By Alia Hammerstone
What, you might be asking yourself, does the phenomenally successful superhero movie Black Panther have to do with literacy? Well… maybe not much in terms of getting books into the hands of impoverished children across the world. But more than you might guess in terms of the importance of representation for these children across the world, in both films and in literature.
As I walked down the aisle on the plane to stretch my legs mid-flight, I noticed something- dozens of children on the plane were avidly fixed to the same film: Black Panther. Even the Nigerian doctor I sat next to was engrossed in the film. I had seen the movie, and from the perspective of a social science teacher, loved the plot- a society untouched by colonization having cultivated a powerful natural resource.
Traveling to Zambia, I gained a new perspective and appreciation for the film. The film represented an African superhero- instead of providing children with a window to look through at characters who often didn’t look like or sound like themselves, the characters in this film provided children with a mirror to see themselves in.
Speaking to a young author, Perrykent Nkole, I was struck yet again by how important the film is. He spoke of growing up and seeing the only character to look and speak like him in Shaka Zulu- a villain. Black Panther, he said, gave him and millions of others a character to see themselves in- a superhero. He related this film to his own writing, stressing the importance of having stories about Africa told by Africans- and stressed the importance of representation in not only film but in literature as well.
Thinking about my own work as an educator and a volunteer, I am moved again by the belief that it is imperative for our students, both at home and abroad, to be represented and reflected in the books that they read. More diverse characters are needed, and more diverse authors need to be promoted. We owe our students both the opportunity to step outside of themselves and open up new worlds through literature; but we also, above all else, owe our students the ability to see themselves in the books they read. Reading, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop writes, is a “means of self-affirmation”.
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.” Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop