Vilissa Thompson, LMSW
Originally posted on Ramp Your Voice!
Luke Cage was one of Netflix’s original series I had waited all summer to watch. Being a blerd and someone who enjoys comics, I was proudly a part of the #Cagetember fandom seen on Twitter. What excited me was not just Luke’s amazing abilities, but the fact that he was a Black disabled character, an existence that does not receive enough attention or respect within comic spaces. Luke represents so much to disabled blerds like myself, and I felt that it would only be justly to share why Luke’s existence matters, and the need for more Black disabled characters.
Luke’s Disabled Body: A Man-Made Creation
Luke Cage’s body is invincible against bullets, and he has supernatural strength. This is a man who can bend guns like they are made of Play-Doh, throw vehicles across the street without breaking a sweat, and can take a full clip of bullets without blinking. Luke Cage, in a time where Black bodies are brutally victimized at the hands of the police, is the superhero Black America needs. He wears a hoodie in homage to Trayvon Martin and those targeted in our community, and has taken on the “Harlem protector” role that he fought internally against. Luke does not see himself as a hero, but to Harlem, and fans of the series, he IS our hero against crime and police brutality. It has been quite humorous to see discomfort displayed towards a character who is unapologetically Black. Luke Cage embodies the kind of Blackness that many of the majority fear – a Black man who cannot be harmed and a Black man who uses his superhuman powers for good.
Luke’s body, as amazing as it is with its seemingly endless capabilities, was man-made – he was a part of a scientific experiment that was unethically conducted while he served time at Seagate prison. It was due to an accident when he was under experimentation that caused him to become powerful; he is the only known person with his abilities. Due to this, Luke has remained low-key about his strengths, and was reluctant to be casted into the spotlight when his abilities gained attention in the community. Luke knew that his powers, if he was not careful, could attract the attention of those who would want to use him for their own personal interests and possibly do harm. One of the many things I love about this character is how humble and self-reflective Luke is. He understands fully how his strength can be used for good and evil, and when it comes time to do the right thing, he does not hesitate to do so.
Though Luke’s physical capacities causes him to be perceived as either friend or foe to others in the series, we must not overlook Luke’s hidden disabilities – the trauma he endured while in prison that has had lasting effects on his psyche. While at Seagate, Luke was forced by beatings and manipulation to be a part of a corrupt prison fighting scheme. To ensure he would participate, the livelihoods of those Luke befriended were put at risk if he did not do what the prison guards wanted of him. The emotional and mental traumatization Luke endured can be seen early on when he has flashbacks of his imprisonment, and the pacing he does in attempt to calm himself. The mental anguish of being dehumanized while incarcerated is not uncommon; though Luke is a fictional character, the trauma he lives with is the reality for many in our criminal system.
Luke’s body is disabled due to the encounters he has had at the hands of people – those of authority and those who sought to make him submit for their own gains. This realization stood out to me profoundly as I watch the series unfold; the causations of Luke’s body to be disabled cannot be ignored by lovers of the series, or comic book enthusiasts.
The Portrayal of Black Masculinity in Luke Cage
What pleasantly surprised me while watching the series was the many facets of Black masculinity depicted that goes against typical media representation. Every male character – Luke, Pop, and Cottonmouth especially – were deeply complicated and sides of their humanness, no matter how grotesque or gentle, were equally shown in order for us to see the full person. As I described earlier with Luke, we got to understand why he was so guarded about his abilities, and yet saw his tender spots when it came to those he loved. Cottonmouth, the villain we love to hate, was not a hard-hearted individual by nature; his environment helped to shape him into who he became as a man. Seeing Cottonmouth’s “evolution” sadden me because he embodied how nurture (in this case, familial makeup) can drastically influence how a person becomes. He had so much potential with his musical abilities that were not fully supported, and we learned how that was a regret he had towards his family. Pop displayed a different type of evolution – he was a “big man/hustler” in his community who turned into the father figure many desperately needed and relied on. Pop represented the “we can all change and become a better person” character; Pop’s barbershop was considered Switzerland, a safe space against the harshness of Harlem.
The complexities of these three characters specifically showed that Black men are more than the stereotypes the media and society attempts to box them into. The depth of their humanity and flaws were significant for a series where Black and Brown characters dominated. Luke Cage is a prime example as to why we need better representation of people of color; this accurate portrayal should not be considered an anomaly to viewers like myself.
Black Disabled Comic Book Characters Matter
As one can easily gauged by this piece, Black disabled characters matter to me, and good representation matters more. Though Luke is the center focus of this piece, I would be remiss if I did not shine a light on the other Black disabled character in the series, Mercedes “Misty” Knight. Though Misty is not disabled in this particular series (Misty becomes disabled when she loses her arm in a bomb explosion while on the job for the NYPD; Iron Man makes her a bionic arm), she is one of the few Black disabled female characters in comic books.
Excuse my language, but Misty is one badass woman, and we see that badassery in Luke Cage from her hard-nosed approach in handling the bad guys. Though Misty is perceived as no-nonsense when it comes to doing her job for the NYPD, her vulnerability, sensuality, and softness as a Black woman were also captured fully in the story. Seeing the complexity of Black female characters is just as important as it is for Black male characters. Black people are not incapable of experiencing emotions beyond anger and aggression; Luke Cage does an excellent job of debunking those myths with characters like Misty. Misty is hands-down my favorite comic book character of all time, and to see her have such a resonating role in Luke Cage made me fangirl hard.
Though there are not many Black disabled characters in comics, their absence is definitely apparent when the publicity and fandom of white disabled characters in comics are the visible faces of disability. Yes, this is a good example of #DisabilityTooWhite in literature, and must be recognized and corrected. Disabled people of color need comics with characters that look and live like them; the limited visibility is not lost on us who desire for more Lukes and Mistys in these fantasy universes. For me, characters like Luke and Misty displays a different type of Blackness that goes unseen; my Black experience matters just as much as anyone else’s, and disabled characters drives that truth deeply home.
It has almost been a month since #Cagetember took place, and I still cannot get over the awesomeness of Luke Cage. My excitement for season two cannot be contained; I want to see Luke and Claire together, #ShadyMariah got my goat (the “so bad it’s good” ship you cannot help to root for), and to see some of the new players we will be introduced to. Though I am still geeking over the show, the soundtrack deserves equal appreciation because the performances were too fire for words. (The song that had my head bobbing was “Bulletproof Love” by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad featuring Method Man.) It will be interesting to see what transpires next season (and if Netflix will experience another shut down again – be ready, ‘Flix), and I know my heart will feel as if it will jump out of my chest with every battle Luke faces. He is indeed the superhero I need.
Thank you for existing, Luke Cage, from the bottom of my disabled blerd heart.
Vilissa Thompson, LMSW is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant “tire track mark” on the world.