By Jordan X. Evans
As Black History Month comes to an end, and the hype around the Black Panther film is in full swing, the conversation about representation must reemerge. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark case for the United States in which the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. During the trial, Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark showcased their series of experiments known as the "doll tests." Essentially the experiments highlighted how black and white children, as young as three years old, described black dolls with bad qualities and white dolls with good qualities. The Clark's concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" created a feeling of inferiority, which harmed African American children's sense of worth and their self-esteem. Recently the discussion about representation in media has echoed many of the same discussions that occurred 60 years ago, and it partially explains why there is such fervor around the latest Marvel film.
The duality of American history is one of ideals that speak of freedom and equality for all, while simultaneously barring people of color and women from participating in the democratic process. Simply put, America has a problem with racism and exploitation, which has been so profitable that it has allowed discrimination, sexism, racism, and bigotry to continue into the 21st century. This becomes evident if we examine how the media have historically been representing black people. The origins of modern American cinematography, in fact, owe dues to Birth of a Nation (1915) which was a film that showed black people as fried chicken eating, no shoe wearing, animalistic beings that just wanted to have sex with white women.
Since Birth of a Nation, films have continued using racist tropes to garner profits financially while subconsciously teaching people how to view others based on those images. Consider the fact that in 89 years the Academy Award's – commonly referred to as the Oscars – has only given five best actor or actress awards to African Americans. Also, it is worth noting that the first award given to an African American was for "best actress in a supporting role" to Hattie McDaniel for her role as a subservient Mammy in 1939. The films that receive the most attention and awards are led by white people, and the few times that black people have won the prestigious best actor or actress awards, they have had to play a bad cop, a megalomaniac dictator, a handy fieldsman, a troubled piano player, and a struggling mother. When viewed together as a whole, it is clear that America views African Americans as troubled people who are better playing the role of an antagonist, a damaged person, or the help.
While African Americans have historically been portrayed as 'less than,' white Americans can see themselves as a savior of a magical world in Harry Potter, the heir to the throne of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, a technological genius in Iron Man, and Earth's adopted superhero in Superman. This has perpetuated the negative perceptions that were uncovered in the Clark's research. The tests have, in fact, been recreated numerous times since the 1940s, and the results are still alarming, children still view black as bad and white as good.
For the first time in 2018 Black America gets to share in the same unbridled happiness as every other child who looked at Harry Potter or Hermione Granger and could say, "They look like me." Finally a story about black people who remain unbothered by colonialism, it's violent tendencies, and one that is purely centered on black people. Black children like my cousins Israel, Azanna, Zion, and Zuri will grow up being able to dress as superheroes who look like them. Azanna and Zuri will be able to see black girl magic at its finest in someone like Shuri, the smartest person in the Marvel universe. Zion and Israel will see themselves as kings and not monsters that want to devour white women. For this one moment during Black History Month, people like me were able to look forward to the future with a smile and not have to be reminded of a history that has devalued our existence. For that I have to say thank you to the cast and directors of the Black Panther, who allowed a historian to imagine a future where the next generation of historians will write of the triumphs of everyday black superheroes.
Jordan X. Evans is a scholarly activist that attends Central Michigan University. Currently he is studying abroad at the University of Bochum in Germany. He studies American History as a Masters Student, with a focus on African American history in the 20th Century. Currently Jordan is in the process of writing a thesis that will explore the rhetoric, ideologies, and history of the X-Men comics. He can be followed on Twitter @The_Jordan_X.