How many Black cartoon characters can you name? If you’re like most people, you’ll struggle to think of more than a few. Animation featured notably racist caricatures for decades, and when it eventually pivoted away from its worst depictions of people of color, the solution from media companies was to largely omit us altogether. That background, along with my Seventh-day Adventist Christian upbringing (which I described in last week’s newsletter) and the pop-culture lens that you hopefully know and love by now, is the foundation of my upcoming book, Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture.
The other week, I shared what I considered the happiest picture of all time. Today’s joy might break last month’s record, though, because Piccolo Is Black is finally available for preorder, and I’m beyond excited. The moment when Andy Dufresne escaped Shawshank and raised his arms in the pouring rain? That’s how I feel.
And while I’m usually too modest to outright say something like this—I’m much more comfortable hyping other people’s work—I think it’s important that you preorder it. Not only because of the importance of preorders (here’s a tweet thread explaining why preorders are so important in publishing) but because it contains a deeply personal story with which I think you’ll relate, whether it’s with the race part, the religion part, the pop-culture parts, or all of the above. It wasn’t easy to write, and I’m incredibly proud that I did. You can preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local indie.
Like most of us, I grew up in a bubble. I lived in Detroit, an all-Black city, and attended an all-Black school. Today, I take pride in the number of bubbles I’m able to navigate, but it was the trauma of being pulled from an all-Black environment and into a predominately white one that made me learn—sometimes willingly, sometimes not—how to speak a new cultural language, earn its currency, and understand its values.
I had to learn the “facts” within my bubbles: that is, those beliefs that aren’t actually facts, but that are strongly held beliefs that are assumed to be shared by anyone inside of that bubble. Outside the bubble, all of the “facts” would be challenged, but inside the bubble, they’re a given, just the starting point of some larger conversation. It was important to know the “facts” to choose how to navigate them: In my Adventist bubble, it’s a fact that we’re living in the Last Days, the clay feet of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue; in my white bubble, it’s a fact that everyone loves Friends; in my Black bubble, it’s a fact that Friends is a whitewashed Living Single.
And in my nerd bubble, it’s a fact that Piccolo is Black.
Piccolo is a character from the anime Dragon Ball Z and isn’t even human, let alone Black. But his role in the cartoon was recognizable as one of a handful of fictional-Black-character archetypes. Not only was Piccolo Black without being actually Black, but a host of other characters were Black adoptees as well, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, when entertainment media were transitioning away from more blatant depictions of racist caricatures but weren’t sold on diversifying their characters yet, either. The result was a generation of kids who learned to “code” characters, assigning them a race, sexuality, or other identities that weren’t specifically prescribed, but that were no less real to those of us who wanted to see ourselves reflected in a media landscape that wasn’t interested in us. While white kids were being taught that it’s virtuous to not see race, I was learning to implicitly assign race to every cartoon character I could.
Piccolo being Black matters because I needed him to be, and so did countless other kids who were searching for heroes to represent who they were and who they could be. Whether in Panthro, Gaia, Optimus Primal, Ursula, Powerline, Martian Manhunter, or Mufasa, we took it on ourselves as kids to find the representation we needed. Those characters helped raise us. We found a way to make ourselves feel powerful within a media landscape that treated us as small. We felt strong because they were strong. And I think that’s a hell of a thing to celebrate.
A Jewish reader, Michael, not only was the winner of last week’s book giveaway but wrote my favorite email of the week, in which he remembered his own experience watching TV as a kid and how he keeps that experience in mind for raising his daughters: “Your memoir blurb about representation (assigning race to particular characters) resonates with me a lot. When I was a kid, I remember that my younger brother somehow got it into his head that certain characters on TV shows we liked were Jewish, even though the characters never did anything to express that (and sometimes did things contradictory to it). I’ve been raising twin daughters who are now 12 years old and I steer them toward a lot of super-powered female characters, such as Squirrel Girl, the Kate Bishop Hawkeye, and Ms. Marvel, and they’ve both enjoyed Avatar and the new She-Ra … I want them to have a diverse set of characters to identify with, and so far, it seems to be working well.”
Everything Michael mentioned is awesome, especially both Avatar: The Last Airbender and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which make the world a better place. If you haven’t seen them, or if you generally think of kid-friendly cartoons as being solely for kids, you should watch them. I can guarantee you won’t regret it. But more importantly, I hope you can remember the first time you saw yourself—I mean, really saw yourself—represented in a fictional character, and what that meant to you. The more we understand the importance of that feeling, the more thoughtful we’ll be about the range of characters we watch, share, and create. And then maybe the kids in our lives won’t have to work as hard as I did to feel powerful.
This week’s giveaway is Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney. Here’s my favorite description of the book (it’s also the funniest literary tweet of 2021, if you ask me). If you’re interested, send me a short email saying whether you watch Succession and if you have a favorite character, and I’ll send the book to the first person who hits my inbox. I still read and respond to every email. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun. Also, The Atlantic is extending the free trial period for Humans Being and the other newsletters, so everyone will have a few more essays for free before it becomes subscriber-only. If you haven’t yet, you should subscribe to The Atlantic so you can just keep reading without thinking about it. Could you even imagine missing this newsletter? Some would call it unconscionable.
53 days until Saga returns.