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Through Black Superheroes, Portland Library Program Aims To Help Black Youth Build Confidence

Youth created their own super masks for the black superhero showcase event. This is "StarMan's" mask
Youth created their own super masks for the black superhero showcase event. This is "StarMan's" mask

On Saturday, a crowd of black superheroes watched around 30 people stream into the basement of the Portland Library. From a printed paper, Bumblebee from the comic book series Teen Titans waved, and King T’Challa of Black Panther greeted from a cardboard cutout upstairs.

They had all gathered for the library’s fourth annual black superhero showcase, an event geared towards promoting pride through highlighting black representation in superheroes. The event was organized by Library Assistant William Sutton, who said he has loved comics since he was young. Back then, he says he gravitated towards characters who looked like himself. Sutton is 56 now, but comic books and superheroes still thrill him and inspired him to start the black superhero showcase.

“Just focus[ing] on the black superheroes itself allows me to share that literary and entertainment form with other folks who may enjoy the genre as well,” Sutton said.

Sharing art is one goal of Sutton’s, but another is for youth to see themselves reflected in pop culture, which may feel more relevant to them than the black history lessons about figures like Malcolm X or Rosa Parks.

Atlanta-based comic book artist Marcus Williams said seeing that representation is important. He said for him, reading the comic book Spawn and meeting a successful black artist inspired him to draw professionally. It is important, WIlliam said, for youth to see themselves in fictional and non-fictional characters because it encourages them to do more and to love themselves. Specifically, he thinks of his kids and the effects that could have on them.

“As a father, the main goal is to put in front of your kid, and pour into your kid, as much self-love [and] positivity,” Williams said. “Visual confirmations are some of the easiest ways to achieve that.”

That kind of visual confirmation has exploded onto the scene in America. Movies and TV shows like Black Panther, Luke Cage and Black Lightning have popularized heroes for black audiences with characters who might look and act like they do.

And Sutton says that representation can do more than encourage — it can also empower people.

“To be able to read and see characters that are black and that are doing powerful things, it does help empower African American children, young people, older people,” Sutton said. “They can see themselves in essence as being heroes and winners and as strong, victorious, able-bodied persons that can go out and do great things.”