Sun rays beamed down on my second grade class as we approached the soccer field. It was time for us to join the procession of PreK through Fifth Graders in our School’s annual Halloween parade. Our Head of School announced each class over a loudspeaker with other members of school leadership and various non-teaching staff at the center of the field, forming one large and overly-caffeinated amoeba. Parents, family members, and middle school students formed an outer ring, not to be outdone by the faculty blob.
I stood at the front of my class’ line and turned to steal a glance at the students before we rounded the corner to the big show. My vision blurred with tears as I saw three Black boys stepping in stride with each other in their Black Panther costumes. They’d been talking about this day for weeks and we’d gone down many a tangent during lessons when reminded of scenes from the movie.
These boys were on top of the world, and yet still had no way of knowing how significant their glow was for all of us. I kept looking back to watch them make their way through the tunnel of fans. They weren’t the only kids in the school dressed as Black Panther, but the sheer visual of three Black boys dressed as Black Panther and walking side-by-side with each other hit differently for more than just me. People were constantly shouting for their attention. They were asked to stop and pose for pictures every few feet.
When we finally made our way through the parade loop and settled at our class’ “home base,” a mother of one of the boys rushed over to snap her photo. Each of the boys’ parents stood behind the photog mom with smiles stretching to the backs of their heads as they took in the image of the three seven-year-old-sized Black Panthers standing before them, frozen in a Wakanda Forever stance. Their chests were poked out and their heads were held high, amidst a sea of white faces.
I teach at a predominately white private school. I am proud to teach at my school because its mission is blatant and intentional about social justice work. It was the first racially integrated school in DC, founded by seven families almost an entire decade before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling abolished school segregation. The founding families integrated by design as opposed to by mandate. But it is a predominately white school nonetheless.
It is no secret that the education system at large is failing and has been failing Black boys for far too long. Black boys are more likely to be disciplined and harsher than their white peers, are overrepresented in special education programs, and the achievement gap in reading between Black boys and their peers is more pronounced than any other demographic subgroup. On top of this, Black men compose only 2% of the teaching workforce. In schools where Black boys are a minority population, it is hardly a reach to say that many of them spend their school days feeling undervalued and without adequate potential for adult role models that reflect those aspects of their identities.
Black boys stand out too frequently in the elementary classroom for the wrong reasons. And if this is their lived reality–how do these trends in lack of positive visibility and representation influence the way the rest of the education world views them, let alone how they might view themselves?
Chadwick Boseman’s role as Black Panther meant so much more than cool Halloween costumes that year, and always will. Black Panther made the promise and resilience of Black boys visible for all to see. He provided Black boys with access to a symbol of something beautiful that is inherent and of their essence. He made it possible for each and every one of those boys’ white peers to see those qualities for what they are: marvelous and worthy of uplift. And I dare say, he made it damn near impossible for biased educators to ignore the concept of Black male brilliance.
I felt similarly proud when I watched Danai Gurira embody Black female masculinity in her role as Okoye. As a woman who is both Black and Queer, I identify with feeling starved for fictional role models who reflect the superhero alter ego I need to activate through difficult times when my self-belief is challenged. I am so fortunate to have watched those boys have their shine in that Halloween parade, and I am forever grateful for Chadwick Boseman in providing the predominately white classroom with something it so desperately needed/needs: a reminder that a hero is an underdog whose greatness is refused to be dismissed.
Post Script: Rest in Power, Chadwick. You gave us so much of yourself and then some. I am SO GLAD your work in Black Panther was celebrated the way it was while you were still here to witness it.
Post Post Script: I wish Black boys had more. They deserve so much more, and educators need much bigger wake-up calls than the occasional superhero movie to jolt them out of their racially biased reveries. There are so many everyday Black Panthers for them to look up to and we in the world of education need to do our due diligence to bring those role models and the practices that nurture Black brilliance to the forefront. I also wish the same for Black girls and nonbinary/gender-variant children, but for the sake of the stated topic, I chose to center Black males in education.
Featured Image credit: Tyrone Turner / WAMU