The first major milestone of my developmental maturity happened in 1994 when I crossed the threshold from preschooler to kindergartener and eschewed the childishness of "Barney the Dinosaur" for much more elevated programming:
"The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers."
I'd never seen anything like it before (granted, I was five years old and hadn't seen much of anything before). It ushered in my long-standing hero complex and started my love affair with all things superhero. The Power Rangers was my gateway drug into Superman (or rather, its network TV drama rendition, the Dean Cain/Terri Hatcher fronted "Lois & Clark") and then the '90s "Batman" movies the following year. From my Halloween costumes to when I pushed a boy on the playground for bullying a little girl I absolutely did not know, this love for on-screen heroism defined every bit of my life. And it all started with those color-coded adults-playing-high schoolers.
I was understandably elated when "The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" got the big screen treatment during the summer of 1995. It was a movie I saw so much that I'd keep myself up at night, reciting every line by heart (no one said I had many friends at this point of my life). Especially notable about the Power Rangers' first theatrical release was its introduction of Aisha, the black ranger.
Well, she was the Yellow Power Ranger, but a Black girl.
Aisha's role extended onto the TV series' next season and though it's been 25 years, I still remember so vividly her skin, her smile and even specificities about the one major story arc she had on the show. Clearly I had the awareness to understand that Aisha was a Black girl like me and the only Black girl on that show at all.
Except I didn't want to be Aisha. I had my sights set on Tommy, the White Power Ranger. The leader. I didn't want to be subjugated to side plots and taking orders. I wanted to be who everyone looked to. I wanted to be the main character.
But Black women don't get to be that in these superhero stories. In fact, it was retrospectively revolutionary that Aisha was even there at all because Black women are often the first to be left out, even as action shows and superhero franchises make pushes to be more diverse in their ensembles. It's a Venn diagram of oppression, where gender and race collide and Black women fall through the cracks.
When we do show up in on-screen superhero tales, it's rarely as a part of the action. We're auxiliary pieces, benched on the sidelines or sent in for one scene as a plot device for the white man whom the story revolves around. Like Alfre Woodard in "Captain America: Civil War," who captivates the screen for four minutes but whose character is ultimately only there to make Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) feel guilty about the casualties of The Avengers' carelessness.
Of course this is not the Marvel Cinematic Universe's only faux pas. Infamous for having an all-white Avengers team – if we're not counting Zoe Saldana painted green for "Guardians of the Galaxy" (and we're not) – the MCU doesn't feature a Black woman in a significant action-based capacity until nine years and 17 movies in with Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in "Thor: Ragnarok." Even then, it's almost canceled out by the fact that, like Saldana's Gamora, Thompson is playing an alien. As an Asgardian on a world that likely doesn't have the same distinctions of "Black and white" as Earth, it can be argued that even though Thompson is a Black woman – and that is important – she's not actually playing one on-screen. Not to mention that her character doesn't just have to share hero duties with the titular Thor, but also franchise regulars Loki and the Hulk.
There's some reprieve with the MCU's 18th film – the incredible and indispensable "Black Panther." A landmark for its cultural contributions to the film landscape, it not only shows Black men as heroes on the big screen, marketed en masse across the world, but also Black women. Not Black women as wives, children or distressed damsels but as warriors, spies and geniuses. So much of "Black Panther" is what Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright bring to Nakia, Okoye and Shuri.
But the Black women are still side characters. With a lot more agency and power than usual, sure, but we still aren't allowed to take center stage or even given actual superpowers. There's also something I can't shake about the segregation of it all when it comes to "Black Panther" and this almost implication that Black people either have to be sidelined in white stories or kept entirely to narratives of our own. Especially doubled for Black women, it's as if we can't have any purpose beyond distinctly Black stories, as if these are the only spaces we can and do exist in.
It's what made me appreciate "Captain Marvel" and how it allowed a Black woman to be a part of the action without relegating her to this "Blacks only" section of the MCU or making her fight to shine in an overstuffed cast. It's not perfect – a white woman is still at the center of the film – but to see Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau go toe-to-toe with alien threats when the camera was off Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and to especially see how fearless, self-sufficient and powerful Maria was – never a victim, more than a side character but taking the reins in her own action sequence – finally gave me the much coveted imagery of a Black woman getting to have all the fun usually reserved for white characters in these ensemble movies. By extension, it was like finally getting to see myself be a part of the fun.
But this wasn't enough. We're making up for decades of invisibility, and Maria still didn't have superpowers. Give us our damn superpowers!
Enter "WandaVision," the MCU's first foray into episodic programming (other than a bit of overlap with "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."). I knew from casting announcements that Teyonah Parris had been cast in the series as Maria Rambeau's grown-up daughter Monica, but with little hint of her in the show's trailers and none at all in the first episode, I figured she would just be another Black woman relegated to the shadows of the white, titular heroes, shoved in there for diversity points.
