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'Black Panther' is for every black kid who thought 'We didn't do stuff like that'

Brandon T. Harden, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Entertainment News

In my 6-year-old mind, being a superhero was life. At every free moment, I draped towels across my back to form capes and created masks out of colorful construction paper.

I can remember getting burns on my knees from trampling on the unsightly emerald green carpet my mother loved so much. I can vividly recall breaking vases, windows, and other treasured household items that resulted in many non-rod-sparing sessions and privilege revocations.

But as much as I loved and believed in the fantasy of heroism, I felt inadequate because the (s)heroes that appeared in the movies and on television never looked like me. I didn't believe that stories from people of color could be fantastical -- that we could live in different worlds, and fly, and have super strength.

We didn't do stuff like that.

Though I couldn't articulate it, heroism became mysterious and unattainable to me. In the bliss of my naivete, I accepted the lack of black superhero representation and carried on; pretending the broomstick was my spear, a piece of cardboard, my shield. My skin, still black.

For decades, superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman have become archetypes of honor, courage, and bravery that in many ways have helped shape American culture. And for decades, blackness has been underrepresented, not only in Hollywood but notoriously in the superhero/sci-fi/fantasy genre. But now, after 17 films since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, "Black Panther" will redefine and expand the narrative of superheroes by placing the fate of the world in the hands of a black man.

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In every way, the idea of a black superhero satiates the 6-year-old in me who wanted nothing more than a hero to identify with. And I'm not the only one who feels this way. Even though the movie won't officially hit theaters until Feb. 16, "Black Panther" has already set a record for most advance tickets sold in the Marvel Universe, according to Fandango, beating previous titleholder "Captain America: Civil War."

"Sadly I do think that we (the black community) are excluded from the main stage where the public, including most black people, see superheroes and stories of extraordinary things in general," says Andre Carrington, assistant professor of African American literature at Drexel University and author of "Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction." "There are still reductive ideas about what black people are interested in and what attitudes and emotions we bring to telling stories and films, and those things really keep us from doing the work to get our stories told to bigger audiences."

Although there have been a few black characters in sci-fi or fantasy films, such as X-Men's Storm (most notably played by Halle Berry), they usually have supporting roles and most expository details are unknown. Carrington continues, "There was a time, in the '90s in particular, when deliberately showing (a) multicultural cast of young people coming together was something that TV and movies used to make those kinds of productions friendly to a broad audience with liberal attitudes."

I began to resent superhero films, although I told myself I was aging out. The resentment lasted until I came across the trailer for the Ryan Coogler-directed "Black Panther."

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