Around December of last year, my oldest son, RK, came home from daycare and asked for a Superman costume. We had never mentioned Superman to him and we hadn’t watched any Superman movies or cartoons with him, but for the next few days he consistently asked for a Superman costume. I shrugged it off as something that he had picked up at daycare. No big deal, right? Wrong.
The problem with RK’s request was that his father, Richard, was completely against it. Admittedly it is rare for my husband to go completely to the “no” stage so quickly with the boys so I pushed him on it. His answer was simple: “The only superhero the boys can wear is the ‘Black Panther’.”
I tried to push my husband a little bit. I told him that we could not force RK to like Black Panther. It should be a natural process. Richard didn’t budge. I suggested he purchase RK a Superman costume and purchase our younger son, Jimmy, a Black Panther costume so that we could have both representations in the home. Richard still didn’t budge. He just kept telling me, “once the movie comes out, you will see. He will like it.” This only led me to start another debate as to whether RK at the age of 3 should even watch the movie, “Black Panther.” Yet, my debates had no impact on Richard. His mind was made up. Our sons would be Black Panther fans whether they liked it or not.
Meanwhile, RK continued to ask every few days could we get him a Superman costume. Each time, I responded with the ancient parental response of “we’ll see” while Richard just pretended like he hadn’t even heard RK’s request. Talk about stubborn…
Finally, February arrived. By this time, RK had pretty much stopped requesting Superman paraphernalia. He would sometimes mention Superman but Spiderman, Batman, and the Paw Patrol were all now in heavy rotation. Personally, I didn’t think it was looking good for Black Panther. There were no Black Panther cartoon figures to associate my son with the character. None of the fast food restaurants that kids quickly learn to love had created toy versions of the Black Panther to give away with their kid’s meals. Disney Jr., Nick Jr., and PBS Kids carried no shows even remotely similar to a Black Panther hero. Yet, my husband was emphatic. Black Panther would trump any and every superhero figure that RK could possibly mention. Personally, I couldn’t see it, so I decided to do something that as a wife I have occasionally found difficult: Be quiet, let it go and trust Richard’s decision. And then the movie came out…
Richard and I dressed up in our best Wakanda-themed garb and along with my sisters and brother, caught the movie on its opening weekend. Needless to say, we were pumped.
Pumped is actually an understatement. We left the movie theater on this all-natural, organically Afrocentric, Black-centered, Africanistic high that could not be contained. Richard’s chest could have exploded. I think I floated out of the theater with visions of Black excellence swirling in my head. For two hours and 15 minutes, we had just been exposed to everything we knew we could be in all its glory and all its flaws. We watched the film channel our inner Killmongers as we grappled with a nation that never wanted us, systematically left us behind, and treats us often as a threat to its own security. We beamed at the beauty, strength, and brains of Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri as they demonstrated what Black women have long known…that at our best, Black men become their best…and when we shine, the whole Earth wins.
I kept trying to sum up my expressions and the only thing I can really think to write even in this blog is that, “I wish I would have had this movie when I was a kid.” I would have imagined myself as Shuri. As a kid, I was the one that asked for a chemistry set for Christmas. I am certain, Shuri would have been my shero. She was smart, pretty, confident, funny, and she could fight! I would have been obsessed with Shuri the way some girls obsess over Barbie or Elsa or whoever their favorite television or movie characters might be.
My musings hit me like a ton of bricks. Characters like Shuri and Okoye were not available to me when I grew up. There were no young, Black female cartoon/movie figures that spoke to my intellect and my body image. There were no Nakia’s to affirm dark skinned beauty and there were even fewer T’Challas who froze in the presence of that beauty.
To be concise, Richard was right. Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Bruce Wayne could wait. We have had decades and decades and decades of White male superheroes and their alter ego narratives being fed to us through television, movies, and clearly daycare centers across the nation. As parents, we wanted to introduce our sons to a new superhero-a superhero that reflected them. We wanted to, as Richard explained to me, “make sure our boys didn’t see themselves as an afterthought.”
This past Saturday, Richard took the boys to see “Black Panther” but not before buying both of them Black Panther masks and figurines.
I packed up a great big bag of snacks, diapers, wipes, sippie cups, cookies, extra clothes and underwear…all the things I could think of to help Richard keep them focused and prepared for the duration of the movie. I even offered a few times to keep Jimmy home with me, but he wanted to take both of them so I passed on the bag of goodies/potty items and sent them on their way.
On the way home from the movies, Richard called me on speakerphone. I could barely hear him because the boys kept yelling, “Mommy, Mommy, Black Panther!” RK tried to tell me the entire movie in 2 sentences…”he fighted and hitted him and the bad guy was sad, Mommy…and, and, and, and, and Shuri was fighting… and the Black Panther is not bad, Mommy.” Jimmy who is not yet in command of full sentences happily tried to repeat some of the phrases of RK: “Mommy, fighted..Black Pantha…”
When they got home, you would have thought it was Christmas. Richard was as proud as a peacock as the boys clinched their Black Panther figurines like we had given them the world. Richard told me during the movie RK stared at the screen like he was in a trance while Jimmy grew restless after the first 45 minutes.
That night, both boys slept with their Black Panther figurines. They held them while they ate breakfast the next morning. They took them to church which almost became a disaster when RK left his in the children’s classroom. Also, the figurines have become my new go-to disciplinary action. If you get out of bed, no Black Panther. Don’t eat your veggies, no Black Panther. Who knows how long this Black Panther phase will last, but for us, Black Panther has accomplished exactly what my husband knew it would accomplish. The boys at very young ages have been able to see a version of themselves on the big screen. For them Chadwick Boseman becomes the new Christopher Reeve and in their minds he will always be the Black Panther. Will he be their only superhero? I doubt it. Will RK ask for Superman and Spiderman paraphernalia? Probably. The point was never to control our son’s taste or preferences. The point was to control his exposure.
This is why no one in the Black community is surprised that “Black Panther” has grossed over one billion dollars in movie sales. Representation matters and representation sales. Children soak up images like sponges. Those images send them messages about life, relationships, gender, power dynamics and cultures. Black Panther, the figure, and “Black Panther” the movie, provide new images and create new messages. Clearly, Richard got the message before I did, and that’s okay. It is coming through loud and clear as I write this blog. Besides, I have my own message that I want to send the boys. With or without Black Panther, there is one superhero that is a necessary fixture in their lives-their father. He’s the real life hero that the boys need more than anything. They may be clutching their Black Panther figurines today, but in the future it will be Richard’s words and actions that they will hold most dear. So, while Richard keeps his eyes on the bigger picture, I will stay focused on the tangible picture right in front of me, a dad and his two sons. And we can both keep building our legacy, one image at a time.