I grew up in the presence of superheroes. One was my father, another my mother. Then there were two of my father’s college friends, men with whom I became somewhat familiar. One was Bill Garrett, the first man to break the color barrier in Big Ten basketball. He is shown in the picture below, second from the right. You might recognize the next person to the left: Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals in Track and Field at the 1936 Berlin Olympics put the lie to Hitler’s claims of a master race.
The man I grew up knowing as Mr. Garrett was an All-American at Indiana University.
Another friend of my father’s was Dr. James Roberson. He was on the track team with my father, and he placed fourth in the decathlon at the Olympic Trials, missing the team by just one spot. He was also one of only a few blacks admitted to the IU medical school when he graduated. He became a prominent ob-gyn on the eastern seaboard. My family spent the night at his house in Rochester, NY, and his at ours in Indianapolis, IN. His son – James Jr. – and I became friends while he was on the basketball team at IU, where I was in graduate school at the time.
Dad, Jim, and three other large fellows crammed themselves into a sedan and went to compete in the Penn Relays. It was during that road trip that my father received his first taste of how difficult it was for blacks to travel in America in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Finding establishments where three whites and two blacks could eat or sleep was problematic.
I think this constitutes an appropriate introduction to the topic of breaking the superhero color line, and Marvel Comics took the lead in this area. In a video interview, writer Stan Lee once mentioned some of the resistance he encountered when he introduced black characters into his stories. He and artist Jack Kirby (who were both Jewish) created the first black superhero to appear in comics. He was T’Challa, prince of Wakanda. a.k.a. the Black Panther. He made his debut in July of 1966 in Fantastic Four #52.
Falcon was the first African American superhero, a man named Sam Wilson. He first appeared in 1969 in Captain America #117.
In 1972, Luke Cage appeared as a new category of superhero in Hero for Hire #1. This one interests me since he is so different: a former convict subjected to experiments in prison. The idea obviously draws from real life abuses that were once hidden from the public eye. Luke comes out of this mistreatment with super strength and unbreakable skin, and he works the grittier end of the Marvel spectrum.
In 1975, Storm was introduced as the first black female superhero. Born Ororo Munroe in NYC to a Kenyan princess and an American photographer, she becomes an orphan when her parents are killed in Cairo, Egypt. She scratches out her survival as a thief in the streets of Cairo, is mistaken for a goddess, and is ultimately recruited by Professor Xavier to join the X-Men. As her name implies, she has the power to control weather. Her first appearance was in Giant-Size X-Men #1.
As in the case of many superheroes, it is interesting to watch their evolution both conceptually and artistically in the hands of different writers and artists. The changes can be intriguing, exciting, upsetting, and controversial depending on one’s point of view, but their mere existence generated controversy at one time, making their creation of observable social and cultural significance.