But as the episodes aired, the show has almost become just as much Monica's as it is Wanda's. An absolute scene-stealer, Monica has taken more and more control on her side of the narrative – the real-life parallel to Wanda's televised fantasy. She even overshadows the return of fan-favorites Darcy and Jimmy Woo (Kat Dennings and Randall Park, respectively). Though her actions are in direct response to Wanda, Monica does not feel like she exists to be in service to Wanda but rather ultimately has motivations that stretch beyond her. They are each other's foils – independent yet related.
Not only is Monica a full participant in the show's action, but in the show's seventh episode "Breaking the Fourth Wall," she becomes the MCU's first superpowered Black woman. I can't shake the impact of seeing her burst through the Hex – skin a radiant brown, hair in dark, natural curls and eyes glowing with the power now surging through her. She's the the character I've been waiting for my whole life. Commanding instead of obeying; compassionate while still kicking ass, Monica Rambeau is the long-awaited evolution of Aisha.
But can you believe I still want more?
Because the show is ultimately called "WandaVision," not "Rambeau." And Monica's superpowers origin story was relegated to one-off sentences culminating in a 20-second scene during "WandaVision"'s arguably weakest (and quite stuffed) episode. Even in our greatest moments, Black women are still treated as the afterthought.
It again takes me back to my childhood. Growing up, almost everything around me was white. From the pale stucco of our family home to the middle-class patrons of the neighborhood it was in and especially the schools I attended. There were moments of respite – like the massive and fully Black Southern church we attended on the Sundays when I wasn't off playing basketball on mostly Black teams – but on the weekdays, I was relegated to navigate the unsteady terrain of alabaster seas.
I both learned assimilation at a young age and that assimilation would never be enough. My skin was a signifier that carried implications, whether they were true or not, for better or worse. In high school, I watched the people around me get into relationships (if pubescent couplings can truly be called that) and felt utterly left out. I was never a particularly insecure teen – at least not when it came to how I looked – but there was this unstated and understood reality that I'd likely never have a grade school boyfriend. Because I knew white boys didn't date Black girls.
(And as for the Black boys at my school – neither did they.)
They never said it outright, but they didn't have to. I could see it in their stares, in who they extolled beyond just the classroom. Britney over Beyonce. Hilary over Raven. One of the 57 girls named Katie over me. Black girls weren't just undervalued. Black girls weren't valued at all.
I saw it in my schools, then again when I turned on my TV, and again in movie theaters. Sometimes extolled in our own communities, of course, but invisible to the world at large at best; demeaned at worst. It has dual implications. For girls like me, it teaches us that we aren't worthwhile. To everyone else, it teaches them to see us as such, an unending cycle where they take the template they witness on screen and bring it out into the world with them, where they then create more things based on this narrowed perspective of the world. The relationship between art and life are inextricable, both influencing the other. So when will we slay this ouroboros?
I've waited 26 years for my reckoning, from that first afternoon I stumbled upon the Power Rangers and immediately became enamored with the idea of fantastical possibilities beyond my own life. I was fortunate to be the firstborn of proud parents who relentlessly instilled in me a transcendent self-worth that kept me from taking my cues from the media I consumed. But what about the Black girls without that privilege? Like it or not, media impacts us deeply in subtle and overt, conscious and unconscious ways. It's why the conversation of diversity and representation has gained a bigger spotlight as our collective social consciousness continues to rise. But these discussions can't be painted broadly then left alone. We need to needle into them. Everyone needs to be seen in all ways, and this isn't just an issue that plagues Black women, but other women of color as well.
Black women save the day regularly in real life, from Harriett Tubman to Stacey Abrams. Isn't it about time we got to do it on your screens too? Monica Rambeau is so important, but we can't treat her as an arrival but rather a far overdue start. In the way that other heroes in the MCU have made smaller debuts in earlier films and eventually grown to main character status, it is my hope that Monica is given the same treatment and allowed to evolve into a hero who has a story of her own. She is slated to appear in the upcoming "Captain Marvel 2," but I don't think I'll be truly satisfied until she's at the helm of her own spin-off – ideally one that premieres on the big screen.
And Monica can't be the only one. After decades of endlessly regurgitated inceptions of Batman, Superman, Spider-man and all their white sidekicks, it's time for more than one Black woman's superpowered alias in the title, at the center of movie poster and the narrative. Not just on the small screen (the MCU's upcoming "Ironheart" is Black-led but still a TV series) or reimagined versions of previously white characters (like Javicia Leslie replacing Ruby Rose to become TV's first Black Batwoman), not just in insularly Black films kept separate from the world at large but as blockbuster heroes for all.