Like millions of others in the past few days, I made my way to see Marvel’s Black Panther. This was no small feat for me given that my interest in superheroes has always been less than zero. Growing up, my father was a sci-fi and superhero comics geek and as a result, I was forced to see television shows and movies that did not speak to me. I suspect that forced encounters with all things sci-fi and superhero related helped to cement my dislike for these genres.
Truth is that until a week ago, I had no interest in seeing Black Panther, until I started paying attention to the buzz and finally checked out a trailer for the film. Gorgeous Black women in positions of power? A nearly all-Black cast (and, I assume, much if not most of the crew)? In that case, how bad could it be? I won’t attempt to dissect the movie because my words won’t do it justice given that I am a newbie to this world. What I will say is that I cried, I felt pride and I felt represented and that’s what I want to talk about.
How utterly powerful and life affirming it is to be represented in a world where the people who look like you are typically relegated to roles that are not uplifting and do not speak to you as a person. A world where powerful and affirming representation of people of color is the exception and not the norm.
Having been born in the early 1970s, I can tell you that when I saw images of Black women in media, we were loudmouth bitches, we were downtrodden and long-suffering, we were comic relief and occasionally we were extra sexy in that way where men would be happy to fuck you but love you. Did that feel like true representation? Nope.
The first truly positive image of a Black woman that I can recall was Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show. I was in middle school before I saw an image of a Black woman that represented bits and pieces of the world around me. My mom was a stay-at-home mom so while I did not grow up with a professional Black woman in my life, I did have a mother who was nothing like what I saw on television or in movies. But I still had few images of Black women as change makers outside of their homes. Given that I only had one Black teacher in my K-12 years, that means that I spent the majority of my life not seeing women doing things that I would eventually go on to do.
When I finally grew up and decided what I would do with my life, I had no idea that my decision to run non-profits would almost be radical. Black and Brown women are over-represented in lower level positions in America’s nonprofit sector. But as recent as last year, the data showed that less than 20 percent of non-profit leadership specifically nonprofit CEOs/executive directors are people of color. Let’s not even begin to break that down to Black women specifically. I landed my first executive director position at the age of 31 but lest people think that is a norm, I am an anomaly. More importantly there was no roadmap for me because I never met another Black executive director until I took my current position in Boston and that is only because there is a support group for Black non-profit directors as we are a rare breed and we face a very specific set of challenges. That’s another piece for another day.
In case you are wondering why I am sharing this, it’s because, as I said before, representation matters. To see yourself mirrored back in the world is a powerful experience. While I grew up in Black spaces in Chicago, what was modeled was that there are limitations due to my Blackness and gender and most certainly the larger world did not tell a different story.
This is why Black Panther is so many things for the Black American diaspora. It is a chance to re-envision our Blackness and for Black girls, women and femmes a chance to see a larger world of possibilities. Even the film’s use of darker skinned Black women is modeling that Blackness is beautiful in its many forms which goes beyond the often trite “Black is Beautiful” statement. Black may be beautiful but if Blackness is best represented by lighter skinned Black women with looser curls, what message are we sending to the darker skinned women/femmes with tight curls? If we never see the deepest brown shades represented as beautiful, how can assess that we are beautiful? A question that I still at times struggle with.
As a woman who was told all too often that I was “cute for a Black girl,” I have never quite known what to do with that. Even now, as a middle-aged and now single woman, I have encountered more than a few men in the past year of dating adventures who felt the need to let me know I am okay for a Black woman. Do you know what I hear in those moments? I hear disdain for Blackness and I don’t hear a compliment.
In a world that centers all things white, whiteness and proximity to whiteness, a blockbuster film that centers Blackness and uplifts Black women is a much-needed paradigm shift. It is not just a new way to re-envision our world through the lens of Afro-futurism but it is also an opportunity to take stock of the Nakia’s, Okoye’s and Shuri’s who are already in our midst but who are often overlooked. I imagine a world where a Black woman won’t feel that she is traveling life without a roadmap as an anomaly but instead will know that she is another in a long line of changemakers because Blackness will not be relegated to the margins.
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