« Some people wondered why Black Panther was such a fuss among Black people, and that all movies should be celebrated equally. I want to respond that I actually wish for them to never understand that whole fuss, because understanding it could mean that they have actually suffered from underrepresentation. »
You nailed it, I wore a Beninese traditional outfit to watch the Black Panther movie, even though the movie came out during the Canadian winter and that, since I couldn’t wear a warm coat, I had to freeze most of the way to the movie theater. The idea came from my brother and sister, and I wasn’t thrilled at first – it seemed very complicated. But, on the due date, the second I saw my sister in her outfit, I was so ready. I mixed up something and here I was, heading to the theater with my family and friends.
It was the most thrilling experience in my life. And I can’t even begin to describe it properly. The all Black cast, the story, the fun, the decors… Don’t get me wrong, the movie wasn’t the best Marvel I’ve watched, but it was the one that would mark a change in my life, and hopefully in my children’s life.
Why ? Because I was on the screen. Because I could be a hero. And because I would finally be able to find a cosplay that actually looked like me (meaning without looking completely ridiculous).
In a traditional Beninese outfit. Credits: Iman Eyitayo
And why does it matter ? Well, most people, who do not have representation issue, can’t grasp the whole meaning of that question. Imagine being raised in a world where every movie star, every book, every manga and every TV shows only features people who didn’t look like you. It’s probably hard, right ? It is the life of most black people. Personally I grew up with books, films, series and cartoons that only features white characters. It’s not bad, really, but it never occurred to me, as I was growing up, that I could do all these things that my heroes were doing. It wasn’t even in my realm of the possible, in my reality. And even after I left my country, Benin, to come to France at the age of fifteen, it took me eight years just to realize that I could be a « successful » writer. And I only really realized that when I learned that Alexandre Dumas, one of my favorite authors and one of France’s big name of literature, was part Black.
Ps. For those who don’t know Alexandre Dumas, he is author of the three Musqueteers. He is also known for his interactions with his fellow authors at the time, who believed he had a ghost writer since he was writing way too fast. Nobody knows exactly if he had one or not, but according to my research (and Wikipedia), the term « nègre littéraire » which translate roughly to « literary negro » and actually means « ghost writer » was created for him, because of his origins and color. Recently the expression has been changed to « prête-plume », which is less racist and actually closer to the meaning of « ghost writer ».
So, Learning that Alexandre Dumas was part Black was such a shock to me that it actually took two tries for my brain to accept that. The first time I heard it, I denied it : it simply wasn’t possible (and if you think I have a problem, trust me, I told the news to all my Black friends and none of them believed me). It’s only the second time that I actually registered it. And it clicked. If he could be a writer, I could be, too. And you know what ? I’m a writer, today. But let’s imagine I never had that reality check ? I would have lived my whole life to the expectation of society : invisible, silent. And that’s why representation matters. Because it allows children to picture themselves as heroes, whether in real life or not. It makes them feel like they actually matter. It allows them to dream.
So, next time someone tells you that representation doesn’t matter, tell them the story of a black girl who, despite being very educated (I got my baccalaureate at fifteen and got three master degree), didn’t know she could be an internationally renowned writer until she realized someone had done that way before her.
And To those who will say that they know of many black successful writers and start naming them, I have to say this : if you are able to name them all, that means there aren’t that much actually. I couldn’t name all the white successful writers in history if I could, because it’s not something that « happens » from time to time for the world, it’s a reality. And that’s what we need : a new reality. In books, on TV, everywhere. We need to represent all sorts of people so that they can feel, from an early age, « real », capable, accepted in society : well, normal.
Credits for the photo at the top: https://teaser-trailer.com/movie/black-panther/