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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Black Super Heroes & The Problem On The Lack Of Visability

By Waiching Liu

Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Thor and Batman all have 2 things in common: 1) being they are all examples of super heroes and 2) they are all Caucasian/White. They are all popular and well known, not just in the comic book universe but also in popular culture as well. At least with Batman and Superman, if you asked a person on the street who their favourite super hero is or to name a superhero, the most likely of all answers would be both or either of those two.

But what about the Black super hero, and do people know that they exist as well? Of course they exist, there have been many Black super heroes, most notably Storm of the X-Men (played by Halle Berry in the earlier feature length movies of the series), Blade (played by Wesley Snipes) and to an extent, The Avengers Nick Fury, and there is also the Black Panther, the Falcon, War Machine (played by Terrance Howard and later Don Chedle in Iron Man 2), Bishop of X Factor, Steel and Spawn to name but many. Characters of whom many do not know of themselves, for the exception of say Nick Fury and Blade.


Race & Ethnicity - the distinction between the two societal concepts 

In the chapter defining race and ethnicity, Popeau once said: ''The modernist connotation of race and ethnicity sees 'race' either subsumed in ethnicity, or referred to euphemistically through ethnicity'' (Spencer, 32). What he is saying is the term 'ethnicity' is the polite way of saying 'race', when referring to a person's skin colour. Whereas with race, the word is considered as problematic, reviled, detested and contested- yet it is widely used in Western society.

It is indicated that in countries such as the USA for example, 'race' is employed in contexts where in Europe and the U.K they prefer the term 'ethnicity'. The common folk view of race & ethnicity in the U.S is one of 2 factors: 1) biology and genetics and 2) culture (Gracia, 1). This idea has been challenged in the past 20 years with no evidence the biological concept of race and the cultural concept of ethnicity has survived.

Race has historical roots and is woven into discussions and analytic debates with regards to defining citizenship as a sense of 'belonging' to a country (Spencer, 33). Race is a key component; the idea first emerged in European languages during the late 13th and 14th centuries but the usage of the word 'race' didn't come into fruition until the 16th century (34).

Media studies is the study of media institutions, the study of the television, movie, music, video game industries, the ideas and concepts around it and how it impacts on people of all races, ages, genders, nationalities. Sociology is the study of human behaviour in society and sociologists have learnt one thing: all human behaviour that takes place occurs in a societal context (Andersen, Taylor, 4). This 'societal context' Andersen and Taylor refers to is one of institutions and cultures that surround us. Examples of institutions and cultures are schools and education, media and entertainment, the law and order such as the police, solicitors, lawyers, religion, family, race, nationality, identity and politics. It can be argued that Media Studies is partly influenced by Sociology; because of the idea of analysing and studying the media, and the media being the outlet for projecting characters and personalities on TV, film and thus showing how and why their behaviour is or could be a direct consequence of societal, cultural and personal factors.

Sociology is thinking about society and its influence of people of different social groups, but in a scientific way. It involves observing, reasoning and making logical points of view together with a body of theoretical and analytical work carried out by various theorists and sociologists. (Andersen, Taylor, 4).


Superheroes and Super Black

The role of the superhero is steeped in affirming a division between right and wrong. They all operate on a framework that is of morality. It is of no coincidence that superheroes become victorious in the end. Yet this is little to do with their strength, powers and weapons and more to do with being concerned for others and their own notions, - of which are never the same as every other super heroes- on what 'justice' is to them. Likewise, the Punisher, who is a vigilante, own sense of justice will be different to that of say, Superman's. (4, Nama)

With Black superheroes, Nama points out that not only are they representative of all things that are for the good in a racial, 'lets defeat racism, racists' - kind of way. They are cultural ciphers for accepted wisdom regarding racial justice and the changing politics of Black racial formulation in the U.S (4, Nama). When these acts of heroism are being carried out, they are fighting a waging war against the villains, whilst also upholding and maintaining their status and identity as a Black man/woman.

Despite the symbolic significance of Black superheroes in American popular culture, the topic itself is un-examined. In the essay, Finding Other Heroes, John Jennings and Damian Duffy stated the problem lies in the comic book industry itself. An industry dominated by White male characters and most quintessential images of heroism and one of the obvious examples of  unequal representation (13, Brown).

It is believed that just because there are no or there are very little Black superheroes in movies, on TV, it is suggested that there are NO black superheroes existing, period. For years, young comic book readers have encountered an idealised image of what heroism was all about: honest, law-abiding, masculine, and White. (13, Brown)

It is a wrong misconception because if you go on the internet and Google Black superheroes, you will find websites that have names of all the Black superheroes. 

It is a case of knowing the information on this subject is out there- it's just that people choose not to investigate and delve deeper into it, and probably out of ignorance, dismiss that Black superheroes exist and just exclaim racism. There was a infamous video posted on YouTube a few years ago by rapper P. Diddy, who having seen Will Smith's, Hancock decried the lack of Black superheroes, whilst heralding Hancock as a saviour. The video prompted a furious reaction and was met with shock and anger by most viewers, who- unlike Diddy- understood that there are indeed Black superhero characters and went on to list most of them, just to prove a point. 

