Why Black Panther and Representation Matters

Representation has the ability to awaken the spirit of justice within the human soul.

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By: Marlon A. Smith, Ph.D., Senior Manager, Policy and Engagement

For the last few weeks I have struggled to write something—anything–about Black History Month that would seem relevant and inspiring to others. However, with everything that has taken place in the last year I couldn’t help but wonder what significance Black History Month really has on our nation.

Few people, particularly in our national public discourse, seem interested in reading or talking about the legacy or importance of Black History and culture. Instead, our politics is occupied with how to shut people out of society with border walls and voter suppression tactics. Hate speech and blatant racial disdain, masked as “telling it like it is” has replaced civil discourse and compassion. And, somewhere in time decency and respect have come to be thought of by too many as “political correctness.”

In light of this ever increasing phenomenon infecting our nation, I didn’t feel that Black History Month offered any tangible impact on our nation’s consciousness. Highlighting the great work of recently deceased EBONY editor and scholar Lerone Bennett, Jr. wouldn’t console the brothers sitting in our jails and prisons.

It seemed rather insignificant to mention Nikki Giovanni speaking at the Houston Public Library’s annual Black History Month event, after the recent gun shootings on high school and college campuses in Florida and across the United States. Even, the growing excitement for Marvel’s soon-to-be released Black Panther movie wanes under the social media criticism that it promotes “reverse racism” because producers dared to cast mostly Black actors for this movie which is set within a fictional city in Africa.

“Through her words she reminded me why I have reason to be hopeful and proud this Black History Month.”

Yet, just as I was about to give up any hope for thinking or talking about Black History Month Michelle Obama’s recent speech at the unveiling of her White House portrait for the Smithsonian Institute appeared on my Facebook timeline. I listened to the former first lady talk about the power of representation, and the importance it has on the lives of people, particularly young black children who often lack any representations of themselves in public spaces. Through her words she reminded me why I have reason to be hopeful and proud this Black History Month.

An image of a black family—not chained and shackled, but poised and confident—is indelibly inscribed in the hallmark of one of our greatest American institutions.

In that moment I had to remember that Black History Month is more than just stopping to honor the history, culture and legacy of black people. It is also about understanding the power of representation. Representation has the ability to awaken the spirit of justice within the human soul. It can translate meaning when words and actions fall short. And like the Obama’s pictorial, it can bring new people hidden in the shadows to the forefront. Most importantly, it has the ability to impact generations not yet born.

We at BakerRipley realize the power of representation. With our upcoming Black Lives Houston publication we have helped to bring new and diverse black voices to the public’s attention. Our partnering with institutions such as Texas Southern University and My Brother’s Keeper brings opportunities to address new challenges and reveal marginalized communities that are often ignored.

In fact, the recent hiring of our new CEO, Claudia Aguirre, is BakerRipley’s institutional understanding of the power of representation. She, like Michelle Obama, embodies that diversity our nation needs to see—a strong vibrant, Mexican American Woman who immigrated to this country as a child!

Yes, representation matters, because it changes our expectations!

So for me this Black History Month is not just about looking back. It is not even about looking forward. But rather, it is about looking at this current moment and the opportunities it offers to highlight new faces, new voices, and new experiences.

And by the way that also means going to see Black Panther when it opens!
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