This post is dedicated to my late father, who I miss dearly. I couldn’t be the man I am today without his example or his love.
Ok, I have to gush for a hot second…
When the Black Panther trailer dropped, I, like so many other folks out there, went berserk!
The cuts, the music, the action, the amazing costumes, visuals, actors, narration, everything in it shot electricity into my soul and gave me life. Still clutching onto my excitement from seeing the character brought to life by Chadwick Boseman in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, I found myself watching the trailer over and over again, seeing what elements I could pick out, what details I might have missed the previous times I watched it.
The most notable detail, brilliantly embraced by the people of the Twitterverse, was the pure and unapologetic blackness of the film. From reports, and what is seen, apparently 90 percent of the cast is African or African-American, and they have some of today’s heaviest hitters.
We have Chadwick Boseman–reprising his role as T’Challa, AKA The Black Panther–who has taken turns as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and will play Thurgood Marshall. Lupita Nyong’o–who rose to fame in her first feature film, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave–will play Nakia, one of the Dore Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, as well as T’Challa’s love interest. Adonis Creed himself, Michael B. Jordan, will be serving as T’Challa’s rival, the deadly upstart Eric Killmonger.
Beyond those three, the cast features veteran actor Forest Whitaker, Danai Gurira of Walking Dead fame, Daniel Kaluuya fresh off of the success of Get Out, and the incomparable Angela Bassett (sporting white hair, undoubtedly proving she should have been cast as Storm in the original X-Men films), among so many other amazingly talented black actors.
Don’t get me started on securing Ryan Coogler as the director. His work on Fruitvale Station telling the story of the murder of Oscar Grant, portrayed by the aforementioned Michael B. Jordan, is a must see film (and particularly poignant at the moment). His second film, Creed, again starring Michael B. Jordan, is, in my opinion, the best overall film in the Rocky franchise, and, clearly, the film that confirmed Coogler was ready to tackle a huge property in the mainstream.
I could go on and on… but I think I’ll save something for when the film actually comes out.
What I really want to talk about right now, is the feeling that this trailer gave me and what it means to me personally.
In one word:
What I saw watching that trailer was the validation of one of my identities, the black nerd. This identity was always a struggle to accept and maintain.
For years I suffered torment from classmates and schoolyard bullies because my love for nerdy things (comics, sci-fi, video games, etc.) somehow made me less or “not black.” For whatever reason, blackness was seen as counter to those things, which I never truly understood. Why couldn’t I be black and read comic books? Why couldn’t I be black and love video games? Why couldn’t I be black and love science?
Why couldn’t I be black and read comic books?
Why couldn’t I be black and love video games? Why couldn’t I be black and love science?
Why couldn’t I be black and love science?
At the same times, I was “too black” to fully embrace the nerdy stuff. My love for sports, music I listened, my thoughts on civil rights, representation, and equality, my culture itself, all felt opposed to and excluded from “nerd culture.” Often, black characters and ideas were completely absent from properties, and if they did exist, they felt tokenized or just like they were stereotypes.
There were things, feelings often, that I couldn’t talk about because they wouldn’t be understood. Ideas shot down because they didn’t fit the mold of this white nerd culture that refused to accept difference. It tried to tell me who I could and couldn’t be.
You can’t be Batman or Wolverine; you have to be the Black Ranger.
(Mind you, I have been all three because I don’t let anyone control my character, I become who I want.)
This is not to say that I didn’t have good friends who cherished my nuance and identity and looked to me to learn more, but it highlights the struggle I’ve had with claiming the “black nerd” identity for myself. Reflecting on it now, older and feeling more validated, there were always glimmers in the darkness of uncertainty that helped provide the foundation for my ability to claim this identity today.
The Next Generation
As a kid, I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents every week. At that age, I didn’t always understand what was being said, the social or political issues being tackled, or the books being referenced, but I understood how good, and important to me, it was. The visuals, sounds, and sets struck me then, as did the crew of the ship. Men and women of various races, an alien, an android, all working together on a mission of discovery, understanding, and peace. Of course, one stood out above all of the others.
I remember when I saw the visor covered black face for the first time. I was curious and interested, were those really cool sunglasses or what? My parent’s explained that he was blind, but the visor allowed him to see using the electromagnetic spectrum. Ok, that’s wild, but what does he do on the ship? Oh wait, he’s in engineering? Just like dad?
Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge was intriguing, inspirational and aspirational. I hadn’t really seen other black men in space, and it was shortly before I learned about the black astronauts we did have. His connection with science and technology was astounding to me. He knew how everything on the ship worked and without him, the Enterprise would have been lost forever on more than one occasion. Not to mention how hype he got when there was a new phenomenon or discovery.
