Discovering that you and your favorite mutants share a deep connection isn’t easy.
I make it no secret that I’m a big kid at heart. Video games and comics are my entertainment outlet like some people use sports or soap operas. Most of the t-shirts I wear in the summer feature at least one superhero, and, thanks to Netflix, I can watch the cartoons I used to run home/wake up early on weekends for with new eyes. While most of them aren’t nearly as good as I remember, one has actually become better with age: “X-Men: The Animated Series.”
Everyone knows the story of the X-Men but in case you don’t, here it is:
There are a group of people called mutants, born with traits and powers that make them different from normal people. They fight for their respect, and for the freedom of all mankind, in a world that both hates and fears them.
And as I watched it growing up in inner city Brooklyn, they subconsciously reminded me of archetypes of people I saw in my own community. While I was still at an age where I was learning that one day I, too, would have a place, this cartoon was like a window to a world similar to mine where differences were both celebrated and vilified.
The leader of the X-Men, Professor X, is a pacifist who believes that both normal humans and mutants can live together in harmony. He possesses a an attitude that “one day, we shall overcome.” His rival, and often archenemy, Magneto, chooses to fight for mutant liberation “by any means necessary.” As much as they antagonize each other in their beliefs, when they finally do work together, they don’t even need their powers to quite literally beat the crap out of dinosaurs and take over a foreign land.
The X-Men’s field leader, Cyclops, is a soldier in every sense of the word. However, though he has the courage, leadership, and faith to achieve Professor Xavier’s dream, he lacks the vision to see what really makes that dream worth fighting for.
Beast is as brilliant and poetic as he is strong and agile. Yet, most cannot not look past his animal-like appearance.
Wolverine is considered an animal but really he’s just a man whose rage comes from a long and difficult struggle to find who he is. All he ever wants is peace but is blind to the hard truth that the world will never allow him to have it.
And Storm … wow.
Imagine being a child growing up in a home where the only parent is a black woman, then seeing a black woman on TV who not only has the awesome power to control the weather but also has the strength and wisdom to serve as field commander of the X-Men. Considered to be one of the most powerful superheroes on Earth, she is also one of few people in the universe able to wield Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, a tool that only gods are supposed to be able to lift. In its own way, watching Storm command the very elements of Earth itself made me feel like I was in even better company.
Every week I would pay full attention to all the characters as they struggled for the right to be treated with respect and dignity. Not only because it was cool to see how they would use their different powers each week, but because I started to see similarities in the enemies they faced as well. Like me, they had plenty of foes that represented archetypes I saw on the news and in my neighborhood.
The Sentinels were a force that attacked in large numbers with more power and authority than mutantkind. Most humans, to whom they were symbols of strength and safety, applauded their services. They struck fear and hatred into the mutants, who viewed them as symbols of oppression.
Senator Robert Kelly, a politician determined to enforce anti-mutant policies and agendas, only changed his prejudiced attitudes after those he most despised saved his life.
The Juggernaut was an unstoppable behemoth too stupid and spiteful of the success and acclamation of his half-brother and mutant, Professor X, to learn to express himself through any other means than violence. He was a moron. All he ever did was boast how great he was from behind a mask.
Their worst enemy, however, the place where they found the most brutal opposition, was from within their own kind. Hence the never-ending (well, until the series was cancelled) fight for mutant rights.
I was hooked from the first episode when Storm said the most mind-blowing sentence that I had heard at that age: “People fear what they don’t understand.”
It captivated me. I thought about how much that answered the questions I started to form in my head about the way the world viewed me because of my skin color. While on the surface it was just another Saturday morning cartoon used to pedal action figures to kids and give us another reason to beat the hell out of each other play fighting during recess, when I reflect on it now, it became a kind of fable on what it would be like growing up black in this world. Through watching my favorite superheroes fight for equality, I learned the hard fact that I, too, would be hated and feared simply because I was born different.
While the stories produced since “The Animated Series” have drifted far away from their original commentary on human relations and become more action-oriented, I’m still a fan of the original characters and won’t forget what they meant to me. I’ve held dear the stories of the world being threatened and saved time and again by these warriors of modern folklore. Through a variety of my own real-life battles, I’ve found my own superpower in writing.
