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Marvel Comics’ Storm and the rise of African women in American pop culture

African women are having a bit of a moment in American pop culture. From Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie to Ghanaian-Nigerian author Taiye Selasie, to Kenyan star Lupita Nyong’o, African immigrant women are finding that their stories and performances resonate with American audiences. Now, a fictional woman is joining their ranks: Ororo Munroe, known as Storm, a member of Marvel’s X-Men team.

For the first time since Storm was introduced as an X-Men character in the 1970s, she is getting her own solo comic . Even as a supporting character or member of an ensemble, Storm’s done it all. She’s been an African queen, a street thief, an X-Men team leader and the headmistress of the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning. In the world of comic book fantasy where black characters are scarce, the fact that Storm was one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe was a point of pride growing up. Because of Storm, I knew I could be a black girl and a superhero, too!

In the first several pages of her latest adventure, we see Storm protecting a poor tropical village in a place called Santo Marco against an incoming tsunami. Later in the story, she encounters fierce resistance from an armed group intent on forcibly relocating Santo Marco’s inhabitants in order to clear room for a new hotel resort.

She feels split as to where she belongs: Does she belong on the ground in solidarity with the oppressed black people of Santo Marco, back in the pristine halls of the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning? Or somewhere in between, riding the wind, wherever it takes her?

I would go so far as to say that Storm’s story is the superhero embodiment of the so-called “Afropolitan,” a term coined by Selasie. An “Afropolitan” is part of the vibrant generation of young African emigrants “working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.”

Storm’s penchant for riding the wind, and the many identities she has had in the past, fits the description of privileged, jet-setting educated young African emigrants who proudly wear their African heritage while pursuing educations and job opportunities abroad. And much like Storm does in Issue #1, many who identify with their African roots wrestle with reconciling their desire to pursue career excellence abroad with the feeling that they should take their talents back home to their various countries of origin to “help” people in their countries who have been oppressed by their governments or are at the mercy of predatory foreign capitalists.

These complex questions of identity and belonging as a black woman who identifies both with her African roots and with American culture are why I’m also a bit nervous about Storm’s new solo series.

“Storm is so complicated for black women,” Latoya Peterson, owner and editor of Racialicious, told me in an e-mail. “Storm is always at the mercy of the writers of the comic, and those writers aren’t always thinking about little black girls. If they think of us at all.” Storm is in the hands of writer Greg Pak and editor Daniel Ketchum, neither of whom are black, immigrant women.

In the interviews I’ve read with Ketchum and Pak, I’m not convinced they are thinking about how little black girls (or adults) could relate to Storm.

In the comic book world dominated by mostly white men, representations of black women run the risk of being relegated to the sidelines or not appear at all. But some comments they have made about Storm related to the performance of black femininity have me concerned.

In an interview with Vox, Ketchum, who is gay, confesses to being drawn to the “fierce, white-haired black woman wearing a bikini and a cape” at a young age. (The word “fierce” features several times in descriptions of Storm’s character). When pressed to suggest names of actresses who could replace Halle Berry in playing Storm, Ketchum suggests Lupita, Beyonce, Gabourey Sibide or Janelle Monae, but he might “insist that they get some pointers from RuPaul before filming begins!”

Maybe Ketchum meant to suggest RuPaul as an alternative to the kinds of exaggerated sexuality that we so often see in superhero comics. But the idea plays into other stereotypes. For once, can black women NOT be the “sassy,” “fierce” “drama queens” to everyone else? If the scale is going to run from Halle Berry to RuPaul, I would hope that the next on-screen representation of Storm might lie somewhere in that often-ignored, but exciting middle.