He was even best friends with Data, the android, and they would have all sorts of fun in the Holodeck playing Sherlock Holmes and Watson. But it wasn’t always fun and games. Geordi doubted himself and his abilities sometimes, he felt conflicted, he made mistakes, both socially and scientifically. When I was a kid, and even more so know, this was relatable. He was a fully developed, nuanced character, and he was smart, and he was black.
Finding out that Geordi was played by LeVar Burton, who I knew from Reading Rainbow at the time, was a whole other revelation that filled me with joy when I was a kid.
As a quick aside, if you loved Reading Rainbow as much as I did and love short fiction as much as I do, check out LeVar Burton Reads, a new podcast where LeVar reads to you!
Interestingly enough, many of the things I felt as a kid about Geordi’s character haven’t really changed, and my appreciation has only grown. We need to continue seeing black people who love science out and about, confronting the mysteries of the universe and getting excited about it. I think that’s why the success of Hidden Figures was so exciting, or why I get so hype when Neil deGrasse Tyson is dropping some scientific knowledge.
We’ve always had black scientists and thinkers, but rarely with this kind of exposure. They always felt like secrets that only we could appreciate and our other friends didn’t really know about. I hope kids are as excited today as I was back in then.
I feel like this next example couldn’t be more different than Geordi. It is hard for me to even figure out where I learned about this character or movie. Maybe it was Wizard, the comic book magazine that I would religiously buy at the supermarket.
I had started to get into darker, grittier comic books and entertainment as I had started to get older. My dad had introduced me to the Terminator movies, and I was collecting Alien and Predator toys and started to gather a small collection of Spawn comics and books from the Marvel Knights line. I was still interested in science and technology, but I also had a bit of anger boiling inside of me. I knew it was from feeling like I didn’t belong where I was living at the time. Being from the only black family in your neighborhood and the only black kid in your school will do that to you.
I think that’s what got me so excited when I saw the artwork and photos.
A black man with this killer haircut, wearing a black bulletproof vest, black pants, a black trench coat, black sunglasses, and, in his black gloved hands, holding a sword–it was perhaps the most badass thing I had ever seen up to that point in my life.
All of their strengths, none of their weaknesses, except for the thirst.
As soon as Blade was coming to VHS I begged my parents to rent it. I needed to see this movie. There was this coolness to Wesley Snipes in the role that got my blood pumping (vampire pun intended). When we watched it, I wasn’t disappointed.
Now Blade wasn’t my first exposure to vampires in popular culture. I had been watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer with my parents, and I had really enjoyed it. While it was fun and funny, it also knew how to be dark and scary. The characters were great and provided this sense of drama, and the effects on the vampires’ faces were awesome at the time. But the show was also overwhelmingly white, and in many ways felt somewhat inaccessible.
Blade was an answer to this for me, and in other ways felt like an analog for myself. He stuck out like a sore thumb in his world. He was one of a kind. You noticed him in a room with other vampires because–save for a pivotal plot point later in the film–he was the only black one.
Of course, at the time I don’t know if I had the language to fully realize this is what I loved about the character and that film. At the time I’m sure I was just thinking how cool his weapons are, how much I was in love with N’Bushe Wright, who played Karen, and how awesome the effects were at the time (they don’t hold up quite as well these days). I mean, it was a super badass film, predating The Matrix which felt like it was coming from the same design wheelhouse.
But I think the subconscious underpinnings of my connection to the character were always there. The film has always stuck with me. It was one of the first DVDs I bought for my personal collection, and I still watch it despite some of the ways in which it has aged.
Sometimes the most important thing in media is seeing someone who reminds you of yourself.
The Lightning Rod
Having moved to a new town immediately after sixth grade, I found myself being a fish out of water in a different way.
I now wasn’t the only black kid in my neighborhood, and there were all of these other folks from different minority groups. Though it was definitely hard leaving some of my friends behind, there were definitely some prospects for meeting new people and making friends. But I was still a shy nerdy black kid and it still took some doing.
During this period I was still on my Saturday morning cartoon kick (which would still be going if Saturday morning cartoons were still a thing). Though I spent most of the 90s with a steady digest Marvel cartoons of questionable quality, Batman: The Animated Series ruled the arena of comic book cartoons. I’d argue that show is what got me more into DC and their cast of characters.
So when Batman moved from Fox to the WB, I went along for the ride. Watching the animation style evolve and the series change into The New Batman Adventures and seeing the introduction of Superman: The Animated Series, I was fully in. The Batman Beyond happened. Didn’t think things could get much cooler until I saw that a new superhero show was about to arrive on the scene.
