The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture located in the heart of Baltimore is giving visitors a different way to take in the black experience through a new exhibit called: EMPOWERED! Black Action Figures, Superheroes & Collectibles.
Two-dozen black action figures await those who want to see familiar superheroes like Lt. Uhura from “Star Trek.” Not so familiar figures are there too, like the crime-fighting Omega Man. The action figures date from the 1970s to the early 2000s.
We’ve seen it first hand with kids that come in here just excited to see black and brown faces looking back at them as heros and toys, so that’s why we did this exhibition,” said Jenn Biddle, marketing and communications manager of the museum.
Like the reaction to the release of the Marvel movie “Black Panther,” the 2018 runaway hit comic book adoption starring a predominantly African American cast, museum staffers said they are getting the same reaction from exhibit visitors taking in EMPOWERED!
“When diverse people are shown in the role of superhero, it is actually a commentary of where we are as a nation. The rise of the black action figures shows that they would actually sell. There was a market there. People actually wanted to see a black action figure, a black hero,” said Biddle.
The first black action figures date back to the mid 1960s with the debut of the first black G.I. Joe. Historians say after that, more and more black action figures became available as toys.
Robert Hall, who was an associate director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, is the collector who made the exhibit available for the world to see. Hall originally wanted to showcase his collection at The Smithsonian, but discovered the Lewis Museum. He told Lewis officials hosting the action figures the museum would be the best fit for the collection.
Jackie Copeland, museum executive director, said the exhibit marries Hall’s enthusiasm about his collection and the importance of representation.
“This is a fun exhibition, and it’s very relatable. It’s also a teachable moment for our audiences to understand the complex nature of black superheroes and collectibles,” said Copeland.
Fans taking in the exhibit agreed that it is something worth experiencing.
“My favorite part was seeing all the figurines and all the representation in black culture because I wasn’t really aware how much there actually was. So I think that in a time where black superheroes seemed a bit taboo, I didn’t realize how much that was pushed,” said Vincent Fasano of Long Island. “I think it definitely had a cultural impact, and I am glad that this exhibit is here to commemorate that.”
“I am a huge superhero fan and it was very interesting to get to see how much African American culture has shaped that and how superhero culture has been influential in improving the roles of African Americans in the media,” said Ashna Pathan, a Baltimore area college student.
EMPOWERED! opened in August and runs until February 23, 2020.