For the exception of say, Spawn played by Michael Jai White, many people will go on record to say Black superheroes are poorly represented and lacking on screen. For me personally, the discussion and talk regarding Black and minority superheroes is one I find fascinating to me; not just due to them being from a minority group but because they have a super power or ability, it makes them stand out from other people. Because they are Black, Asian, gay/lesbian, their presence and morality alone represents their social group and is seen as a positive influence. In the X-Men series, mutants are discriminated against by the humans. This discrimination is on par with that of racism, sexism and gay bashing. But when in the case of Jubilee, who is Asian -American and a mutant, she is having to come to terms with herself being Chinese-American AND also fighting discrimination, because she is a mutant with these super powers.

Unlike Marvels The Avengers, I personally identify myself more with the X-Men than the latter, given they were treated like social outcasts by the rest of society, of whom looked down on them and saw them as a 'problem'. Something that I could relate to. Because of this, the mutants, especially those who were under Professor Xavier and were the do-gooders, Wolverine, Cyclops, Gambit, Storm etc were increasingly isolated, discriminated against and marginalised.  

The concept of the hero isn't necessarily tied to race per se; when s/he goes and fights bad guys, saves the world and the people, they are not doing it for just the Blacks, Whites. They do what they do out of respect for others and for people in general. Superheroes are icons, role models, people we look up to for inspiration and who fight- not out of evil or for any bad cause, but because they truly care and want to be good people. 

Up to 1966, representations of Black superheroes were mostly degrading and seen as offensive by comparing Black people to animals. The first Black superhero was the Black Panther, who hailed from Africa; he was a king named T'Challa from a fictitious country known as Wakanda. And in contrast to other African countries that were labelled financially poor, suffering from famine and poverty - another stereotype labelled by the media- Wakanda was affluent and the most technologically advanced civilization in the world. 

Meanwhile, the first African-American superhero was the Falcon (1969); he was the first mainstream Black African-American superhero. In the book Super Black, Nama mentions the Falcon being his first and favourite flying Black super hero. He cited the Falcon as an example of a person, who operated on a broader social level. He said:

'The image of the Falcon gliding across an urban skyline symbolised the unprecedented access and upward social mobility many African Americans were experiencing in educational and professional positions in the wake of hard-earned anti discrimination laws and affirmative action.'  (2, Nama) 

Superheroes As Role- Models For The Rest Of Society

Black superheroes were not only positive representations of people's dreams, aspirations, desires and an idealised notion of ourselves and themselves but in addition, they symbolised an extension of America's political role and racial landscape which was shifting (Nama, 2). No longer were they the butt of ridicule and jokes, rather their existence pointed towards the development of the U.S as a nation and in the land of the free, anything was and is possible. Days of when America was predominately White- even though the Native Americans were the first to set foot in the U.S- is history. America today is more culturally diverse and the Black population is becoming increasing larger.

The discussion of Black superheroes and of them being positive and exemplary role models for people in general, as well as for young Black kids is important to address but at the same time, it is being neglected mostly by the media and the entertainment industries. The Black community in general are crying foul of incessant negative portrayals and representations of Blacks on TV, especially in reality shows and the lack of Black sitcoms on mainstream TV networks such as NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC. Yet in Black superheroes, these people are doing good things in the name of justice and fighting crime, mostly by using their powers more-so than guns.

It is surprising but also sad that for whatever positive representations of Blacks and other minority groups shown within the media itself, it tends to be hidden away, or in the case of comic books, not as widely accessed by the rest of society as other mediums such as TV, movies. Therefore, it is more of an issue of awareness, or be the lack of awareness of these things, rather than being a lack of Black superheroes. I do think comic books in general is looked down upon as a 'minority'/geek-like activity- and that is an image that needs to be challenged, seeing as we can all relate to superheroes and how their efforts impact us as individuals. 

Just because it is not visibly out there, as in on TV does not mean they do not exist. Black superheroes do exist and the comic book industry needs to continue to do more and feature more of them in their comics and stories to promote their image, and for the Hollywood industry to understand that whilst television in the U.S on major networks has changed completely over the past 15 years or so, the reality is, the representations of Black people are mostly negative and are doing a huge disservice to their community.

Black super heroes and comic books are filling that void being virtually ignored by Hollywood; unlike the idiots on reality shows who behave terribly and make them look bad, they stand for truth, justice, Black empowerment and heroism. Sure it would be good if they were given as much exposure as Spiderman, Superman, Iron Man, Captain America etc. But the fact that they exist is better, rather than of them being non-existent. And given what they do is not for fame, greed, drugs, sex etc, superheroes in general should be considered as legitimate role models by everyone, besides celebrities, sports stars, family members anyhow.

Even if they are not real, that is besides the point: the point being is they do good things and ought to be respected for that.... And moreso than all because of the colour of their skin underneath their coloured Lycra attire. 


Sources: 

  • Other heroes: African American Comic Book Creators, Characters and Archetypes: Art Exhibition Catalog, 2007
  • The History of the Black Male Superhero in Comic Books: An Interview with Dr Jonathan Gayles - Black Voices, 2013 
  • D.C Comics & Black Superheroes,  Margena A. Christian, Ebony, January 2012 
  • Race and Ethnicity: Culture, Identity & Representation, S. Spencer, 2006 
  • Race or Ethnicity? On Black and Latino Identity, Jorge J.E Garcia, 2007
  • Sociology: The Essentials, 2009 
  • Black Super Heroes, Milestone Comics and Fans, Jeffery A. Brown, 2001 
  • Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, Adilfu Nama, 2011 

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