The first 20 times I saw Rocky III (the one with Mr. T as Clubber Lang, that bad n-word that sullied the championship so bad, the “respectable” black, retired champion Apollo Creed joined forces with Rocky to take him down), I didn’t know that the Rocky Balboa statue in that 1982 film actually existed in Philadelphia, the home of real-life legendary boxer Joe Frazier. Did Joltin’ Joe, the man who went to war with Muhammad Ali three times, ever get honored by his hood with a statue? Well, yeah—but only a year ago, four years after he died.
Now let’s meditate on how many statues black female heroes of any kind have received. (And no, I don’t count the Statue of Liberty.) Civil rights legend Rosa Parks has been sculpted and publicly placed in many American public places, including the Capitol in Washington, D.C. She’s near Sojourner Truth, who has a bust there, and at least one statue in Massachusetts. I’m sure there are some others.
The point I’m trying to make is that honors for real-life black people, especially black women, come hard, while tributes to white fantasy characters come easy. Example: Just last week, the United Nations thought it was doing a good, smart and cool thing by naming Wonder Woman its honorary ambassador of women and girls.
What now? What happened to all the African or Asian women who have been fighting for women and girls for decades?
Cristina Gallach, a senior UN spokeswoman, addressed this concern at a press conference Thursday.
"To these views, I would like to say that the United Nations has many real-life women, and men—fighting for gender equality and the empowerment of women every day," she said.
Gallach cited "flesh and blood ambassadors" Graça Machel of Mozambique, Alaa Murabit of Libya, Leÿcmah Gbowee of Liberia and Queen Mathilde of Belgium for their commitment to fighting gender inequality, as well as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson and Messenger of Peace Charlize Theron.
No comment on Theron or Watson. But Machel, a radical African freedom fighter, former first lady of two African nations and a woman who just announced the Pan African Women in Media Network, a group of African female journalists, would be excellent as a U.N. role model.
Another almost-forgotten current black female world leader is Michele Montas, the former radio broadcast fighter for Haiti’s freedom with her husband, the martyred hero Jean Dominique. Montas was once a top U.N. secretary-general spokeswoman, but that’s not enough.
(Note: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has shown some interest in the topic of girls’ education. We’ll see what she does as she moves along.)
Fantasy and reality collide a little uneasily here. Wonder Woman—who, ironically, in the comics has been a U.N. ambassador representing Themyscira (the former Paradise Island)—is really not the issue; although, as an impossibly proportioned stand-in for the beauty and power of European women, she clearly could be.
But look, I’m the last one to lead an anti-superhero bag. Anyone who knows me well, or at least has read my blog—which might be the same thing in today’s culture—knows that I have been absolutely wild for Marvel and DC superheroes my entire life. (Back in the ’70s, even that newfangled film called Star Wars couldn’t dent the childhood love I had for my mag characters.)
I’ve owned thousands of superhero comics, scores of action figures and hundreds of hours of superhero, animated product. I’m first in line for the Thursday-night screening of any Marvel film. A few years ago, I used to joke that I was the only Pan-Africanist I knew who owned a life-size Captain America shield. (At one point, I actually owned two—one for the office, one for home.) So I get the temptation of the United Nations to make a publicity-soaked, social-content splash using the fantasy versions of ourselves.
But superheroes, ultimately, are 20th-century, American mass media creations that emerged from the internal constructs of the collective unconscious. As folktale characters, the stories they star in force us to find our own powers from within. But as much as we may love their exciting, symbolic stories, they are not literal representations of our power. And we can’t block out the idea that superheroes are also white-created commercial products of white conglomerates.
For almost 80 years, these characters have been extremely seductive advertisements for magazines, toys, trade paperbacks, animation, television programs and movies. They are among the most acceptable and accessible symbols of American capitalism, loved by those 8 to 80. So I actually found myself against the idea of a Captain America statue being unveiled in Brooklyn, N.Y., to celebrate his 75th anniversary earlier this year.
But black women and women of color, whose heroes emerge from history and blood, don’t need to list fantasy characters. Young girls of any kind can look up to Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousufzai. Or activist Bree Newsome. Or radical legends Angela Davis, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Diane Nash, our ancestor Fannie Lou Hamer and a score of black female leaders of the Black Panther Party, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding in Oakland, Calif., this past weekend.
No strong shade thrown here on the Amazon princess; Wonder Woman has always been fun to see and read. Hell, Lynda Carter, TV’s Wonder Woman of the 1970s, made her series debut as president of the United States Monday night on the CW’s Supergirl! But she’s not needed in the real world of the 2016 United Nations, which is trying to showcase a very real, protracted battle around the world for girls’ education. And she definitely doesn’t need honors, honorary or not, that could go to any of the thousands of women of color fighting around the world for women and girls.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.