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From Harlem to Wakanda: on Luke Cage and Black Panther

While watching the first episode of Luke Cage, I noticed something of a minor miracle. Starting from the amazing opening credits sequence, you could actually count the minutes before a single non-black face graced the screen. Every character of consequence, heroic or villainous, was black. Not only that, they were characters well-versed in blackness, however stereotypical. Fittingly, one of the first real set-pieces is a barbershop. And not just any barbershop, but a barbershop in Harlem with the obligatory chess game, populated with older, venerable black men who dole out wisdom and refuse to swear in the presence of young men getting their shape-ups and who have no time for the old guys’ back-in-the-day talk. It was all there, along with Easter eggs peppered throughout a later discussion of crime literature. When the characters name-dropped Walter Mosley, Donald Goines, and Chester Himes, it felt as though the show’s creators had taken a long look at my own bookshelf.

I witnessed something similar early on in the Ta-Nehisi Coates run of the comic book Black Panther. In issue #1, a renegade member of the Dora Milaje, the royal guard of the fictional Wakanda, says of T’Challa, the country’s king, “No one man should have all that power.” I imagine that when those readers who had fallen in love with Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” read that line, their hearts burst with recognition.

Both stories offered a new wave of referents for an audience that had formerly thought themselves invisible.

In Black Panther, as in Luke Cage, the cause for celebration lay in watching characters of color battle and love each other, shaping their own destinies. This much is obvious. However, we’ve ultimately only received half of the bounty.

 If this effort to bring these characters of color into the mainstream ends with isolated titles segregated from the rest of the Marvel Universe, then the promise remains unfulfilled.

If this effort to bring these characters of color into the mainstream ends with isolated titles segregated from the rest of the Marvel Universe, then the promise remains unfulfilled. Luke Cage’s Harlem is a separate world from the Hell’s Kitchen where Daredevil and Jessica Jones roam. And as long as Harlem never sees or interacts with or is forced to deal with Hell’s Kitchen, then the allegory is merely potential unfulfilled. The true might of representative storytelling lies in recognizing the world’s heterogeneity, in forcing characters to contend with the world around them. As powerful as the image of a bulletproof black man is in 2016, how much more powerful might that image have been had it gained for a chief antagonist a Wilson Fisk bent on gentrification, on remaking New York City in his own image? Whether the bullets that ruin Cage’s bottomless supply of hoodies come from Cottonmouth’s henchmen or the cops on Wilson Fisk’s payroll makes a world of difference. And yet to remove Cottonmouth from Luke Cage would be to deprive the series of its most complex and charming totem of blackness.

Similarly, the latest run of Black Panther, headlined by Coates, holds immense promise and has already delivered fascinating characters and a propulsive story of immense depth. World of Wakanda, the spin-off series to Black Panther written by celebrated novelist and essayist Roxane Gay, promises to deepen this project by putting women at the forefront. That a comic will be front-lined by two queer black women is a wonder in and of itself. That Black Panther and World of Wakanda are helmed by two writers of color who have extensively interrogated notions of blackness and society augments the miracle tenfold. Superheroes are metaphor made flesh. The X-Men, for instance, are hated and feared for something many of them cannot change, any more than one can alter one’s skin color. In writing these comics, Coates and Gay will be simultaneously the flesh and the creators of the metaphor. They have skin in the game, so to speak. Diversity isn’t just what’s on the page. It’s also about who puts it there.

It is this reader’s sincere hope that Marvel will not confine the work of Coates and Gay to Wakanda’s borders. It is this reader’s sincere hope that Marvel will understand that true representation does not end with individual titles focused on marginalized groups, that it entails the work of braiding those stories, our stories, into the rest of its fabric.

Featured Image Credit: DSC_2181 by Fett. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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