After completing close readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, my brain is swimming with many themes regarding early American literature. Perspective, power, the black body, and tokenism are all relevant. Connecting these ideas to a contemporary piece of American literature leads me to Black Panther created by Marvel Comics.
Originally a comic book series, first making its appearance in 1966, Black Panther saw a resurgence in popularity when its movie adaptation released in the spring of 2018. Like the earlier pieces of literature I chose, the superhero universe is dominated by white characters but Black Panther offers a black protagonist, T’Challa and his superhero identity, Black Panther.
I see the creation of the movie in 2018 as I see the republication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in the 1960s. The movie came out during a time impacted by the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Jacobs’ narrative saw its new popularity during the Civil Rights Movement. Both of these are examples of times when black people were fighting for their freedom in America and needed empowerment. Is the Black Panther movie a capitalistic ploy to make money knowing that there was a need for black representation in media? Or was it actually a step in the right direction towards diversity? The movie contains subliminal messaging about the aforementioned themes that are also present in early American literature.
From a postcolonial perspective, the movie contains multiple conflicting ideas about Africa and Africans. Although it does differ from typical problematic portrayals of black people in American films by showing them as proud and independent, it also embodies the perspective of colonialism. The movie points out the watchful eye of the Western world and calls it out, especially in the depiction of Ross’s casual disrespect to the Wakandans, and Klaue’s use of the word “savages.” Despite these examples, the movie still has some colonial tropes. Wakanda is illustrated as being advanced in technology, while still full of violence between tribal structures with fights to the death determining leadership roles. This reinforces the stereotypical image of Africa as the “dark continent” as it is referred to in earlier times. In reality, Africa contains strong, smart and successful societies. The movie displays a thin veil between black empowerment and convenient whitewashing so the perspective can only be teased out by someone who is looking for it. This relates to perspective and power in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Since slave owners viewed Africa as this dark continent, they did not view Africans as equal human beings. Black people are discussed as if they are livestock. For example, in this interaction between two slave owners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “‘Well, then, Haley, how will you trade?’ said Mr. Shelby, after an uneasy interval of silence. ‘Well, haven’t you a boy or gal that you could throw in with Tom?’ ‘Hum!—none that I could well spare’” (Stowe).
The depictions of the black body in both the comic and the movie are animalistic though strong and beautiful. As white people, do we only accept the black body when it is presented as beautiful? This brings me back to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or even Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Linda is valuable to Dr. Flint because of her appearance and physical body. In short, he wants to have sex with her. Eliza is described as beautiful and that is one reason why Mr. Shelby will not sell her, but Mr. Haley wants her. For example, after Eliza leaves the room Mr. Haley is seen “turning to him [Mr. Shelby] in admiration, “there’s an article, now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer” (Stowe). Seeing images in a comic book or live action movies produces a different effect than reading a physical description of a character. There is no room for imagination. The black bodies are presented to the viewer exactly as the creator intends. What does this say about society’s collective view of the black body? What about average, everyday black bodies? Contemporary literature is still reinforcing the destructive idea seen in early American literature that black people are only valuable if they have beautiful or strong bodies.
Speaking to the animalistic part, why is T’Challa’s superhero alter ego an animal– black animal at that? Other popular white superheroes have names like “Captain America”, “Thor”, “Iron Man” and “Deadpool.” While there are white superheroes named after animals, like “Hawkeye,” we must ask: why does the only black superhero have to be modeled after a black panther?
This thought pattern has me arriving at tokenism. There was a conversation in class about how including one slave narrative in the literary canon seems like checking off an item on a list. This inclusion is not enough to erase the effects of slavery and say, “Okay, we’re not racist now!” This movie feels like that in a way. Was the character of Black Panther created to fulfill the need for a black superhero? There are lots of parallels between early and contemporary literature if one chooses to poke around for them.
Themes that are present in early American literature have made the long haul to contemporary pieces of American literature. This is because as a society we are still dealing with many of the same problems. Early American literature contains timeless themes. For example, racism still exists today in 2018. The difference is that with the advances in technology, the way we consume these pieces of literature has changed. An example of this from class that sticks out to me the most is the time we spent discussing the Disney movie Pocahontas. In this film, the colonial encounter is presented to young viewers through rose-colored glasses. When images are displayed instead of words, there is no room for the viewer to imagine what is going on. There is a precise picture, and all viewers get the same one. This deeply impacts how the content is perceived and stored in the brain. It creates a single story.
The changeover from the written word to the film makes it more accessible and relevant. People today are more apt to watch a movie than they are to sit down and read a book. Movies can be viewed effortlessly and as many times as the viewer pleases. The clip from Pocahontas that I am referencing was easily accessed on good ole’ YouTube. Digital media allows information to be distributed at the click of a button. The ability to share a clip creates the opportunity for discussion with people anywhere in the world with an internet connection. As we have seen with software like “Hypothesis,” communicating is easier now more than ever. With technology, the conversation has no limits.