January 12, 2018
by Diara J. Townes
What does it mean to be a powerful black person?
Is it being an athlete? A police officer? The President of the United States?
For thousands of fans in New York City, the answer includes a secret identity and the desire to share untold stories.
Black cosplayers, actors and academics pose with Black Panther actress Florence Kasumba after the headlined panel concluded. Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. CuriousScout Media.
The 6th annual Black Comic Book Festival was held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem this past weekend, with crowds queuing for nearly an hour to gain access.
The free, two-day event featured dozens of independent comic book creators, enthusiasts and academics of color. Panels included discussions about kickstarters, Afrofuturism and how diversity is impacting nerd social media.
The queue on Saturday, January 13th wrapped around the corner of 135th street and Malcolm X Blvd in Harlem, New York. Jan 13, 2018. CuriousScout Media.
Present-day racial attitudes and tensions from various sectors of America and Europe are having a resonating impact across the world.
While not the subject of any of the panels, the crude language directed at Caribbean and African nations by U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday, January 11, reiterated the importance of supporting and expanding black perspectives.
“If we don’t control our image, we can’t control our story,” explained Eric Velasquez, the author of Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library. “We have to show people what the Afro-future looks like. It’s how the world will get to know us.”
When Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938) was in grade school, he was told that black people had no history, no accomplishments, or even heroes.
The child of a free black mother and a German merchant father, the young student grew up into a historian, intellectual and activist who researched and amassed Afro-Latino, Afro-American and African literature, art and slave narratives.
Schomburg’s dedication to the history and culture of the African diaspora contributed to the growth of the Harlem Renaissance in New York and other African-American communities across the nation.
The New York Public Library purchased his collection in 1926 and appointed the activist as curator at the 135th street branch in Harlem, later renamed the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In a politically tense time where black identity, culture and history are still being questioned, the Schomburg continues to play a critical role in education, inspiration and community development.
@TheRealDaShen, a speculative writer in the Afro-futurism field, speaks with a sci-fi enthusiast during the Black Comic Book Festival. Jan 13, 2018. CuriousScout Media.
“We can jumpstart the conversation about what it means to be free. It’s our response to our colonial situation,” explained panelist Dawud Anyabwile to the audience of the Black Characters Matter discussion on Friday.
Anyabwile is an Emmy award winner and the co-creator and illustrator of the critically acclaimed Brotherman comics series. The story follows a valiant public attorney who taps into his innate moral power to right the wrongs in his hometown city as a masked crime-fighting hero.
“The role of the black character was to support the hero,” continued Anyabwile, reflecting on his experience with comics as a young man. “You didn’t see yourself as the one making the decisions. We’ve seen so much of this conditioning that we began believing it.”
“The characters you fall in love with are, and should be, human,” added Stacey Robinson, illustrator for I Am Alfonso Jones, the story of a 15 year-old black teenager wrongly shot by a security guard who then watches the effects his murder has on his community from the afterlife.
“These characters should have backgrounds and faults. I want to create stories where black kids are the heroes and not just the ‘Black best friend.’”
History, historical fiction and Afrofuturism are working in conjunction to motivate a community whose past and present consistently face hardship and misrepresentation.
Writers of color are becoming activists against social ills like police brutality and income inequality by including historical and current events in their stories.
Tony Medina, writer of I Am Alfonso Jones and teacher of creative writing at Howard University in Washington, DC, understands this concept well.
“Alfonso’s story bridges the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today. We didn’t get these [historical] stories in our youth. I want to show all aspects and levels of Black culture and ancestry in my work.”
With the success of Netflix’s production of Luke Cage, DC’s Black Lightning premiering on January 16 on the CW, the choice to feature Cyborg over Green Lantern’s Hal Jordan in The Justice League movie, and Marvel’s standalone production of Black Panther on the silver screen, the world of black comics is rapidly expanding to the mainstream.
What does this mean for black creators and the diverse fandom?
Dr. Jonathan Gayles, professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University and co-founder of the Black Comic Book Festival, expressed his concern about the future of black creatives. “I hope there isn’t a rush to produce black content for the sake of making money.”
Cultural profiteering is a serious concern for Gayles. “Our artists have been working on their projects for decades. It’s important that we support our black creators because after the expected phenomenal success of Panther, there’s going to be a rush for Black superheroes. We have to make sure that creators can stay true to their stories by supporting them.”
Dr. Kinitra Brooks, Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of Searching for Sycorax: Black Women ‘s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, expressed another sentiment.
“I’m afraid the popularity is going to grow but then disappear, or fail to expand beyond Panther,” she said during the fully attended panel, Black Panther: A Hero and a Movement. “Panther is about unlocking the potential in our youth. What are we going to see ten and twenty years from now?”
Actress Florence Kasumba, who portrays Ayo, the head of the Wakandan King’s security force, the Dora Milaje, in the Marvel blockbuster, provided an optimistic perspective.
Florence Kasumba converses with Schomburg Director Kevin Young at the conclusion of the Black Panther panel on Friday, Jan 12. CuriousScout Media.
“I hope I get to see more of this stuff,” said Kasumba. “The people [I worked with] knew they wanted to be a part of this movie, in some form, in any form. Panther meant that much to them, and it’s really a nice feeling to know that I can represent this.”
With decades of seeing Africa as impoverished, war-ravaged and riddled with famine and disease, it is critical that we change the story and image.”
African Americans have always had an exasperated understanding of the experience of Africans,” stated Associate Professor of history at Rollins College Julian Chambliss.
“African superheroes can help change this image propagated by society of what Africa looks like,” added Grace Gipson, professor at UC Berkeley. “T’challa gives us the opportunity to see African royalty that isn’t portrayed as poor or unintelligent.”
William Jones agreed. “I would like to see a better representation of modern-day Africa that isn’t fictional and doesn’t involve apartheid. We are dealing with this idea that there is an African country that wasn’t colonized by Europe, and what that country would look like if it was allowed to flourish.”
“[Wakanda] is the most technologically advanced country on the planet,” continued Jones, the founder of the Afrofuturism Network, a multi-media cultural genre that wields elements of science fiction, historical fiction and fantasy to address real-world issues facing black people in the present day, and re-examines our opportunities in the future, both in fiction and in reality. “There’s almost a fear of the unchecked African potential [in the movie],” he stated.
This fear and misrepresentation has re-emerged in recent years, considering the continued racist language and denigration of immigrants of color by President Donald Trump.
Despite the tension in current events, there is a lot to look forward to.
“My primary thought now is sitting next to my daughters, watching them watch the Black Panther,” shared Dr. Gayles. “There’s power in having the right to imagine who you want to be, who you aspire to be.”
With Black Lightning and Panther just days and weeks away, respectively, and with the popularity of the Black Comic Book Festival growing, we are witnessing hope and change in our communities in the face of political and racial uncertainty.
“A lot of us have a tendency to look outside of ourselves for help, for some superhero to save us. But nothing is going to change until we do something about it,” continued Brotherman writer Anyabwile. “As a creative people we can change the way people think about us, and we can shape society around us. That is our superpower.”
Courtesy of @BlackComicsChat on Twitter.