Representation Matters: Long Before the Movie, Black Panther Validated My Black Self

By Lance Williams Feb 15, 2018

I have always loved Black Panther.

As a very young child, I was fascinated by superheroes, playing for hours with Batman and Superman action figures. Around age 7, I started to read comic books featuring the Justice League, Legion of Super Heroes, The Avengers and Spiderman. But the day I discovered Black Panther, he instantly became my favorite. He had enhanced senses, exceptional agility, sharp reflexes and was stronger than normal humans. Yet it was not his powers that inspired me. 

I was a Black boy with full, adult-sized lips. Black Panther looked like me. Even as a child, I did not take this for granted. 

He also had a unique origin, particularly for a character created by two White guys in 1966 working for Marvel. Black Panther, whose name is T’Challa, is the king of the fictitious African nation Wakanda. In the Marvel Universe, it is the most technologically advanced country in the world and prospers due to a mineral unique to the country called vibranium. Wakanda has never been conquered or colonized. Forget the American Dream, this was the African Dream of a place that I wanted to live. In school, all I was taught about Africa was that slaves came from there. Reading about Black Panther and the nation of Wakanda gave me something good to believe in, even if the person and place were not real.  

Despite his excellence, Black Panther’s early appearances were limited to being a guest star in the Avengers and Fantastic Four series. T’Challa was something like a hot, unsigned hip-hop artist. He would come through and destroy his verses on someone else’s record, while waiting for his chance to put out his own album. That is why at 9 years old, I decided to dress up as Black Panther for Halloween. This was easier said than done since this costume did not actually exist. Still, my mother made this happen for me, getting it specially made. The finished product was not as sleek or form fitting as I would have liked, and the ears were a bit more pronounced than I wanted them to be, but I got my costume.  I wore it to school and marched in the Halloween parade.  I remember a teacher saying, “That’s a nice costume!” as I strolled past. 
rntI pulled it off!

In my adult years and working, I was able to continue my comic-collecting habit—including, the purchase of a new “Black Panther” comic book series by a Black writer named Christopher Priest. I also collected superhero graphic T-shirts, buying and proudly wearing any Black Panther shirt I could get my hands on. In my own way, I was trying to help this character get the visibility that he deserved. 
rntIn 1998, Marvel put out “Blade,” a gritty, R-rated tale with Wesley Snipes playing a half human, half vampire superhero who just so happened to be Black. I did not follow Blade’s adventures in comic books, but the film’s success proved that Black folks could lead these types of movies if given the chance. Ten years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe officially started with “Iron Man.” As these movies gained momentum, the filmmakers were very clever about including Easter eggs—references that only longtime fans would recognize. “Iron Man 2” in 2010, specifically named Wakanda. “Captain America: The First Avenger” in 2011 mentioned vibranium. With each movie’s box-office and critical success, I felt like we were getting closer.
rntThese teases would lead to October 28, 2014, when Marvel Studios announced that a Black Panther movie would come out in November 2017 and that they’d already found the star, Chadwick Boseman. I remember posting on Facebook, “If you were ever laughed at, picked on, made fun of, or teased for being a nerd, geek, or for collecting comic won HARD yesterday!”

I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm. Nearly a year before any footage from the movie came out, #BlackPantherSoLit was trending on Twitter. The first teaser trailer debuted during the 2017 NBA Finals in June and racked up 89 million views in its first 24 hours. Fast forward to this year, after a delay in the release, and "Black Panther" is everywhere. 

This is, of course, more than a superhero movie with Black characters. This is an all-caps BLACK MOVIE that happens to be about a superhero. The cast and crew are the definition of Black Excellence: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan star, Ryan Coogler directed, Joe Robert Cole wrote the screenplay, Hannah Beachler was production designer, and the legendary Ruth E. Carter created the costumes. 

The film has also become an authentic community event. Using the #BlackPantherChallenge hashtag, a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of sending 300 Harlem children to the see the movie has reportedly raised $300,000. This means 53,000 children living on low incomes will see a film that depicts Black people as kings, queens, inventors and warriors rather than the usual slaves, maids, butlers and second bananas. In a recent Eventbrite search, I found page after page of first-weekend events such as brunches, after parties, and even Black erotica gatherings. For my part, I created a Facebook page, “A Weekend in Wakanda,” to encourage my circle of friends to see the movie during its opening weekend. 

To explain why I have gone so far, let me take you back to my first experience seeing a superhero on the big screen, “Superman” in 1978.  The movie was a magical experience, best summed up by the scene where baby Superman lifts a car to save his adopted parents from being crushed. Unfortunately, the only Black character was a jive-talking man dressed like a pimp who compliments adult Superman’s outfit.

I know that today, “Black Panther” will be many children’s first superhero movie.  And when I sit down in the theater on opening night and the lights dim, I am quite sure my 9-year old self will shed tears.  

I recently ventured into Toys R Us to purchase some Black Panther toys for my two sons. I could only smile when I saw a Black boy on the box of the Black Panther mask and a young Black girl with cornrows on the dart thrower packaging. The 9-year-old in me, whose mother paid to get a Black Panther costume made, is very happy that the world now knows what I knew then: Black Panther rules.  

Lance Williams is a senior QA analyst for a media technology company. A family man with a wife and two boys, he writes about coming of age in the hip-hop culture in his spare time.