Limiting the black superhero’s potential

Despite black superheroes having the potential to tell more salient, urgent stories suited to their time’s politics and social issues, black superheroes are still generalized as having only issues other black characters (and a black audience) can relate to. Instead of viewing these characters as superheroes everyone can be influenced by and understand, black superheroes (and black male superheroes in particular) are often shown in a “blaxploitation” style of storytelling, placing them in crime-ridden urban areas and setting the stage for antics that do less honest exploration about black identity in America and more about continuing cliched ideas about black manhood and black life.

As Harris writes:

“Black superheroes are more concrete in this way: they come from specific places, they reflect a specific people, while Superman evolves into a figure that represents an abstract meaningless ideal of humanity. He is so much of a generalization that he can become a source of disconnect, presenting such a purity of whiteness that it is exaggerated and boring. Solidifying the black hero in cultural roots can also be a generalizing presentation, in which, the black hero is the gateway to understanding the experience of the black community. As Dwayne McDuffie said, Black superheroes ‘can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people.’ McDuffie introduces the Black superhero’s burden of representation, which leads to the generalization of a people and a particular experience[.]”

The “pseudo-authentic black experience,” Harris continued, “is a white authorial construction that deeply engages with the social and historical narrative of race relations in America. It is indicative of the narrow understanding of what the black experience may entail, but more importantly, it implies that there is such a formulaic experience to understand blackness.”

This narrow understanding is part of the creation of many black DC and Marvel characters. Even though they were meant to provide better representation for black readers, the characters ended up regurgitating many of the same stereotypes already in existence. For characters like Luke Cage and Black Lightning, those stereotypes include hypermasculinity, an anti-heroism bent, and an inability to escape from the streets that nearly killed them.

“While many white authors believed themselves to be progressive figures, allowing black people access to the power narrative, to a new promised land as it were,” Harris writes, “their heavy reliance on stereotypes actually enslaved black superheroes into narrative limitation, a narrative that has proven to be virtually inescapable.”

Harris used the Falcon, Sam Wilson, who went on a journey from preacher’s son, to street hustler, to superhero, as an example of this limitation. Despite moving to Los Angeles, where he became temporarily lost to a life of crime before becoming the Falcon, Sam moves back to his hometown of Harlem instead of advancing his superhero career in his new home. Whereas other superheroes, like Superman and Wonder Woman, are able to move away from home to become a hero in another city, or can use upward mobility (i.e. Batman) to project supeheroism, Sam, like other black superheroes, must return to the limiting confines of their own neighborhoods to achieve a sense of power they wouldn’t otherwise achieve in the larger, white world.

“Much after his conversion to life as a superhero, Wilson returns to Harlem to serve as its protector, affirming the restrictive nature of the urban space. It seems as though he is obligated to return, but not entirely because of his newly understood morality, but more so because of the psychological prison that the urban space is depicted to be,” Harris writes.

Black Lightning and Luke Cage also follow similar paths towards superheroism, and are also limited to the confines of their own neighborhoods. Jefferson, writes Harris, started out growing up in Metropolis’ ghetto neighborhood of Southside (again, reaffirming the idea that Superman doesn’t police all of Metropolis equally). Even though he leaves Southside after his father is murdered, he returns later to work as a principal. Mentoring is his way of spreading his supeheroism beyond his neighborhood – his hope is his students grow up to become productive citizens who go on to influence others in their city, state, country, and the entire world.

Still, when tragedy strikes at his school, including the infiltration of drugs and the death of one of his students at the hands of The 100, his scope is limited to merely controlling the gang violence affecting his neighborhood’s youth. Indeed, the scope of his character can be seen as limited, since Jefferson’s characterization is never defined by his own goals, dreams, and aspirations, but by his environment ensaring him.

“Like the urban space of America, Southside is diseased by drugs and gang violence. The space is unsafe and it puts Black men in opposition with one another. The hope of survival and escape is the biggest hope for the community’s inhabitants,” writes Harris. “Yet, much like Wilson, Pierce is never really able to escape the urban atrocities, instead he brings his family back so that he can possibly make a positive impact in the place where his father was taken from him.”

Luke, born as Carl Lucas, starts out life as a product of the streets, with his highest aspiration being a drug lord. Luke is literally taken from the ghetto to another form of ghetto, prison, after being framed for heroin possession.

It’s in prison where Luke finally makes the transition from bad guy to anti-hero. But as Harris points out, despite Cage’s mission to protect the people he once terrorized from the same drugs and crime he used to proliferate, Cage’s tactics and methods still keep him from being seen as a true “hero,” therefore keeping comic book fans from fully acknowledging that a person from the ‘hood can become a proper superhero.

“Like Blaxploitation protagonists, Cage is ‘given the same duties’, which are to protect “the black communities and ghetto streets that [he] lives in by fighting crooked white cops, mobsters and other street criminals.” This narrative is a rejection of the Superman ideal and an adaptation of the corruption associated with the urban space,” Harris writes. “The streets of Harlem are drug infested and gang ridden, which prohibits his character from ever developing a strong moral base. He is developed through gang warfare, criminalism and the hustle mentality is ingrained in his character. Cage is stereotyped in a way that excludes him from achieving superheroism in its purest form.”

Continue Reading The Necessity, and Painful Limitations, of Black Superheroes >>

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