Black Girl Nerds was on to something again. The site, a place created to give women of color a place to express themselves, was popping with chatter on its Slack channel about the “Black Panther” movie. (Slack is a virtual workspace where writers and staff of the site can talk about what to write for the site.)
There, Kayla Marie Sutton, who is the director of online marketing for Black Girl Nerds (or BGN, as its followers know it), announced a Twitter campaign. It was a hashtag: #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe. The purpose was to engage BGN followers and channel the excitement around the film that comes out Friday.
The conversation ended up doing so much more.
Sutton is the Afro-Latina mastermind behind last year’s BGN Playlists on Spotify, engaging the collaboration of BGN followers, including Lin-Manuel Miranda. She is also the snarky voice behind many of BGN’s posts on all of its social media platforms. Despite her two years of working the company’s social media platforms, Sutton did not expect the new hashtag to take off as it did. But her work struck a powerful chord within the black community — the struggle to be represented in pop culture.
However, Sutton was not thinking of the community at large being represented on-screen and centered in the buildup to the “Black Panther” movie’s opening week. She was thinking of her 7-year-old son and what impact the movie and its reverberations would have on him. This motherly moment inspired the viral hashtag.
“The hashtag came from a conversation I had with my son. As a young black male with autism, I wanted to know what the film meant to him. Every time a promo for the film comes on the TV, he is visibly excited. His answer was pure and innocent, so I wanted to pose the question to others to see their responses,” she said in an interview.
Those responses came flooding all day, and continue to, as the hashtag reached viral status.
“I was NOT expecting the response it got. I got emotional and have been ever since,” she said. Before posting the tweet, which is still being retweeted a week later, she had asked other contributors in the Slack workspace to take a moment to retweet. A member of the Slack channel, I saw her request and participated. Sutton thought by sending out our own posts, we would boost the hashtag’s visibility. She ended up not needing our help at all.
By midmorning, #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe was trending in the top Twitter topics of the day.
Another shock of the day was the emotion many of the tweets evoked, especially a couple of Sutton’s favorites:
There were tweets from all sorts of people, the majority people of color. Some were avid fans of the Black Panther character and familiar with the comic’s 50-plus year history. Others eagerly awaiting the film had never cracked open a comic. Most people were drawn by the prospect of seeing a project about black people and culture, filmed by a black director (Ryan Coogler), and starring a black superhero (played by Chadwick Boseman). These were the people who posted the more personal, emotional and powerful responses to #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe.
It seems Sutton’s creation had tapped into something people of color had been struggling against for ages. There have been studies since the 1970s about the impact the lack of representation and the distortion of black culture in media has on black people. As far back as 1979, a study reported in the Journal of Communication found that “heavy exposure to white-aimed television programming causes lower self-esteem among Blacks.”
The emotion that sprang from a reversal of watching negative reflections of one’s self seeped into the tweets. Sutton was moved to tears.
The idea for the hashtag came from her son, Sutton said. “My son has been excited for this film for a while now. He reads the comics and is a HUGE fan of Avengers Assemble. He is excited to see the film.”
In my house, the movie has left this mother with added benefits: I have two tickets to an early screening, so only one of my children can go with me. My 17-year-old daughter spent a week cooking dinner for the whole family to get the tickets, and my 14-year-old son was up at the frigid crack of dawn after the last storm, shoveling paths through the nearly two feet of snow to win the spot. They both want the chance to get an early look at a film, knowing the impact it will have on our culture.
Early reports have estimated “Black Panther” will have the biggest opening weekend of any superhero movie. The ticket presale has already broken the Fandango record (previously held by “Captain America: Civil War“), with hordes of people buying tickets to see the film opening weekend.
How did Sutton explain to her boy the significance of this movie and the excitement happening around it?
“We have talked about what the character means for different groups of people,” she said. He mostly understands “on the surface.”
She goes further to talk about possibly helping other parents, especially those who do not have brown skin, who are struggling to explain the Black Panther phenomenon to their kids. “I would love to set up a chat for the parents that don’t understand the importance of this film to give them background information and answer any questions they have.”
Jonita Davis is a freelance writer based in Indiana. Find her on Twitter @surviteensntots.