My first day in college, I was introduced to a socio-political magazine. Everyone said it was a racist paper because most of the writers were black or Latino and expressed newly discovered perspectives on what it meant to be brown-skinned in this world. Once I read through an issue I fell in love. It reminded me of my first comic book.
It was a platform where I could freely discuss my newly discovered views on race and culture. Fighting hard to hone my writing skills, I became editor-in-chief. However, having a very small staff, we were always in trouble of having our funding pulled by the school. But, I was determined to not let this magazine die.
I used Professor X as an example of how I wanted to bring this magazine to a respectable place. I recruited nearly every student who was passionate in voicing his or her opinions about the ills of our world while forming a complete sentence. Within two semesters, I more than quadrupled the staff, tripled the production, and introduced a new Latino-based side to the magazine. Though some of the things I did were met with skepticism, controversy, and some well-deserved disgust, I still look back at that time and have nothing but pride and appreciation for the work my team and I did.
Among the most notable moments, however, was when my mentor, himself a former editor of this college paper, asked me just days before graduation what I had learned and how I had learned it. While I had studied a good amount of history, and a good amount African-American history, at school, and found new heroes in Stokely Carmichael, Ida B. Wells, and others, I left him speechless. He asked me about my motivation, my inspiration. My reply:
Since graduating from that role of editor, I made it my purpose to serve the up and coming in my community as a youth educator with a number of nonprofits for a couple years, volunteering as a mentor for four years and also hosting a weekly radio show where we discuss a number of topics affecting the youth today.
Even with these accomplishments, I still deal with the devastating reality that the melanin in my skin is what defines me most to people who see me. Often, it doesn’t define me at all, but defines a stereotype. Some women still clutch their purses near me on the subway. Some people still try to knock me over as if I’m invisible. And, every once in a blue moon, some runs to the corner of the elevator when I step on in fear that I will rob or hurt them in some way. No matter how polite I am, how I’m dressed, if I’m reading a book or listening to music quietly, some people see my skin and think, impulsively, “here comes trouble.”
Recently, I found myself in that 17% of African-American males currently unemployed due to the economic recession. Waking up everyday knowing that I was a statistic, something I strived hard not to be, even ran away from in some instances, I became a lot more sensitive to the subject of race. And given the preference that the modern-day media circus loves to give to the Antoine Dodson’s and Herman Cain’s of the black community, that sensitivity turned to shame and humiliation at the skin I wear.
With nothing but time on my hands and job rejection letters I didn’t want to reply to, I skimmed through the Netflix library and found the old X-Men cartoons that had been such a milestone in my childhood. I started watching the series from the first episode, and something happened that did not expect. I cried.
Here I was, a grown man sobbing while watching a cartoon for teen boys, as I was taken back to that moment in my childhood when the world became a less innocent place for me, when I became conscious of a set a hideous realities. And as I watched these heroes fight villains with the most fantastic powers, every ounce of hatred I ever felt because of my skin color exploded.
I thought of every time I was followed in a store. Every n-word joke said in the predominantly Caucasian middle school I attended. Every time I watched the news and knew what race committed each crime based on whether the criminal’s face was shown. The pain flooded and crashed through every levee I placed in my mind to keep safe the hopes I had of ever being considered human.
“People fear what they don’t understand.” Hearing that line took me back to that special Saturday morning when I realized that I, like the heroic mutants that fascinated me, was different. Carrying the weight of that difference for so long took its toll on me. It left me with no choice but to finally drop it for a while and heal through tears.
While I have since come back to terms with race relations, it doesn’t mean I won’t have another breakdown. Being black, like being a mutant, is both a gift and a curse. There are times that you can feel the utmost pride, and times that you can feel sorrow and guilt. There are times when I want to revel in the beautiful struggle that it is to be black in America and times where I despise it so much that I was born this way.
I can’t control the way the world views my color, but can control how I react to it. Even in “post-racial” America, racism and bigotry are still very much alive and well. It is true that people fear what they do not understand, but, like the X-Men, I can’t let that fear stop me from living. I can only keep fighting, one day at a time.
—Photo JD Hancock/Flickr