Mantles, Crowns, and Knowledge: What RiRi Williams Needs
The second I see a panel of RiRi Williams sleeping without a bonnet or silk pillowcase, I’m gonna be waiting for my apology from Big 2 comics folks and their defenders. Black hair is important to me. I have it. My family has it. My friends have it. Black hair is simultaneously an outlet for some of our community’s most extraordinary creativity, as well as our deepest internalized shame. Our hairstyles are both highly coveted and viciously mocked by outsiders. Simply put, Black hair is a pillar in the foundation of Black Cool. Which is why I’m gonna need to ask y’all to hire some Black people on your comic books.
Writers, artists, colorists, editors. They’re needed. Especially if you have a Black lead with Black hair. Y’all are struggling; not only with story, but with aesthetics. And this obvious struggle is not only embarrassing, it’s infuriating for Black comics professionals.
As soon as RiRi Williams was announced, several of us were less than impressed. While it’s a nice start to feature people of color as prominent characters on the page, that’s all it is: a nice start. It’s difficult as a woman of color working in comics to feel too overjoyed with RiRi, knowing that there are no Black women contributing to Riri’s narrative on writing or art. Historically, Black women have had so little agency with regards to our depiction in popular media that we are understandably wary when faced with another project that uses our face but not our labor. Representation on the page is a surface-level fix; a bandaid that doesn’t address internal discrepancies.
Still, the pushback to RiRi brought up by Black comic creators was met with a familiar defense: Marvel uses the best people for the job. Why should it matter that middle-aged White men are writing or drawing RiRi if they do the best job? Here’s the thing. They almost certainly aren’t. Half the time y’all don’t even know how our hair works, of course you’re not “the best person for the job.”
In comics, I’ve seen many a fade where it doesn’t fade as much as it drops off the face of the earth altogether. I’ve seen cornrows that end half an inch from the character’s eyebrows, without a single baby hair in site. I’ve seen some artists blatantly give up and attach buns to the side of a corn-rowed head, physics be damned. As soon as we caught a glimpse of RiRi Williams’ cover, we saw a two foot fro with an inexplicable middle part on the top. We saw an illustration of a fully grown black woman passed off as a 15-year-old. We saw, yet again, how rarely Black children are allowed to be perceived as children.
Like I said before, this problem isn’t limited to aesthetics. I’ve seen Black characters voice tone-deaf, fundamental misunderstandings of their own importance as Black superheroes, in this day and age. I hate to burst the fantasies of some White writers, but there are few living Black boys in 2016 that don’t realize the challenges and assumptions about their status as young Black men; that don’t understand the residual effects of Black success upon a tiring status quo.
And writing characters of color in the real world shouldn’t be any different than writing White characters. But given that we live on Earth, and not a dark empty vacuum devoid of any context, it is. There are parts of being a Black girl that I wouldn’t trust my own White mother to understand and articulate. So when you tell me, “Maybe it was just the best person that got hired,” you are telling me, “POC aren’t talented enough to remark on their own lives.” You are telling me “White men know more about and do a better job of portraying Black life than actual Black people.”