The first time I picked up Christopher Priest’s Black Panther, an important question presented itself: Did I see myself in T’Challa? As a biracial kid growing up in Nebraska, I didn’t have a straightforward answer.
Black, intelligent, strategic, powerful, and assertive, Black Panther represents what I, a shy introvert, want to see in myself. When I was a fourteen-year-old flipping through comic pages, I saw him as a perfect leader. But I saw myself in another character: Everett K. Ross.
Introduced in a brilliant splash page that opens Black Panther, Secretary Everett K. Ross is a white CIA agent, who finds himself in over his head as liaison to Black Panther. Awkward, cowardly, and far too concerned with how others see him, Ross is essentially my fourteen-year-old self. His missteps bite him from the very beginning—he famously arrives at the airport in a two-seater sports car only to discover that T’Challa has an entire entourage. He is way out of his depth. Even though he repeatedly makes endearing mistakes, T’Challa always trusts him and relies on him for support. If T’Challa cared about Ross, that meant he might care about me, too.
IN A WORLD OF BLACK-OR-WHITE, I FELT LIKE EVERYONE WAS TRYING TO MAKE ME FIT ONE CATEGORY.
Priest originally created Ross as a mouthpiece for the white readers that comprised a large portion of Marvel’s fans. He voiced the skepticisms those readers might have about Black Panther–a perennial background player with a few short lived series to his name–being the genius warrior from Fantastic Four #52. Admittedly, many of Ross’ questions reflected my own. Just who was this guy in the cat suit and how did he so confidently navigate a world that resented him? I considered those questions about T’Challa, because I needed the answers about myself.
You can cut Omaha, Nebraska’s map like a steak. The further northeast you go, the blacker it gets. Southeast belongs to a Mexican population, and the west side of the city is a frontier of whiteness. A history of the big malls and shopping centers tells the story of white flight.
Before high school, my life was in North Omaha. I went to Sacred Heart Elementary, a private K-8 school with no more than 150 students at any time, most of whom were black. My peers were black, my friends were black, and though I identified as biracial, I was black too. In our blackness, I could be a comics nerd without being the black nerd. My moments of anger were simply rage, not black rage. Moments of joy were just that, nothing more.
That changed in high school, when I was recruited to Creighton Preparatory High School. Like any place that recruits for diversity, Creighton Prep was very white. Though a few former classmates came with me, this was the first time in my life when the majority of the people surrounding me were white. Suddenly, I felt the vulnerability of my blackness. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my identity was a weapon that could be used against me, even if it was just in my head. I had always escaped into comics, but now I retreated into media that better represented me.
ROSS’S DOUBTS ABOUT T’CHALLA REINFORCED MY APPREHENSIONS OF WHITE PEOPLE QUESTIONING MY BLACKNESS.
In Black Panther, I found balance. I loved T’Challa right away, but I empathized with Ross’s struggle to navigate an entirely new world. Ross is capable but utterly unequipped for T’Challa and Wakanda. At Sacred Heart, I was one of the top students. At Creighton Prep, accomplishments made me average. At times, I was T’Challa, able to juggle tasks effortlessly and confidently. Other days, I was Ross sitting in that two-seater, wondering how I was going to get through the day. Ross’s doubts about T’Challa reinforced my own apprehensions of white people questioning my blackness, but it simultaneously provided the mirror I needed.
In a world of black-or-white, I felt like everyone was trying to make me fit one category. But I wanted people to recognize that I was both, and sometimes neither. My nerdiness, temper, and countless other attributes were not pieces of me that could be assigned to one racial category and consequently eradicated from my identity. The more I stressed about this, the further I dove into Black Panther where Ross and T’Challa might offer answers.
Part of Ross’ journey through Priest’s run is realizing that he’s trying too hard. Whether he is trying to appease his boss or impress T’Challa, Ross is so concerned with others’ perceptions of him that he often falls into self-parody. He constantly mocks his own whiteness in an attempt to integrate himself into his new black world. While I never went so far as to mock my ancestry, I knew too well the art of self-deprecation as a defense mechanism. Ross needed to loosen up. And so did I.
I came to Black Panther seeking a reflection of my own blackness, but I grew attached to one of the few recurring white characters in the book. Ross was the audience’s window to T’Challa’s world, but he was my window into my own conflicting tensions. He illustrated that my anxieties and insecurities were only obstacles if I refused to accept them as part of who I am. I couldn’t be T’Challa without being Everett Ross, too.