How Teaching 'Black Panther' In Korea Changed My Students' Ideas Of Blackness And Representation
In 2014, during the last leg of my four years in South Korea, I was trying to imagine what my middle school boys thought of me as I stood in front of a flat-screen TV that displayed an image of Black Panther leading the Avengers. The prescient Black Panther project, a cross-cultural English lesson, was centered on the lack of multifaceted black and Asian representation in mainstream comic books and superhero films and sparked by the students’ long-held concerns about the glaring disparities.
My black perspective created a special bond and common ground, which stemmed from a deep rapport we had already built since the first day of class. But none of us shared a superhuman foresight that would’ve predicted that Black Panther, an unknown character to some of my inquisitive students, would become a cultural watershed — a critically acclaimed and international blockbuster with a massive car chase scene that takes place on the Gwangan suspension bridge in the port city of Busan, just a 20 minute subway ride from our school.
I had arrived to South Korea from West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2010, after accepting an English teaching position with the Korean government, just two weeks after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince. My first two honeymoon years were spent in Jeju Island, the “Hawaii of Korea.” But the exploitive images of black dead bodies on public non-governmental organization (NGO) posters forced me to reconcile with the fact that I’d have to appear as the visual contrast, a racial and cultural ambassador for both the United States and Haiti.
Considering I was the only Haitian-American on the island I accepted that burden, the poverty-stricken images of black humanity certainly having a negative effect on how school children perceived not only me but blackness in general. As a result, a good amount of my PowerPoint slides in class featured stock images of black people in professional settings, celebrities, and real-life impactful figures from the African diaspora. And when I moved to the nearby Busan I brought that same enthusiasm because children, the world over, love new stories. My goofy, outgoing personality and foreignness certainly helped maintain our growing relationship.
Though my elementary, middle, and high school students were infatuated with black eclectic culture, my sole purpose was to teach them how to read, write, and speak conversational English. An effective way to engage the students was to turn their favorite American movies into lesson plans because they had relied on bad subtitles that led to poor perception of cultural nuances. My middle school boys, however, were much more interested in deeper subject matter. One student, after an Avengers listening assignment, asked if Americans had popular black and Asian superheroes. Black Panther immediately came to mind, but I had no answer for the latter.
I explained, with great help of my Korean co-teacher, that there is a political and economic engine behind mainstream entertainment, and it often takes a while before a paradigm shift occurs and that there are independent writers already addressing their inclusivity needs within the niche markets. To spark that sense of creative urgency I divided the boys into two universes. The boys were so thrilled that one group even named their version of Avengers after my last name. Then, they were required to draw superheroes and, at the very least, include a superheroine (Black Panther features strong, capable women, so we had to balance the universe with femininity). The first group, who were a bit younger, focused on real-life Korean public figures. They’d superimpose the heads of Korean celebrities on superhero bodies. The second group tried to imitate the characters in Avengers but with Asian faces. Following that, they wrote an original origin story and read their character’s journey in front of the class.
After their presentation I explained that anything is possible when we expand the realms of possibilities, and I echoed a similar sentiment expressed by Asian-American comic writer Jonathan Tsuei:
“For me, as I’m sure it is for all of you, it’s important to see people of Asian descent work on these characters because it moves us beyond simply “diversity” for the sake of, but inclusion in the storytelling process. It’s not just seeing characters who might share physical features with us, but it’s really an example that our voices and our perspectives are worth supporting.”
I Taught Black Panther Comic to South Korean Boys in Busan:During my time in South Korea, (2010-2014) I taught a lesson about film representation after some of my Korean students expressed concern about the lack of Asian representation in film, particularly in superhero films. After introducing and expressing my wish for Black Panther to hit the big screen, I made them create their own superheroes and write origin stories. The Black Panther film is essentially an international event; it's bringing everyone together and creating a paradigm shift in the world of cinema. #BlackPanther
Posted by Wilkine Brutus on Friday, February 9, 2018
On my last day of school, several of my students left quirky and thought-provoking thank you letters on my desk. I knew I had challenged their system of reality, one student at a time. One of the students even wrote the following: “Song seng nim (teacher)” — “I was scared of your black face and hair. Not anymore.”
It’s important to note that South Korea was once a very poor country and was colonized by the Japanese, but now it’s an independent, technologically advanced place. Yes, the parallels to the black struggle are very apparent. Busan, South Korea is home to the Busan International Film Festival, the largest and most prestigious in all of East Asia. It has featured some black films but they often remain in the close-knit “cultured” community. The general population is more exposed to the Will Smith‘s of the world and are often less exposed to a film like Black Panther, which is filled with a complex, fully-developed protagonist; a villain everyone can empathize with; and a multifaceted female cast. Black humanity is fully realized now and the African diaspora, its diverse narrative, has a multi-dimensional representation, one that isn’t relegated to one kind of blackness. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) Korean speaking scene in Busan and T’Chaka’s (John Kani) Xhosa conversation with his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), elevated black complex imagery to another stratosphere, especially for Asian audiences.
And it’s not that black people haven’t produced films that have addressed these concerns head-on. It’s just that, for children, the realm of creative possibilities is heightened even further. Blade and Spawn, for example — two films centered around black anti-heroes — never received this type of institutional support that extended beyond their niche markets in the U.S.
If the U.S. considers itself a proud functioning meritocracy with free market principles, then it has to continue eliminating the cognitive biases that hamper smart moral and business decisions. In other words, no longer can studio executives say that inclusive films, particularly those with a predominantly black, Asian, and female cast, can’t translate to box office success and cross-cultural fandom, at least in the superhero genre. Diverse films literally make more money, according to a CAA study. So it’s not a politically correct cry of “diversity for diversity sake.”
This cinematic paradigm shift, in recent years, is forcing the general public to finally challenge the historical erasure, whitewashing, stereotyping of people of color and accept the growth in representation of comic book characters on and off the screen (i.e. Tessa Thompson in Thor; Miles Morales in the forthcoming animated Spider-Man film; Amadeus Cho as the first Asian-American Incredible Hulk). These are merely first steps to showcase a broader image of the human condition — because imagery, like political slogans and religious symbolism, shape the way in which we see individuals and groups.
My students, who are surrounded by group homogeneity, expressed to me that they will no longer define me as just an exceptional black Haitian-American man. I was more than that and so were the people who looked like me.