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GUEST COMMENTARY: ‘Black Panther’ is a soaring hit, but my first black heroes didn’t wear capes

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The “Black Panther” got me thinking: Black heroes aren’t that hard to find. For me, they were the men and women of my childhood who taught my math, history, science and Sunday school classes, those who knocked down the walls of segregated police and fire departments; and those who scaled the ladders of injustice in business, sports and politics.

They were the historic figures slighted in the textbooks of our freshly integrated schools: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Charles Drew, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Crispus Attucks, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, Paul Cuffee, Benjamin Banneker, Ida B. Wells …

The list could fill the rest of this space and then some.

There were, however, no black “superheroes” projected on TV and movie screens, despite the likes of mighty men and women of sports — Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Wilma Rudolph, Jackie “Fritz” Pollard, Althea Gibson.

Our on-screen heroes always had more subdued, less fantastic obligations: They had to survive Act 1, Scene 1.

They had to shatter the stereotypical step-and-fetch-it, shuckin’ and jivin’ depictions that kept the world in the dark about our intellectual, moral and physical abilities. Asians, Native Americans and Latinos can make the same claim.

The first black actor who made me stand up and cheer was Sidney Poitier.

His elegant, dignified presence — both on and off the screen — gave me a sense of self, an identity to which I could relate and aspire.

His cape, if you will, was his mind, poise and masterful command of proper English.

To this day, I tell anyone who asks that the best compliment I got as a boy was when a middle-aged white executive struck up a conversation with me while I was waxing the floor of the business where he worked.

I was still in high school, and I worked jobs before and after class from the time I turned 12. This was one of those jobs — sweeping, mopping and waxing floors at businesses after they closed for the night.

So this guy asks me, “Where are you from — where were you born?”

“I’m from here,” I told him, “the United States. I was born in East Texas, where I still live.”

Astonished, he said, “You have an excellent command of the King’s language.”

A black kid can never forget a statement like that. It’s both a compliment and a jab.

The “Black Panther” film breaks the mold. It creates a world in which a black superhero, his gifts and gadgets notwithstanding, can just be himself.

“It’s a little like witnessing the unveiling of an enormous statue on the public square — with the public square being the world — of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela dressed in bright dashikis,” former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.

This may sound nitpicky, but I agree with another point Abdul-Jabbar made about the movie.

“One misstep is the hand-to-hand combat that anoints T’Challa the Black Panther and king of Wakanda,” he wrote. “While physical prowess is necessary for an action hero, it is not the main attribute of a king. I would have preferred to see a challenge that involved a combination of intelligence, wisdom and athleticism over just brawling. The fight undercuts the logic of Wakanda being so technologically advanced.”

What I found most encouraging is that the movie left my own biracial children with the distinct impression that if a “superhero” is called to save the day, he — or she — could actually look like a Sidney Poitier or a Shirley Chisholm.

And no one would be surprised, even if we can’t get our hands on any Vibranium.