As a child in the Midwest, David Johnson said he dreamed of becoming an engineer.
But finding mentors who looked like him was hard. African Americans have long been underrepresented in science and engineering — even now, federal data show that only about 4 percent of engineers in the U.S. are black.
Comic books are what transported him to new worlds: Marvel superheroes like the Hulk, Spiderman, Cable and Black Panther “way back in the day,” said Johnson, now 38 and an aerospace and mechanical engineer in Connecticut.
“It allowed us to go to a different place, versus where we were.”
When Johnson heard about the cinematic Black Panther, with black actors cast in positions of power and brilliance in the technologically superior Wakanda, he saw it as a “revelation” — a way to show students of color how cool engineering can be.
In that spirit, a crew of students and parents got to see Black Panther at a Hartford theater during opening weekend, thanks to Johnson. Along with buying 60 tickets for Saturday’s 5 p.m. screening, he arranged for African-style facepainting and drumming in a private room before the movie began. The room was decorated with images of superheroes and African royalty.
“I had a group of my coworkers who wanted to go see it yesterday when it came out,” said Shemell Gibson, father of Hartford fifth-grader Rishon. “I said, ‘Nope, I’m going with my son on Saturday.”
Sandra Inga, a top administrator in the Hartford school system with an engineering background, was one of the people accepting strategic dabs of paint under her eyes. She remembered getting a call from Johnson, a local member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
“I thought, ‘Oh, OK, Black Panther, is that Angela Davis?’” said Inga, referring to the famed activist of the Black Power movement. “He said, ‘No, no, no.’ He’s like, ‘Black Panther the movie. The superhero. What do you think about taking some kids?’”
The timing couldn’t have been better. This school year, NSBE started a junior chapter at a city school, Rawson in north Hartford, where students such as Rishon have begun learning the principles of engineering. Inga suggested they invite some Girl Scouts, too.
“That’s what we ended up doing to show kids the power of animation and engineering,” Inga said, “and to get them excited about seeing somebody that looks like them being a superhero.”
In Black Panther, the storyline is rooted in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, a secluded nation in Africa that has never been colonized.
While other superpowers think Wakanda is a third-world country, the Wakandans have a secret — they’ve created the most advanced civilization on Earth. Part of the reason is vibranium, a metal in the Marvel universe that Wakandans have used to power their supersonic transportation, miraculous healthcare and even the superhero suit that protects their king, T’Challa … the Black Panther.
STEM themes are so prominent in the movie that a local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers set up a table in the theater lobby. Khamani Harrison, 25, an environmental engineer who lives in Hartford, networked and shared printouts of articles on topics such as “The Physics of Animation.”
Only about 3,600 African Americans a year receive bachelor’s degrees in engineering, according to NSBE. The group’s goal is to increase that number to 10,000 annually by 2025.
That’s where Christopher Etienne comes in. Through NSBE, the 27-year-old engineer at Pratt & Whitney works with the precollegiate crowd to get students interested in STEM careers before they get to a university and choose majors.
Etienne, a Brooklyn native who now lives in a Connecticut suburb, said his experience is that black students too often believe that sports or entertainment is their only route to success. That makes him think they were discouraged from science and tech early on.
“When I was in college … the narrative that I kept getting from my friends who were not engineers was that, ‘Oh, I could never do that … . It’s impossible. I’m just not good at math’ or ‘I’m not good at science,’” Etienne said. “I think it starts when they’re young.”
Streaming into the theater were mothers and fathers, children, grown friends, and a decent number of engineers. For more than two hours, stretches of hushed silence were punctuated by cheers and laughter. After the movie, Hartford educator Dario Soto paused for a debrief. He came with 11 of his students from Rawson, the school with the NSBE Jr. chapter and superhero posters in the science and computer labs.
“We saw the sister character: her main asset was her brain,” Soto said. “And really, that was the biggest muscle she had, and that’s what she used.”
Tobian Banton, a lab manager for STEM Scouts in Hartford, said she loved that children could see a black superhero who is enthralled with science.
“Seeing ourselves on screen is something we have never really seen before, especially in such a positive light,” Banton said. “So it definitely was important for me to bring my kids so they could see: You can be amazing. You can be a future scientist. A future engineer.”
As a light snowfall coated the city, Johnson, the man who bought the tickets, gathered people young and old for a picture in front of a huge Black Panther poster in the Bow Tie Cinemas lobby.
“Ready? Say ‘Black Panther!’”
Johnson hopes Black Panther is the portal for students to dream big, just as he did as a child.
“There’s more than just what you know inside this little, small community here,” he said.
This report is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.