well-being. As a police officer pistol-whips T’Challa to the ground, the narration comments on the scar he receives from the can of cat food: “The scar may be slight, hardly noticeable, but he will carry it for the rest of his life.”

Over the course of the events in the grocery store, from the gazes to the fight, the scar is much more than a physical reminder of the altercation. It serves as a metaphorical reminder of the ways that the white customers continually gaze at T’Challa and Monica as they shop for groceries. Couched within the overall fight in the aisles, McGregor subtly comments, in 1976, on the surveillance of Black bodies in public spaces through his depiction of Monica and T’Challa in the store. The scene could have taken place elsewhere; but having it in a public space like the grocery store heightens the attention we should pay to the ways that others view and treat T’Challa, even when he tries to save and protect them from harm.

Jungle Action #20, “They Told Me A Myth I Wanted to Believe”

Perhaps the entire scene is best summed up in two panels. In one panel, Rebecca tells Monica, “Don’t take it out on all of us, Ma’am. It’s not exactly all our faults,” implying that she has done nothing wrong even though she gazes upon T’Challa as a threat to her safety. As they leave T’Challa notes that Monica appears madder than he does, and she responds that she does not like how the community reacts, especially since T’Challa is not the threat. Monica, without saying it, comments that the customers and police treat her and T’Challa in the way that they do because they view the couple as other, and as “a threat.”

After T’Challa saves Rebecca from the falling goods, her actions, and those of the other customers, signify that no matter what, Rebecca will view T’Challa as a threat, not as an equal. McGregor points out what James Baldwin does in Notes of a Native Son (1955) when writing about the events outside of the Hotel Braddock in Harlem in 1943. After setting the record straight, Baldwin states, “[N]o one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly.”

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.