AfroCon and Black Representation in the Nerd World
I went to AfroCon, formerly the Afrofuturism Lounge, at the beginning of September, and it was a great experience for more than just getting outside. I was able to cosplay as Black female superheroes, Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnorak and Nubia, usually seen as the Black Wonder Woman.
I wasn’t a cosplayer to begin with, but recently, I’ve been having fun dressing up as superheroes. Some folks might think it’s one of my hobbies. I tell them it’s a business strategy. A flashy costume and a recognizable character brings people to me, and in turn, I bring people to my booth. Just because I think of my cosplaying as a business strategy doesn’t mean I don’t understand what the importance of representation is in the world where most superheroes and famous characters are white and male, or as Howard Stark said in Agent Carter, “male and pale”.
I was really lucky to grow up in the 80’s and 90’s because there were Black sitcoms to watch–namely The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Living Single, Family Matters, and Sister, Sister–and many recommendations from the older generations such as Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and 227. I could see Black people on TV when there wasn’t a way to record episodes or stream online. You just had to be there. But when it came to superheroes, science fiction, and fantasy on TV, there were very few Black female heroes. Yes, there was Nyota Uhura from the original Star Trek series in the 60’s, Foxy Brown from the 70’s movie, and Aisha Campbell the Yellow Ranger from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but in the 90’s, the most memorable Black heroes and antiheroes were from movies. That included movies like Blank Man, Men in Black, Blade, Spawn, Tales from the Hood, Night of the Living Dead, Meteor Man, and Steel. With a slew of Black superhero movies in the 90’s, a cool new suit couldn’t hide the fact that all these superheroes were mostly Black male superheroes.
Even today, Black female superheroes are barely making headway on the big screen and TV. The more famous Black female superheroes include Storm from The X-Men, Misty Knight from Luke Cage, Shuri from Black Panther, Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnorak (who wasn’t Black in the comics), and Vixen from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. In TV land, there’s Nora West-Allen or XS (CW’s The Flash), Starfire and Blackfire (HBO’s Titans), Monica Rambeau (Disney’s Wandavision), Ryan Wilder/Batwoman (CW’s Batwoman), Thunder and Lightning (CW’s Black Lightning) and Kelly Olsen’s Guardian (CW’s Supergirl). And the amount of lesser-known Black female superheroes are endless, most notably the 1970’s Butterfly (Hell-Rider #1 and #2), Rocket (Icon #1), and Flint (Stormwatch #28).
With the lack of famous Black female superheroes, I wasn’t surprised to see the eyes of young Black girls light up when I walked around in my Valkyrie and Wonder Woman costumes. Some were hesitant to ask to take a picture, so I had to overcome my own shyness and ask them if they wanted to pose with me. Others came up to me and asked to hold my shield or if I was Storm. To see a Black female superhero walking around was an experience for them to remember.
The kids weren’t the only ones who understood the impact of dressing up as a Black superhero. Keithan of Kid Comics and Black Comix Day took a picture of me in my cosplay with a small girl and wrote: “Afro-con was a good show. Especially for it’s first time. I’m always inspired by the reaction of the children to seeing heroes that reflect their culture or simply look like them. It gives them a sense of pride in being just fine with who they are whether they know it or not. These shows also allow parents to expose their children to black entrepreneurs and professionals outside of the usual stereotypes they are bombarded with in mainstream media. Now more than ever, children from all races, minds and aspirations must be protected from this contentious world. It’s the adult thing to do.”
It wasn’t just the costume that was important for me to show. I had worked out and tweaked my diet to specifically build muscle, especially since emulating a fit character meant no flab. I also wanted to show that I could get fit on a vegan lifestyle. Yup, not too many Black folks can say that (vegans account for 2% to 6% of the total U.S. population), let alone, Black vegans who also cosplay. For some reason, people think that being vegan means being weak. They don’t know that Serena and Venus Williams (pro tennis players), Morgan Mitchell (Olympic sprinter), and Jehina Malik (pro bodybuilder) are or were vegan athletes who experienced their biggest milestones while on a plant-based diet. (There are Black male vegans who are noteworthy such as Olympian Carl Lewis and NBA player Kyrie Irving, but let’s stick with Black female vegans.) Again, the Black representation in veganism is important because it shows that eating only plants isn’t a “white thing” and that Black vegans aren’t weak.
As I walked around AfroCon, filled with Black business owners, artists, creators, and families, I felt a rush of excitement. Even though I wore an elaborate costume, I looked like everyone else in the building, and it made me walk taller, smile wider, speak more. I didn’t realize that when I’m in mostly white spaces, I make myself smaller, I stay “professional” by being quiet, I keep myself from standing out too much. But at AfroCon, I could be closer to myself–costume and all–than anywhere else.
If we look back at how important Black representation is regarding fictional characters, even Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded Nichelle Nichols, the actor who played Uhura from the original Star Trek series and who wanted to leave the show after the first season. Dr. King told Nichols that, “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, and go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors, who are in this state, and yet we don’t see on television–until now.” Representation in all aspects of nerdom shows people that Black people as who they are exist, not just in the stereotypical ways but also in any humanly (and inhumanly in fiction) possibilities.
While I’m seeing more nerd TV shows and movies with Black representation both in front and behind the camera, there still needs to be more representation that’s smart and authentic, beautiful and straightforward, realistic and sincere. We need more Black superheroes, especially Black female superheroes, who can help inspire Black engineers and astronauts like Uhura and Black psychiatrists like Kelly Olson’s Guardian and Black bodybuilders and fitness experts like Nubia. We need to see ourselves.