I don’t know about you, but I was one of the people who saw Wonder Woman on the day it came out in the theater. I was ready — beyond ready — for a superheroine, and I wasn’t disappointed. For this same reason, I’m already excited about Black Panther, which is coming out in February 2018. I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies, and it’s hard to think of one that stars a black superhero as the main protagonist. In fact, before I picked up Adilifu Nama’s Super Black, I’m not sure I could have thought of more than one black superhero, ever. (Frozone, anyone?) Now I can.
This isn’t a history of black superheroes in the comics. It’s an analysis of what those superheroes have meant, where they’ve come from culturally, and what impact they’ve had. Nama doesn’t talk about authorial intent. Rather, he comes from an assumption that superheroes affirm a division between right and wrong, and therefore operate within a moral framework. That means that black superheroes specifically symbolize American morality and ethics with regard to race. “They overtly represent or implicitly signify social discourse and accepted wisdom concerning notions of racial reciprocity, racial equality, racial forgiveness, and, ultimately, racial justice.” He also says that it doesn’t matter whether the character is well-written and well-fleshed out or poorly and sketchily done. To have a black superhero at all means innovation in racial representation, since a superhero is both a “colorblind model of racial reconciliation” who protects all groups, a position associated with the civil rights movement, and someone who accepts the use of violence as a practical means to ensure justice, a position associated with Black Power.
Some of the most interesting superheroes originated in the 1970s, as you might imagine. That’s when Luke Cage first appeared, and Nama points out that he is heavily linked to the blaxploitation films that were so popular at the time. There were the interracial duo of Green Lantern and Green Arrow, who had serious discussions about race in the pages of their adventures. There was a cover featuring a boxing match between Superman and Muhammad Ali, evoking a decades-old anxiety about black boxers besting white boxers (and this time, a black Muslim draft-dodging boxer beating a white superhero who stood for “truth, justice, and the American way.”) There were black versions of white superheroes: a black Captain America, a black Wonder Woman, a black Nick Fury (did you know Nick Fury was originally white?) Later, black superheroes got away from protecting the ghetto and traveled through the universe and through time, like their white counterparts.
Nama looks at each of these iterations in its cultural context. For instance, he points out that Luke Cage’s origin story (a medical experiment in prison by a sadistic white prison guard) came in the context of a wave of prison stories by black activists like Angela Davis and George Jackson, and a strong desire for prison reform. Brother Voodoo changed to Doctor Voodoo (mirroring Doctor Strange) and got a makeover out of his embarrassing jungle-inspired getup after twenty years. The Falcon represents black upward mobility both in his regular identity as Sam Wilson, the educated professional social worker, and in his secret identity, as a black man who can fly.
This was a really interesting book to read. I got a huge amount out of it. Unfortunately, it’s written for an academic audience, and most of it is written in pretty heavy jargon-ese. I really wish Nama had written this to be a little more readable. However, if you think you’d like to burrow through it, it’s a short book with a lot of information to offer (and there are lots of pictures!) and especially in light of the sorts of movies I like to watch, I’m really glad I read it.