Static, AKA Virgil Hawkins, was like a new friend moving in right next door. He was a kid, just a little bit older than myself, dealing with the push and pull of the positive and negative forces in his life. His journey reflected something that many of us face. What was really appealing about the show was the multicultural lens used for the show.
The show portrayed characters from multiple cultures and backgrounds. The cast felt like the new environment I found myself in, despite my being in the suburbs and him living in the city. The way characters spoke felt like how people I knew in real life did. The slang and quips felt familiar.
Static Shock was so different than just about everything else I was watching, despite following the same type of formula.
Even though I wasn’t living in the city, Virgil’s run-ins with gangs reminded me of how some of the circles within my town operated. Like a lot of kids shows back then, it reminded me of who to look out for, who to be wary of, and who could be dangerous to you.
One other thing that Virgil’s transformation into Static made me think about was how to be the best version of yourself. Like Virgil, I was a painfully awkward kid who took longer to fit in. When he put his costume on he became a smooth talker and operator, much more sure of himself and his abilities. It was something to aspire to and something I wanted to find in myself.
I can’t really say I made it all the way there until much later in life, but I started to find ways to take more chances, put myself out there, and, like Virgil, started to surround myself with close friends who I could trust and who believed in me. Virgil’s relationship with his white best friend–and eventual superhero partner–Richie reminds me of a few different friendships I had built back in those days and reflecting on it, we all need those people in our corner to help us do and be our best.
Middle and high school are such a turbulent transitional period. You’re barreling towards college, searching for a sense of self and where you belong. Thinking back on it now, there was another hero who flickered onto the screen at just the right time and provided the perfect supplement to Virgil’s tale of growth.
The Emerald Knight
In 2001, a new DC show would start, building on the framework of the Batman and Superman animated shows that came before.
I still think that intro is epic.
I’ll admit it: before this show, I didn’t know much about the Green Lantern. I knew he existed. I knew he had a ring. And I knew he could shoot green beams.
After this show, the Green Lantern was black and badass, and for me, no other version of the character could even come close.
John Stewart couldn’t have been more different than Virgil. He was an adult who had experience in the world. A former marine, John’s voice (which, like Virgil was provided by the amazing Phil LaMarr) commanded attention, he had a brain for strategy, and he didn’t wing it like Static. As I started getting older, there was something really compelling about the depiction of a black man with a plan who got shit done.
He was also portrayed as someone who held himself accountable for his actions, and willing to sacrifice for the greater good, even in a case where he was wrongfully accused of an interstellar crime.
Seeing a black hero who could go toe-to-toe with and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, was and still is amazing. Even outside of the action, John was given some of the series’ best moments and stories.
Of particular note, John was given an interracial (and interspecies) relationship with Hawkgirl, Shayera Hol. Although the relationship was turbulent (watch the three part series finale “Starcrossed”), it also helped me reconcile ideas about the nature of love and the fact that your skin doesn’t control who you are attracted to–something that my parents reminded me that I used to ask about when I was much younger.
Thinking further on this, after the events of Starcrossed and as the series transitioned into its follow-up, Justice League Unlimited, watching John work through his feelings and emotions, while also trying to suppress them, was familiar territory. It reminded me of the type of conditioning that black boys and men go through. We are told to keep our emotions guarded, not to cry, that our feelings are a weakness. This character was allowed to fight with this program and find his way through it. It helped shape him into something more than just a former military hardass with superpowers.
He could feel betrayed. He could have moments of uncertainty. He could harness his emotions to overcome situations he was faced with.
Throughout both series, one other idea relating to the Green Lantern kept coming into focus. On multiple occasions, John was forced to succeed without aid from his ring. Whether fighting Nazis or aliens, his willpower and inner strength were his true powers.
Whenever those moments would occur, it would remind me of the hero who was right next to me watching all of these different adventures unfold.
The Father, My Father
I do have to preface this with the fact that both my parents are nerds. I was lucky in that way. And I will be writing about my mom’s influence at some point (a few folks know that she is the one who introduced me to both the Thundercats and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). But in this post, it’s all about my dad.
In a way, he was like all of the characters that I mentioned here and something much more at the same time.
On the first day of summer in 1962, Larry the First was born in North Philadelphia, a rough area known to chew people up and reduce them to nothing. He was the youngest of three, the product of a single parent home, with his own father not being there most of the time.
Gangs tried to recruit him and he was put in some pretty dangerous situations growing up. He used to tell me this one story about how one time when he was walking home and held up by a guy demanding that he give up his Big Mac. My father obliged only to be chided by the man who told him “you need to be willing to die for your shit!”
My father was smart and took advantage of his studies. He willed himself into Central, preparing himself for college at one of the best high schools in the city.
During his time at Central, he would meet my mother, who was attending Girls High. Two people were never more perfect for each other, but that is a story for another day.
