A crowd instantly formed around Ronald Seaman when they saw what he could do.
The masked man with pointy ears jutting up from the side of his helmet rolled his wheelchair into the lobby of the Robert W. Saunders Public Library, dressed head-to-toe in black and gold armor, holding a fake weapon with a pseudo-spear attached.
Then, suddenly, his chair elevated him to a standing position. Everyone stopped and stared.
“I made Tact Panther,” Seaman said. “Tactical Panther.”
The fake weapon is a Super Soaker toy water gun that he outfitted with other pieces he made with foam or bought at the dollar store.
He said his superpower is making people smile, which he did instantly when he stood up with the help of his motorized chair.
“Before this, I did 25 years in the military,” Seaman said. “This kind of gave me my life back after three years in hospitals. It gave me something to do and it’s fun.”
The advent of the library system’s AfroCon shows that fantasy worlds filled with superheroes are not just for children. It also shows that the creators of those fictional places and the gifted characters that inhabit those worlds are for everybody, including black and brown people too.
Latasha Harrison and Gabrielle Thomas work for the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative and were a part of the planning committee that brought Tampa’s first library0based AfroCon to life.
“(Black superheroes) have been around for decades and a lot of people have no idea who they are, like Iron Fist, Black Lightning, Blue Beetle,” Thomas said. “So we want to make sure everybody knows who they are, can celebrate them, and there hasn’t been one (AfroCon) in Tampa so we want to make sure Tampa gets to celebrate.”
Harrison said kids should be able to see that superheroes can look like them.
BLACK LIKE ME
Meliana Cassarino, 9, was one of the dozens of kids who came to the convention. She dressed as Shuri, the technological genius of the Black Panther comic and sister to the main character.
“I like Black Panther because it’s a black character in Marvel, and you wouldn’t expect that many black characters,” Cassarino said. “And I like Shuri because she’s a scientist and she’s part of the Black Panther group, which is about technology, which I’m a fan of.”
Cassarino said that she also wants to be a scientist like Shuri, who uses gadgets to fight the bad guys. But Cassarino said has she superpowers too.
“I’m pretty good at math, I’m a good reader and I’m always kind to my friends,” she said.
Cassarino took a photo with Charles Davis and his wife, Tahrita, who dressed up as Black Panther and Okoye for the convention. The couple said they go to schools as the Marvel superhero and warrior woman to talk about anti-bullying tactics.
Davis said they focus on inner awareness, including meditation and decision-making skills.
“The Black Panther symbolizes hope and because it did so well, from a movie standpoint, a lot of the kids saw it and really enjoyed it,” he said.
The couple said the costumes help them relate to the children so they can better receive their message of kindness.
SUPERHEROES AND COSMIC CREATORS
From the purple cape-clad Ms. Violet, the protector of books, to comic creators Terance Baker and Rob Richardson, AfroCon showcased the stories and imagination of black artists and writers.
Baker started making comics in elementary school. His first character was called Captain Defender.
“I started doing comics on notebook paper at home and I just put them in the closet,” Booker said. “When I came out of the military, my friend said to me...you need to publish these.”
He now publishes comic books with other writers and illustrators through a collaborative he founded called Independent Creators Connection.
“When you see somebody else that can do the same thing (as Batman and Superman) and he kind of looks like you, it has a more personal feeling,” Baker said.
Tampa-based artist Rob Richardson said he started his career as a comic creator as an adult in his 20s. Over the years, he has also designed toys and other art. He teaches kids to use their ideas to create fictional worlds too.
“Almost everything comes from imagination,” he said. “...even the library we’re in. Somebody had to think of it before it was actually on paper.”
Richardson added, “As you get older, you grow up and you sort of get into set ideas. Whereas children, as they grow up, they are free to explore everything. They’re so open to everything and they’re the future so their imagination is the future also.”