Do Black People Need Black Superheroes…or Just Black Heroes?
Stories about the heroes and superheroes in speculative fiction, film and comic books capture essential truths about human nature. We relate to – and identify with – the characters and themes in these stories; we empathize with the dilemmas and problems that superheroes face, and we admire – and often mimic – their heroic acts.
What, exactly, is a superhero, you ask?
What is the difference between a superhero and a hero?
I would say that every hero in a work of Black speculative fiction – and least the works I have read, which is pretty vast – is a superhero.
The definition of a hero is someone who rises above his or her fears and limitations to achieve something extraordinary. A hero embodies what we believe is best in ourselves. By definition, a hero would include entirely fictional characters, such as Batman, Brotherman, or Storm; characters who are real, but surrounded by legend, such as John Henry, Bass Reeves, or ‘Black’ Mary Fields; and “real world” firefighters, teachers and parents.
The clearest difference between a hero and what we tend to consider a superhero is that superheroes possess fantastic powers, fight their battles with advanced technology, or possess uncanny beauty, bravery, skill, or luck. Superheroes are heroes who cannot possibly exist in our own world today.
Unlike ordinary heroes, superheroes must have abilities that normal people do not and cannot have. A superhero like Brotherman – a great comic book hero and protagonist of a comic book series of the same name, brilliantly realized by writer, Guy Sims and his brother, artist Dawud Anyabwile – has no super powers. He belongs to the uncanny beauty, bravery, skill, or luck camp.
Brotherman is also larger-than-life and his stories are timeless; eternal.
Would this make Harriet Tubman a superhero? The great freedom fighter, spy and warrior of history is certainly a hero, however, while she possessed a supreme amount of bravery, endurance, skill, luck and the gift of accurate visions, her abilities were attainable by anyone – except, maybe those accurate visions. They were not uncanny, or otherworldly.
However, Harriet Tubman – protagonist of the Steamfunk novel Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman and one of the protagonists of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage – is a superhero. She possesses the ability to heal from massive damage to her body at ten times the rate of a normal person; she has the strength of several men; and she can cast illusions.
Milton Davis’ Changa, of the Sword and Soul series, Changa’s Safari, fights monsters, sorceresses and men and has the ability to see malevolent spirits.
Remi ‘The Single Link’ Swan, hero of the fight fiction novel, A Single Link, is the first woman in history to fight men in professional co-ed mixed martial arts.
These are all superheroes – larger than life; powerful beyond the normal realm of human ability; fearless, lucky, or talented beyond measure.
And, like Brotherman, all their stories are timeless; eternal.
No costume is necessary; but it is cool.
But, how do we relate to and identify with characters with such amazing attributes?
Is the reason why the most popular stories in comic books are origin stories because they show us the exact moment when a normal man or woman goes from being just an average Joe or Josephine to being somehow better, faster, smarter, or stronger?
I believe it is not the attributes, but the altruism, we identify with – or at least we aspire to.
It is also the trauma superheroes suffer at their becoming. Many have told me that they love the origin story of The Scythe, who readers will get to see more of when the novel is released in summer, 2014. What they have said they love is how Dr. A.C. Jackson makes a bargain with the sentient scythe of death to return to earth and exact revenge on his murderers. Dr. Jackson is, literally, a tortured soul; the victim of racism and brutality during the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riots of 1921.
Readers also identify with the life-altering force of destiny found in origin stories. In the film Rite of Passage, Harriet Tubman gathers several Guardians – those endowed with supernatural powers to fight men, machines, monsters, demons and the undead. One such Guardian, Harriet Tubman’s young pupil, Dorothy Wright, is reluctant to accept her destiny, yet she rises to the occasion and becomes one of the protectors of the Black-owned town of Nicodemus, Kansas. Many of us identify with Dorothy’s challenge of assuming a great responsibility that forces her to grow up sooner than she wants to.
Finally, there’s sheer chance; or the illusion that it was chance – I am not inclined to believe in coincidence – that readers love about origin stories. In the Rite of Passage tie-in, the short film The Dentist of Westminster, the protagonist, Osho Adewale, travels to Nicodemus, Kansas to put his deceased grandmother to rest, but is introduced to a world of darkness in which he gains the power to bring the light. His heroism is an example of how seemingly random, adverse events cause many of us to take stock of our lives and choose a different path.
Good writers of speculative fiction are keen observers of nature, in general and specifically, human nature. They are able to express those observations as captivating stories; they are able to tell the stories of self through the stories of their superheroes.
So, pick up a great comic book, like Dusu (issue #1 is free), Watson and Holmes (also free), the Chronicles of Piye, or Sword and Soul Adventures; or great books, such as Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, Changa’s Safari, Damballa, or A Single Link (which releases at the end of this month). Soar with the superheroes within.
Capes aren’t necessary.
But, they are cool.