February is Black History Month in the United States. But February is the shortest month of the year and today is the last day of February (even the Leap Year extended February is stil the shortest month). Does that mean that black history is about ready to be buried again, waiting to be lazily dug afresh in 2017? Of course not, black history, like all human history, is too long and too deep to be reduced to a 28-29 day annual segment.
I’ve embarked on an illustrated series in a bid to highlight the heroes who have dedicated their lives to achieving real social equality. My dull memories of Black History Month from my time at school inspired me to make something vibrant. Black History Month need not be a boring affair, so let’s do better than a token black and white photo of Martin Luther King to adorn the corridor noticeboards.
Through these images, I’ve tried to enliven the approach, drawing popular culture references from comic book superheroes like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, to demonstrate the incredible contributions these real individuals made to improve the world that we all share:
“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
This illustration merges the late great Nelson Mandela with Superman, the world’s most recognisable hero in spandex. Nelson’s contributions to humanity, much like superman’s fictional strength and abilities, are impossible to measure. The mere discussion of his character today elicits hope and happiness in people across the world. The South African hero survived 27 years of imprisonment for daring to stand up to a government that sanctioned human rights abuses against black and other non-white South Africans. Four years after his release in 1990, he would become South Africa’s first black president, effectively imploding an apartheid government from the top down. His endless accomplishments include winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and establishing the Nelson Mandela Foundation to combat poverty and AIDS. A human in the truest sense, his unending to capacity to live with compassion and empathy has left a legacy of superhuman proportions.
“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”
Angela Davis is a contemporary figure fighting the forces of oppression wherever they threaten to ensnare the vulnerable and the voiceless. I want to say that she is the real life embodiment of Wonder Woman, a popular icon and heroine for justice, love, and gender equality, but she’s probably achieved more. The young Davis grew up in Birmingham, Alabama or ‘Dynamite Hill’ as it was nicknamed then. It was called such after the Klu Klux Klan ran a bombing campaign on middle-class African Americans when they moved into the area. The extreme prejudice that Davis experienced as a child clearly fuelled her on the path to activism and academia. As an African American, a woman and former inmate within the US prison system, she has overcome three layers of marginalization to become an influential thought leader and expert on race relations, feminism and the American prison system.
“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
I’ve recreated Malcom X as the Dark Knight of the civil rights movement, not a reference to the hue of his skin but to his unrelenting commitment to an assertive black identity in a landscape that systemically denied it. Like the Batman that we’ve come to understand from Hollywood’s latest offerings, Malcolm X was not afraid to get his hands dirty in the name of justice. While Martin Luther King advocated peaceful protest as the best means to seek equality, Malcolm X advocated self-defence as an answer to the violent white hegemony that was perpetrated by the police and citizen vigilantes. Like Batman, the mind behind the face of Malcolm X was often misunderstood. Even though he was a strong advocate for deploying reactionary physical power in the black struggle for civil rights, Malcom X believed that education was the single most effective tool for lifting people out of oppression.
I hope you enjoyed the work so far, I intend to continue the project beyond February to honour the fact that black history, like all human history deserves sustained attention within mainstream education. Follow @DeanioX on Instagram to see how the Human Rights Heroes project progresses.