Dad would eventually go to college at Penn State University (still don’t have a clue why he would go there, he could never give me a good answer). There, he studied chemical engineering and upon graduating would go on to work at companies like Frito-Lay, Alpo, and Air Products & Chemicals (where he worked for decades, until his passing). He even went back and grabbed an MBA at Kutztown University.
I remember always being in awe of how brilliant my father was. When he was on the liquid nitrogen team at APCI, he would explain to me the intricacies of how the pressure swing adsorption method was used to separate different gasses from a mixture for processing. At the same time, he could quote Shakespeare in his sleep, much to the torment of the rest of the family. He always had the perfect quote for whatever the situation.
He had this mind perfect for all things and he encouraged my sister and me to always pay attention to the world, to watch the news, listen to others, and shape our views using all available information. Writing this now, I laughed to myself thinking about how he once told me that if he hadn’t studied engineering, he would have worked to become a journalist. He always had something to say about what was going on and I’m glad I’ve inherited that.
Dad was a baller too. The man loved basketball, almost as much as he loved trash-talking. I remember how he used to wipe the floor with my cousin and I (until we got to big for him and started bodying him on the boards). He was always there to support my sister and me in whatever we were doing, helping us practice or giving us advice on how to improve.
He also had this way of not letting people fuck with him or his family. I remember so many instances where someone said or did something he viewed as unacceptable and he didn’t let it slide. He pushed back, he put those who transgressed against us know that he would not stand for it. We called him “The Handler,” because if something needed doing, he got it done.
And, with all of this, he was a nerd. A black nerd. My father was a black nerd like me.
His favorite superhero was Spiderman, he loved the idea that on top of his powers, Peter Parker had to use his brain to solve problems. Technology and strength weren’t always enough, you need to be smart about things. He would always quote Uncle Ben’s “with great power comes great responsibility” to me, reminding me to not let an injustice stand and that we need to use our strength to do better for the world around us.
We would read comics together constantly. Sometimes just from the random assortment, my uncle would give me, and eventually identifying books that we should read himself. Dad’s the reason I got into Daredevil. He saw that this movie director named Kevin Smith was going to b writing for the series and knew we had to jump on it because it was going to be something special.
The man even watched some really old school anime. Speed Racer and Astroboy were his introductions, and he made sure to share them with me. Kimba the White Lion–or Jungle King Leo–was on his lips when we went to see the Lion King. Dad made sure to tell me all about his anime (and how wholesome it was) whenever he would catch me watching Akira or Vampire Hunter D early on Saturday mornings.
My dad loved Star Trek as well, I would never have gotten into it had he not been a Trekkie himself. I am pretty sure he saw himself in Geordi in a lot of ways, I could see the glee in his eyes seeing another black engineer on the screen, especially given the fact that he was the only one in the room for quite a bit of his career. He also loved Worf, there was a palpable delight around the character and his sense of honor. Deep Space Nine and Commander, later Captain, Sisko were milestones for my father.
I didn’t quite connect in the same exact way at the time, but for him, seeing a black man commanding the bridge of the USS Defiant must have been a revelation. Both characters were also fathers, and both fathers had sons that didn’t always listen to the things their fathers had told them. (I was never quite as annoying or Alexander or Jake.)
We watched Saturday morning cartoons together after early mornings cutting the grass. He knew all of the storylines and would do his best to mimic the character voices (he was terrible, but he tried). Watching Spiderman or X-Men or Batman or Static Shock or Justice League, it was clear that he was just as excited about what we were watching as I was. I especially remember how excited he was about Green Lantern in Justice League. His favorite DC hero had always been The Flash but it was pretty clear the throne had been usurped just a few episodes in.
I saw him having the moments of validation that I am having now. That feeling of seeing people who look like you finally be represented in popular media in this way that feels right and can be celebrated.
More important than all of this, my father always encouraged me to be true to myself, to be confident, and to be passionate about the things important to me.
I wish I got to share that moment of validation watching the Black Panther trailer with my father. Despite sharing that moment with the world, it felt strange not being able to share it with the person who helped make this stuff matter to me. At the same time, I am so happy for the moments we were able to share together, the movies, cartoons, and comics we were able to share, and the black characters we were able to cheer for. Beyond that, I am happy about the lessons he taught me, the guidance he gave me, and the love he provided me.
At the same time, I am so happy for the moments we were able to have together, the movies, cartoons, and comics we were able to share, and the black characters we were able to cheer for. Beyond that, I am happy about the lessons he taught me, the guidance he gave me, and the love he provided me.
I know how important being present was for him. It was something that he had wished his father was. Something so many children wish their fathers could be.
Fathers are supposed to be heroes to their children, I got lucky that mine was super.