Black Superheroes: The Battle Within
Novelist Steven Armstrong outlines the internal conflicts of heroes, the necessity of black representation in media, and discusses his experience as a black man in America.
Since graduating from the California Institute of Integral Studies MFA program in 2011, Steven Armstrong has written and traveled for a nonprofit organization assisting women in developing nations who suffered childbirth injuries, while dreaming of publishing his novel. Today, he stands on the precipice of his novel’s publication, Dragon Daughter, and all it took was the world falling apart. We had the chance to reconnect with him recently in the form of the following interview.
Steven, what would you say makes a hero?
So, I examined this in my graduate thesis, and I’ll tell you, it’s not all about powers. I’ve found, as a writer, that it is their vulnerability that makes a character stronger — when you’re able to take the armor off a bit.
For instance, I think of Tony Stark. In his story, there’s this large piece about the vulnerability of his heart beneath the armor; there’s real irony in that.
Also, imperfections; it’s about having the capacity to do good in some moments, as well as make mistakes — that is what makes a character a fuller entity.
I want to speak to you about inquiry because I understand it plays a pivotal role in your creative practice.
The inquiry component is enormous. I think a good example was a class in my second year at CIIS. It was about uncovering your artistic lineage — where you come from creatively. And I recovered this experience from my childhood that proved so valuable to examine. But I’d wholly blocked it out until Cindy’s (CIIS MFA Program Director) class.
Do you mind if I ask what that experience was?
Sure. When I was a kid, my mom had taken my brothers and me to this local black-owned bookstore across from the white-owned bookstore. I remember I didn’t want to be there.
In Cindy’s class, when this experience came up for me, a question emerged: What was it that made me not want to go into the black bookstore? So, it was here that I got to explore my identity as a black person, and how that plays into my work. Because I never really felt I had permission to explore these thoughts on my own as a kid. Your parents tell you what it is to be black and how proud you should be, and that’s it. You’re not allowed to have questions about it on your own.
And during that inquiry, what did you discover?
In recognizing I didn’t want to be in that bookstore, there was this whole other layer of embarrassment because you’re in a black place, and you’re like hyperventilating or whatever because there are all these weird things you don’t know around you. I thought: ‘I can’t be in this place. I want to go over there, where I feel comfortable.’ So, I said, ‘Mom, I don’t wanna be here. I want to go across the way.’ But she made me stay, and I’m glad she did.
The owners knew my parents because my dad is a barber, and mom worked with him, so a lot of people in the black community around San Jose came and got their hair cut at the barbershop. I didn’t know how embarrassed I would later become — like, ‘Oh my goodness. I shamed my family! Shamed myself!’
But the underlying reason I didn’t want to go there was that I didn’t understand. I just wanted my Batman, my Spider-Man, or whatever I was used to. I didn’t have a healthy sense of identity as a kid. But later, I became more curious. And now, it’s like, ‘Oh! My parents were right. The media does brainwash black kids into liking white stuff.’
Did you end up buying a comic from the black-owned store?
I did. I just dug up that comic, and I found it this week. It’s called: Original Man. He’s a man who can shoot beams out of his arms, and he can fly and do all these superhero things. It took me years to grow to love that book.
And it was real cool too — very small and independent — like, this guy was doing comics just by hustling. He started his company from the ground up by personally drawing his comic books, then getting into schools and talking about it with kids. I just saw an interview recently from that creator where he spoke about how important it was to change the stereotype, to change how black characters get represented in media.
What are the typical representations of black characters?
In books, especially in comics, they’ve been cast either as a monster, or the goofy sidekick. And when you’re a kid, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to be that guy.’ You want to be whoever’s the lead.
As a child, do you remember any positive black representations in media?
I mean, we had Roots and Malcolm X and then other black films, comedies. In some of those characters, we saw different representations of blackness.
And then there were a handful of guys, hero-types back then. For instance, I was a huge Power Rangers fan as a kid. And obviously, there’s only one who was black.
The Black Ranger.
Exactly. So, as a kid, you’re like, ‘Cool. Well, I guess I know who should be my favorite. But I liked Tommy, The Green Ranger, because he was the cool one.
Yeah. I remember I had a toy version of his sword.
The Dragon Dagger! Yeah! And then you liked Kimberly, right? Because she’s supposed to be everybody’s crush.
So, on a deeper level, what you’re taught is reinforced: ‘This is what is pretty. This guy is cool; He’s the Green Ranger; now, he’s the White Ranger. He’s the guy you want to be like.’
What is the importance of black representation in the superhero community?
I’ll give you an example. So, in the book I’m publishing, the main character, she’s black. But, for me, when I wrote my first draft, the decision to emphasize that wasn’t so clear. My concern was that I didn’t want the fact that she was black to distract from the actual story. After all, it’s not about her being black.
But in reality, the character is primarily based on my niece, and she is black. I want her to see herself, and by extension, other black kids in my story because my niece is very aware. My sister (her mother) has always been very open about race with her kids and about the media’s representation.
So, for her being so young at the time when I started writing the book and knowing she was already conscious of her race made it vital for me to include.
You spoke about heroes being improved by their vulnerability. With your primary protagonist, I’m wondering, is there any specific vulnerability that accompanies being a black female, which might make your character even more robust?
That’s a great question. I would say family, and it’s about her heart. She’s a teenage girl learning, and what makes her strong is her deep care for her family.
