As the sun rises on the blockbuster Black Panther movie, it illuminates the work of Louisiana Black creatives including an English professor who writes and lectures on Afrofuturism, a comic creator who uses historic air legends to pen a new future, and an artist who embraces the imagery and passion of Afrofantasy in developing the culture for his labor of love.
A recent Baton Rouge expo brought the three together. Mid City Micro-Con: Welcome to Wakanda was a launch party for the release of Marvel’s Black Panther. The micro-con had a Black Panther theme highlighting a range of comic styles and fandom groups. It featured discussion panels, a comics and arts marketplace, cosplay, workshops, film screenings, games, and competitions.
The Black creative forces in attendance were quick to explain that Black Panther isn’t revealing the birth of impactful Black roles in the sci-fi, comic book world, but it is shining light on the efforts that have been at play for decades, if not centuries. LSU professor Isiah Lavender III is a latter-day scribe who melds race, science fiction and historic fact vs. fiction. He’s a New Yorker who attended Southern University, completed his master’s work at LSU, and returned to teach at LSU after earning a Ph.D.
Lavender is the author of Race in American Science Fiction and Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction. Lavender studies American literature and popular culture with an emphasis on Black American literature. “I study race and ethnicity in speculative fiction, particularly Black writers in the science fiction genre,” he said. “I think the more important question is why study race in science fiction at all?”
Consuming his theme, Afrofuturism, is no easy task. He explains that Afrofuturism involves the past, present and future of race in sci-fi. “Science fictional Blackness comes into being, dating back to the enlightenment era that remains as a part of the world into this contemporary age,” Lavender said. “I mean science fictional in a sense that these flights of fancy have used science to create a fiction of race as it is applied to Black people, indeed, all people of color.”
“Now Afrofuturism has emerged to understand the science-fictional existence that Blacks have always experienced living in the new world, an unreality driven by economic demands, would-be science, and skin color.”
Lavender uses a plethora of beautiful words that signify that he really “liked” Black Panther and is thrilled that this movie, with such a strong Black influence is seeing great success at the Box Office. “We want to see complex images of race and racism and we want to discuss the implications,” he said. “We want to see Black creators do their own thing.”
Enter children’s book author Greg Burnham ready to do his own thing with Tuskegee Heirs. Burnham is a graduate of Bossier High School and Grambling State University. He and his co-creator Marcus Williams, comic artist and illustrator, have developed a fictional world based on the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, Black World War II pilots.
Tuskegee Heirs is a futuristic sci-fi that takes place about 80 years from the present in a time when man-piloting is illegal. All air flight is remote or with the use of drones. “These five teen pilots are learning how to fly in the old P-51s that the Tuskegee Airmen flew,” Burnham explained.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, that later became the U.S. Air Force. They received their training at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama and flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and helped encourage the integration of the American military.
The celebration of Black Panther was also the celebration of #BlackCreatives and the Tuskegee Heirs creators showed no evidence of competition. In fact, Tuskegee Heirs hosted an exclusive Black Panther movie premier event for fans in Atlanta.
Tuskegee Heirs stands with Black Panther in many ways including the use of strong female characters: Ayanna, a unit leader; Genesis, the mission briefer; and Jena, the mechanic. Tuskegee Heirs is a six-book series that the creators hope to push toward animation.
Flying solo and not far behind is Baton Rouge visual artist Antoine “GHOST” Mitchell who has nurtured a stunningly beautiful collection and is moving toward a comic book release.
Mitchell’s labor of love, Sankofa’s Eymbrace, is scheduled to be finished at the end of this year. He describes his concept as “Afrofantasy.” He employs fantasy settings, but the characters are Black people. “I’m taking elements of different African spiritualities and ways of life and building something imaginative from that much like what JRR Tolkien did with the Lord of the Rings, taking a lot of Norse mythology,” Mitchell said.
If differs from Afrofuturism, but his admiration and excitement for Afrofuturism is through the roof. Mitchell explained that Afrofuturism, as what is seen with Black Panther and Wakanda, does not mean the setting is in the future, but that it employs futuristic technology emerged in the current time setting. It is “a marriage of sci-fi and Black culture.”
Mitchell’s art is vibrant, stunning and Afrocentric. He has not summarized his storyline, but the words released in conception reflect his background in poetry as well as art:
In the beginning was the beat.
The beat became the Dual Rhythm.
The Dual Rhythm became Sankofa, the two Swans of Balance.
They would become the A’she, or Magical Spiritual Energy,
Wielded by the chosen Sankofa Children
Who would stand against the reoccurring force of DysOrder.
Mitchell sees a refreshing wind blowing as more embrace the hashtag #BlackCreatives. “They are anyone who is Black and creative working in creative industries like movies, comics, cosplays, jewelry making, artists, and more,” he said.
Mitchell, growing up in a small rural town in East Feliciana Parish, sparked an imagination that helped him embrace worlds like Wakanda and realms now open for travel through Afrofuturism and Afrofantasy. “I’ve been doing this since I was 11 and always wanted to do comic books,” he said. “I had this idea of wanting to do super hero-type comic books, but after I got more into fantasy, I wanted to create something that tells an epic story and uses a lot of elements that I’ve mentioned.”
Story and photos by Frances Y. Spencer
Jozef Syndicate reporter
BONUS: Blerd-ish podcast–https://www.mixcloud.com/blerdish1/mid-city-micro-con-special/–promoting the Mid City Micro-Con! Guests include Samantha Belmont, organizer; TaLynn Kel, Cosplay Judge and Body Image in Comics & Cosplay Panelist; and Chenese Lewis, Body Image in Comics & Cosplay Panelist!