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Life / Society

The Superpower of Representation

The Superpower of Representation

When I was in the third grade, a film came out and my classmates and I couldn’t have been more excited. This film was the latest installment in a series that our moms and dads grew up with. It took place in a far-off land. There were epic battle scenes, fun characters, and who could forget the score? The film was Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I know the prequels get a lot of vitriol and hate these days, but at the time we were a bunch of kids who couldn’t care less about plot holes and underdeveloped characters. All I knew was that I wanted to be Obi-Wan and when Halloween came around that year, I was.

Well, I thought I was.

I showed up to school with my Obi-Wan costume on, lightsaber in hand, adorned in the latest Jedi fashion. I even had the rat tail that Obi-Wan wore in the film. I was confident everyone would see that I had chosen the coolest costume. The pop culture reference was on-point and I knew how much we all liked the movie. However, I hadn’t considered one vital detail—melanin. I had not accounted for my complexion. Obi-Wan was white, I was black, and my classmates wasted no time informing me of this.

Admittedly, I was pretty bummed out. I went home and told my mom what had happened, and she could hear the dejection in my voice. (I should mention now that I was one of 15 black students in a school of 900.) I’m sure it hurt her too because she had tried my whole childhood to make sure that I felt valued and proud of my black heritage. She bought me books with black protagonists, played music by black artists, and read me poems by black poets. And honestly, it worked. I really didn’t grow up with a huge chip on my shoulder. I felt unique, I felt gifted, and I generally felt accepted. I think that is why Halloween of 99’ blindsided me. How could my classmates say that I wasn’t Obi-Wan?

Fast-forward almost twenty years, and here I sit basking in the glow of what is, in my opinion, one of the most important films to be made in a decade: Black Panther. For the past several months I have waited with bated breath for the release of this movie. Ask my co-workers, I have been talking about it non-stop. I’ve bought t-shirts, toys, and, yes, tickets to see it, and I loved every second of it. Why? Because this film is unabashedly black. In its opening week, it smashed box office expectations and records because we as a culture are finally ready to have some semblance of a conversation regarding the importance of representation. This isn’t the first piece you will read with this tone, and it won’t be the last. And that is okay. Repetition is how we learn and grow. This film shows us all that we can overcome stereotypes. We can subvert social norms and mores. And for little black girls and boys the world over, this film tells us that we, too, can be super heroes. This is huge, everybody!

At this point, you may be starting to see that for me and so many others, this film was more than just the latest installment in the Marvel Character Universe. Black Panther represents a change in the zeitgeist. This film told children everywhere that they could be great. (Spoiler Alert!) Girls can be expert scientists and fierce warriors. People of color aren’t relegated to being sidekicks, wise old sages, or the first person killed in a horror flick. They can be the name on the marquee, the protagonist, the hero. There is way too much here to unpack in one small post, but again, this is important.

But it isn’t just important to people of color. It is important to us all because…I’ll be honest with you. ‘Third-grade me’ didn’t care that Obi-Wan wasn’t black. I cared that he had good morals. I cared that he was brave. I cared that he looked awesome wielding a light saber. If we as a society don’t define heroes as belonging to a certain group, then we as a society reap the benefits of having future heroes that are diverse. That is a future that I want—one with children who never question their value or their potential.

This Halloween, I will plant myself on my porch and watch the parade of Black Panthers running through the streets. I will give them fistfuls of candy. And I will smile and know that they feel the way I felt every other day of my childhood.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on leadership from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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To put it frankly, Jon is a conversationalist. With a penchant for forging relationships, watching movies and playing board games, he will find something to discuss with anyone. He also enjoys keeping it light and hanging out with his beautiful wife, Danielle.

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