Growing up black and loving superheroes was… interesting. I didn’t read comic books so I only had the television to be my gateway into the universe of fantastical beings that could do impossible things. I was addicted. Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, X-Men, Spider-Man, Justice League, Power Rangers, X-Men: Evolution… Honestly, the list goes on and on.
The more I watched Saturday morning cartoons, the more obsessed I became with the superhero franchises. But the more I watched, the more apparent the tokenization and scarcity of black characters became to me. I was seeing black characters on my TV shows but I was only seeing them one at a time.
It was like playing a game of Where’s Waldo? with black characters. And when it came to black, female characters in this particular genre, I was playing a game of needle in a haystack.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was craving representation. I wanted to see myself in one of those shows. I wanted someone who looked like me, had a family like mine and was going through the same awkward stages of life as me. But also had amazing powers that helped save the day.
Viewers got that with white characters. They had a plethora of characters with different looks, ages, styles, and upbringings. But with black superheroes, we didn’t have much of a variety. There were only one or two black heroes onscreen, to begin with.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The black superheroes I did grow up with were amazing. I remember having Storm (X-Men), Spyke (X-Men: Evolution), John Stewart (Justice League), Bumblebee (Teen Titans), Cyborg (Teen Titans), Static (Static Shock), and She-Bang (Static Shock). But that’s only seven. Seven black characters I distinctly remember gracing my TV out of an endless list of other characters. That’s not at all a very good track record. And how much screen time was given to these characters? How often were they treated as the main protagonist?
People often confuse tokenism for representation. Just because there is a brown face or a minority present, does not mean their community is being represented. More often than not, they’re being tokenized. Tokenism is taking a minority or two, putting them onscreen, and limiting their character to a type cast or a stereotypical role. This is the “cool black kid” who knows how to dance and can play sports. This is the “magical negro” who always knows what to do in a tight spot. Or the “black best friend” who captures the audience’s heart with their sassy comedic relief. These characters show very little depth or facets. Their character is diminished to fit the frame of a plot or a role that is restraining.
Representation, however, is more reflective of a race’s community. It’s more than just having one or two people represent an entire community. It’s multiple characters with different backgrounds, storylines, personalities, and interests. Their characters are fleshed out. Their roles don’t just exist to aide the main non-POC character. There is room in the plot for them to grow, develop, learn, and be the best version of themselves.
The TV series, Static Shock, was an incredible stepping-stone for black superhero representation. It was a show about a black teenager with superpowers, living in a city that was plagued with realistic problems and social issues reflective of the black community. It was rare to find such a television show, let alone an animated series.
But because of the time period, the show aired and it being a cartoon animation, there were limitations to what could and couldn’t be covered on the show.
When I first caught wind about Black Lightning coming to the CW, I was nervous. While I’ve actively watched the network for many years, it hasn’t necessarily been a strong platform for black voices and black stories. Yes, we’ve had characters like the West Family (Iris, Joe, and Wally), John Diggle, and Amaya in the past few years, but I’ve seen how easy their storylines and roles get sidelined at the drop of a hat.
But after familiarizing myself with the people involved with Black Lightning, and hearing both Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil talk about the project, all of my doubts went away. And by the time I saw the show’s premiere, I was blown away.
Black Lightning is a true example of what it means to have black representation. We’re not just getting one storyline that has one supporting black character. We’re getting multiple stories of the black narrative.
I’m seeing a black man balance the duties of his family and his community. I’m seeing a young black woman trying to understand and control her powers to help the people around her. I’m seeing a young black teenager finding her way through high school under the watchful eye of her community. I’m seeing a black woman be a successful neuroscientist while co-parenting with her ex-husband.
The policing of black bodies, gang violence, protest movements, LGBQT relationships, black education, a house of prayer, and colorism. All in one show.
It’s a fresh breath of air to get a black superhero headline a show. But it’s a whirlwind to have your pick of character representation.
Black Lightning has been a hub of firsts. It’s CW’s first highest–rated premiere in two years. And it’s DC Comics first live-action televised, black superhero show. But to me, it’s the first time I’ve ever witnessed a black woman stare longingly at a TV screen riddled with crime, saying, “It’d be nice though… Superpowers. A way to make the world a better place, you know? Really change things. Fight the bad guys, save the good guys…”