And she’s learning lessons about forgiveness. For instance: how do you handle when a family member has wronged you? That’s hard. And the fact that she can go through those phases of ‘I hate you,’ and then move to a place where she becomes open to forgiving; I think there’s a richness to that.
You won’t like hearing this, but I didn’t grow up as a fan of superheroes. I’ve always believed in the stigma that they are vapid, like Superman. But what you are describing, being about family, forgiveness, and emotional growth, it sounds a lot more substantive.
Absolutely. I went a route that was refreshing to me. I love it when a story ends up being more grounded. There can be powers and abilities, but it’s never about that. It’s about how these characters relate to each other and navigate their lives as a unit, as a family. It’s one of the things I think was so awesome about The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They were a family in the same way the young girl and the dragon who raised her in the book I wrote are.
The Ninja Turtles were like, ‘Yeah, those are ninjas, and they eat pizza and stuff’, but it’s really about the dynamic between brothers. And it’s about how you can learn to love any sort of family you’re placed in — about using your family as your team.
It sounds like this story became incredibly personal to you.
I didn’t realize how personal my story was becoming. I set out to tell a story about this girl and her upbringing, a story about sisterhood because the three main characters are all female, and that partially grew out of my day job, being surrounded by women and sisterhood.
Would you tell me about that?
Sure. I worked for a nonprofit that helps women who suffer from obstetric fistula, which is a childbirth injury. Some of these women have been isolated for many years, not knowing that there is at least one other person that had their same condition. Then, suddenly they’re in a room full of women who have the same injury and who’ve lost children, and it’s inspiring how they rally around each other.
Those experiences inspired a lot of my work, especially when I got to travel to Kenya, to go out to these rural villages and meet these women.
That’s amazing. So, when is this publication coming?
I’m hoping by the end of the year or the beginning of next year. Atmosphere Press is the publisher. We have the final round of edits scheduled. After that, it’ll be the process of putting the actual product of the book together. I’ve had more time to work on my novel since COVID-19 cost me my day job.
I was dreading but planning to bring that up when the subject arose. How has losing your day job affected you?
It was like the universe had something to say. In January, I found out there was interest in publishing my book. By the beginning of March, I’d signed on with a publisher. Next, the virus reached critical mass, and my day job moved to work-from-home. By the third week of March, they had to let me go.
It’s strange how these things converge; that I was finally, in earnest, working on the publication process right before lockdown, and then got laid off. Now, it’s all about getting this book finished. And there’s a gift in that, even though it sucks getting let go from your long-time job.
Speaking of our present moment in history, has the death of George Floyd impacted your work as an artist?
I remember the day I saw it. It was a very emotional, visceral experience. It was a moment I was glad to not be at my day job because I was distraught. And that is because I had my own experiences where I thought a police officer might kill me — at least one of those experiences when I was a kid, just ten years old. So, the political climate right now has brought all that back up for me.
I’ve had to reflect on my creative life. Like, I’ve spent a long time talking about movies and superheroes and video games: fun things. But now, how do I reconcile that with actually feeling a certain way about what’s happening in the world? And what happens if I take the space to talk about how this affects me as a black person?
And if I don’t, what should I do? How can I reconcile continuing to talk about the fun stuff with what’s happening outside?
Seeing George Floyd die, it felt almost like I had a responsibility to use my voice, my tools as a writer, because I have a voice, and the people who have been killed do not. They can’t speak anymore.
But what do I say, when I’m worried I might lose friends over this, just by sharing my experiences? I don’t want to say anything other than what I’ve gone through. And I didn’t realize how challenging that would be, even for people who are close friends but don’t seem to understand what that is.
I mean, I know that there’s the piece about how this movement is being politicized. But there’s a piece that doesn’t even feel political anymore. It’s like, ‘Hey, this is not about politics; this is about life and death; lives are at stake. This is about making sure people have the equal right to stay alive and move around the community without being afraid.
What is it that you are afraid people will oppose about you speaking your own experiences?
My concern was for friends who have known me many years, though we’ve never discussed race before. It so depends on how fiery people get about these topics. They tell me that I should just ‘let it go.’ And there’s this feverish defensiveness.
So, just recently within the last month or so, I started writing pieces about some traumatic experiences that I’ve had as a black person in America. I felt like this is something that I have to write about, and out of that grew this video series about my experiences. I’ve been surprised by some of the support I got, and lack thereof in other cases. But I had to say something about this. I felt like, ‘You have to, Steven, if you don’t say anything about anything else. Because this is you.’
What you are saying reminds me of what I’ve heard some women say about the #MeToo movement.
I think you’re right. There’s a similarity. As I mentioned, some of my closest friends are women. And they’ve had similar experiences within that movement where they could no longer remain quiet. It felt like when you’ve been ignoring something because it’s too heavy, like, ‘I need to play video games right now, not to think about it.’ But then when you go out, and every time you turn the entertainment off, you hear about it. You go outside, and you have to be aware of it.
It seemss like the current political state is nuanced, and it’s impossible to understand nuances whenever we’re pressured to herd to one side of an issue or the other.
Yes. It’s complicated. But it’s not about picking sides. It’s about discovering who you individually are. It’s about taking a minute to listen to what comes up inside when you can quiet your mind and all the other noise and find what is growing in the silence. And as you practice, you get better at managing the noise. You can listen to influences and understand what they are saying, but don’t let that meld into what you feel. You still want to behave on your own. Listening is critical.
Connect with Steven Armstrong on Instagram @armstrongtheauthor or through Steven’s Youtube channel: Center 4 Cinephiles
Interview and transcription by @dean_talamantez