Growing up an African immigrant in the United States, the only movie that even somewhat spoke to my existence was Eddie Murphy’s classic 1988 comedy “Coming to America.” While I loved that film, its portrayal of an African prince who travels to New York City to find a bride did not represent the ambiguity and frustration of my everyday experience.
My journey here was similar to many black immigrants. My family came to the United States in 1992, when I was 10 years old. We were fleeing political persecution in Côte d’Ivoire. We came in with visitors’ visas and applied for political asylum. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school, while waiting for my pending asylum case, that I realized I was undocumented. The passage of the DACA program under President Barack Obama in 2012 has allowed me to live without fear of deportation.
When my family came to America, we found refuge in the South Bronx, which is a predominately Puerto Rican, Dominican, African American and African community. I could speak only French when we arrived, but I was placed in a Spanish ESL class because that’s all there was. I learned English by listening to hip-hop legends like the Notorious B.I.G. and watching superhero cartoons like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Years later, when I had the opportunity to work on the “Black Panther” movie, playing a militant leader, I jumped at the chance to join the cast of a film that challenges how we view the African diaspora. When I started reading the Black Panther comics, I realized I had an even deeper connection to this superhero.
The Black Panther, who has appeared in Marvel comics since the late 1960s, is a card-carrying member of the Avengers and, we later discover, an undocumented immigrant living in New York City. In the seminal 2011 comic series “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear,” the main character, T’Challa — the ruler of the fictional country of Wakanda — deals with the complexities of being an African immigrant without papers.
In the comics, T’Challa acquires forged immigration papers and assumes a new identity, “Mr. Okonkwo,” an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo who owns a small diner in the New York neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. He is living there secretly to take over the role of another Marvel superhero — the Daredevil — as the neighborhood’s protector.
This story resonated with me because, while I was trying to maneuver through life without legal status, I was also dealing with the realities of being black in America. To be black without papers meant that I was walking on an additional layer of eggshells, never wanting to appear too “aggressive” or “suspicious” for fear of giving law enforcement a reason to criminalize me and triggering deportation proceedings.
In the Black Panther story, the anti-immigrant sentiment in America is embodied in the villain Hate-Monger, who wears a nefariously familiar pointy hood. He uses mind control to spread his anti-immigrant ideas across the city in an attempt to drive out all foreigners, including T’Challa.
Before becoming Hate-Monger, this villain was an emasculated white man who lost his job and wife due to his xenophobic views and attributed all his failures to immigrants. He even manipulates an anti-immigrant police officer into becoming the white nationalist version of Black Panther, called “American Panther.”
Inevitably, Hate-Monger uses his telepathic powers to push Homeland Security to detain T’Challa for his fake immigration papers, even though he is a small-business owner who takes care of his neighbors not only as Black Panther but as a civilian. Meanwhile, the city is being wrecked by a white nationalist mob whose depiction in the comics reminds me of the deadly, hate-fueled chaos that afflicted Charlottesville in August.
It was incredible to read the Black Panther comic, in which this year’s biggest superhero is undocumented and has to grapple with that new identity. Representation of immigrants — documented or undocumented — in popular culture is sparse, and it becomes even more sparse when looking at the representation of black immigrants. The fact that the comic book character of Black Panther is undocumented should not be more shocking than his supernatural abilities, particularly when you consider there are 575,000 undocumented black immigrants.
Why do we rarely hear their stories in popular culture?
Inspired by the Black Panther, I became an ambassador for Define American, an organization that challenges common perceptions of immigrants by urging people to “come out” about their citizenship status and own their identities as Americans, even without papers. The Black Panther’s story has given us a rare pop-culture conduit for our mission, using social justice themes in the film and comics to engage fans in real-world action around race, identity and immigration.
It is my hope that, when people see this movie, they use its themes to foster the tough conversations about the experiences of undocumented immigrants and encourage all Americans to recognize the contributions of black Americans and African immigrants to our culture and prosperity as a nation.
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