Article originally posted on Black Agenda Report (click link for original)
The new Marvel Black Panther movie premieres this Friday. I’ll get around to seeing it maybe this weekend or soon after. I read a lot of comic books when I was very young, Fantastic Four and the first Spiderman among them. The Black Panther character came along after I discarded comics as something for kids, in favor of paperback science fiction and fantasy. By my junior year of high school I gave up science fiction too. A lot of it was frankly racist, and even when it wasn’t the authors would depict humanity hundreds or thousands of years in the future, spread across the stars and galaxies but still ruled by kings and queens and princes. I knew just enough about the world to know that was looking backward, not forward. Why couldn’t the authors of science fiction see this? Most places on earth had already thrown off rule by royalty and hereditary elites, and even when they didn’t mean it they were obligated to pretend they practiced or believed in something more democratic.
The Black Panther movie’s main characters are black and beautiful and all, but the lead guys are still a king and a brutha who wants to be king. The king is one of the richest people in the world – except for Spiderman I never heard of a comic book character worried about where next month’s rent would come from – and he rules over a fictional African country called Wakanda, a place loaded with technology so advanced it’s able to conceal its wealth and achievement from the rest of the planet.
I’m a senior citizen now, and it’s a little sad that apart from making the sheroes and heroes black and beautiful, which is sort of necessary but not nearly sufficient, comics and sci fi, at least the stuff brought to us by capitalist corporate media pretty much fails to imagine what a better world, or even the struggle to get there might look like.
If it’s so difficult for creative writers even to imagine a better world, or the struggle to make it better that might say a lot about about why it’s so difficult to move the needle out here in the real world.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago and attending a high school on the west side I caught the subway – the el to locals every day to and from school. I noticed all the cars had plaques telling us they were made by the St. Louis Car Company, except a new model subway car with no identifying markers introduced in the 1960s. 20 years later I got a job at Pullman Standard, the site of the historic 1893 Pullman Strike where we manufactured Amtrak cars, NY subway cars, Boston transit cars and such.
One day I ate lunch alone out in the yard, and getting up I looked at what I’d been sitting on. It was a mold of the end of one of those unidentified Chicago Transit Authority cars. I ran into the nearest building to ask the old timers had they ever manufactured CTA cars here. Absolutely, they said, pointing up at the row of CTA decals.
That day, instead of going home I detoured up to the 95th St. station, the end of the line. I waited for one of the trains with no markers of origin to pull in, and when the passengers stepped off the train I stepped on looking for identifying plaques saying that this train had been manufactured not two miles away by south siders of my dad’s generation. No luck. I asked the mostly black CTA workers who operated and maintained the trains. They didn’t know either, and were frankly surprised when I told them these were built right down the street.
I thought it was a lot like Star Trek, with all the people are flitting and flying back and forth around the galaxy in marvelous machines but we never see the workers who built those machines. Obviously the folks who ran Chicago in the 1960s didn’t want us even imagining that we possessed the power to build, perhaps to rebuild the world around us.
So I’ll go see the Black Panther movie. But I’m not looking for a black royal family. We already had one of those. If I was writing fiction, I’d want to show real people the power they have over the real world. But that’s just me.