Luke Cage: How a black boy became a superhero
As an African American boy growing up in The Projects, discovering positive black characters helped to save my life.
My memories of that long ago are like found photographs, all sepias and faded greens.
A cold, silent room. Bright white lights and blue sheets that smelled like my grandma’s house. A sewing needle and scissors on a steel table. A man who lied and a woman who held the hand of a scared, 10-year-old boy.
I don’t remember how many stitches I got that day, but I remember being disappointed that it was terribly few. Less than 10. Not a heroic number at all. A hero would have hundreds or, more likely, none at all.
The series of events that led me to the emergency room at Erie County Medical Center that September so long ago has never struck me as particularly memorable. Like so many of the myriad events of childhood, the images were forgotten in a dust-covered box in the back of the closet of my mind. There they sat until I stumbled upon them at the end of this past September, some 36 years later.
For many people in Western New York State, the end of September 1980 was a terrifying time. The week immediately before my trip to the emergency room was filled with news stories of a serial killer, prowling a three county area and stealing the lives of the innocent with utter impunity. He preyed on our souls and fed our fears. No one was safe.
Reading over the news stories with 36 years of context, it’s obvious that not everyone was afraid – the serial killer was exclusively preying on black (and later Hispanic) people – but the perspectives of children are wonderfully myopic. The 10-year-old me knew that everyone was consumed with fear that The .22 Caliber Killer was coming for them. The 10-year-old me also knew that I could not be afraid. I knew I had to be a hero.
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Of course, being a hero was new to me. I was a child in The Projects. Like any kid, I had dreams of what I wanted to be: an astronaut, a scientist. But the realities of life often descend early upon the the poor and, despite my dreams, I knew that the destiny of a poor kid in The Projects was to remain forever poor and in The Projects.
My only real escape was books, and comic books were particularly special to me. But escaping into stories was temporary. After I read the last page, I knew I had to come back to the same reality.
Until one day when, browsing around the “heavily used” section at the back of the comic book store, I discovered a black superhero. I was forever changed.
Grass was green, the sky was blue, and superheroes were white
Before opening that comic book, I never questioned my heroes. Grass was green, the sky was blue, and superheroes were white. Certain things I never thought to question because I had no ability to comprehend that anything different was possible. The roles I saw black people play were basically limited to servility or criminality. People who looked like my dad were not superheroes. I could never be a superhero.
But suddenly I was staring at a comic book and there was a black character who was not a drug addict, a janitor, or a thief. There was a real black superhero.
A bird born to a cage might live in ignorant happiness, never knowing there even exists an open sky to pine for. But having freely flown above the trees, a cage will forever be a confinement. Like a bird, the sky opened above me to a sense of freedom I never knew could exist. I could never again be happy without that sky.
If that character could be a superhero, then I could be an astronaut, or a scientist. Maybe life in The Projects was not my destiny. Things could be different, I could be different.
I could be a hero.
No one will ever convince me that representation in sports, the arts, and media is not important. I have felt how important it is. In many ways, it was the discovery of positive black characters that saved my life. I’ve heard similar thoughts from many others.
The response of young black girls to the recent Olympics showed that it is still very important to the under-represented. Tim Burton’s response to questions about his casting showed me that this is still very much a struggle. I know how important that struggle is. I know that seeing a hero who looks like you is a special kind of magic.
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Because, when the .22 Caliber Killer reigned over western New York and forced the entire region to cower in fear, I knew that I could stand and fight. I knew that I must protect my family. And one afternoon, my family needed my protection. And I was there, in the front yard of my cousin’s house, twirling my staff above my head and spinning to deliver a roundhouse kick that would finally defeat the notorious .22 Caliber Killer when, suddenly, I slipped in the mud, fell down, and the broken tree branch I was playing with went straight into my ear. I screamed, my mother ran outside, and the next thing I knew I was in the emergency room sitting under bright white lights and learning that doctors who say “this won’t hurt” are lying.
Now, I realise that beating yourself up is one of the more embarrassing debut performances of a superhero. But do give me some credit. My ear would heal, and my pride was only bruised. I had flown over the tree tops, and I could never go back.
On September 30, Netflix premiered a new show, and I cast my thoughts back to a forgotten September so long ago. There, in the back of the closet of my mind, I found a forgotten box of old photographs of a boy who opened a comic book about a superhero named Luke Cage.
There before me were the sepia-toned images of a poor kid in The Projects who had flown over the tree tops. Faded green pictures of a boy who, for the first time, saw a superhero who looked like him. A boy who suddenly believed that he could become anything he dreamed.
John Metta has worked as a cook, groundskeeper, store clerk, park ranger, Navy submariner, Army wartime medic, hydrologist, school teacher, software developer, mathematical modeller, and underwater archaeologist. Before any of these jobs, and during them all, he was writing. Always writing.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.