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Black Panther adds heaps to surging Black ‘nerdism’

guest column

“Dude,” my brother-in-law said a few years before Captain America: Civil War, “Black Panther…is finally going to be in a movie.” When he said this, his eyes glossed over with a kind of wonder that was immediately contagious, and suddenly we both found ourselves nerding out at the possibility of finally having someone to put on our list of the most iconic and popular Black superheroes.

One of the more common discussions my nerd-friends and I get into regarding heroines, heroes and the ongoing commercial battle between Marvel Studios and DC (which I personally feel has been going the way of the former as of late) is about Black superheroes. Specifically, the pretty drab list made up on the spot by average readers of comics and viewers of film adaptations. The comic book dilettante, however, will give you a subpar list, but nothing that could match the likes of the far too common “Um, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman…”

Comic books are now several decades old, and the diversity in character origin stories, their superhuman abilities and even the languages they speak has created an awesome spectrum for any fangirl or boy to overindulge in. Superheroes of color, however, have been historically underrepresented as a result of systemic racism, social and economic disenfranchisement and the overall “techniques of life.” Most common though is how often Black heroes and villains are pigeonholed into roles that are so limited it becomes too difficult for them to pick up competitive popularity. 

Enter Black Panther.

In 1979, the comic book world was met with a character that coincidentally carried the same name as the militant movement seeking Black liberation during civil rights efforts in 1960’s America. After decades of hiding in relatively small circles of followers, we finally see a refreshing addition to 21st-century Black ‘nerdism’ with a newly reintroduced T’Challa, king of Wakanda. From Luke Cage and Riri Williams, to Falcon and War Machine, the last few years have seen a energizing outpouring of heroes of color who actually embody the same heroism of those overshadowing their predecessors.

The man behind the mask on screen, Chadwick Boseman recently tweeted, “We did it. We did it. #WakandaForever” to share the news with the public that the new Black Panther film had finally finished production. After an absurdly bleak past few years, from increased violence against unarmed Black men by law enforcement, to the tumultuous reality of the impoverished inner-cities of Baltimore and Chicago, hearing about Black Panther somewhat softened the blow of the state of things. Despite his father’s untimely death, T’Challa was able to overcome, to persevere and occupy the space usually reserved for people who do not look like him, and in turn he became a symbol for his people and for those moved by him. In the world of comics, T’Challa even rivals the wealth, level of intelligence, and combat expertise of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. There has not been a more necessary time to see a Black hero flourish and prosper, than today. His presence in Captain America: Civil War was nothing short of prestigious. His adjacency and motives were his own, and he practically stole the show holding his own against some of the series’ more formidable characters.

I imagine now that the new, young comic book nerds of color who come to read the story of T’Challa’s rise to kingship and distinction begin to see in themselves the same capacity for heroism. This kind of inspiration could lead to an influx of even greater diversity in the world of heroines and heroes, as the companies behind comics have slowly begun diversifying their staff of writers and artist. We read heroic stories as more than a form of escapism. We read them for inspiration, for an inkling—a reminder that, despite how things began for us, we could still in all likelihood turn into something heroic, something valiant. And Black Panther does this in ways we haven’t witnessed for quite some time.

Jamal Michel is a featured guest columnist. He is a Duke graduate and high school English teacher in Durham.

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