Black Panther. Storm. Green Lantern. Falcon.

Just the names — let alone the vintage plastic action figures encased in their original boxes — can transport Lester Spence back to the 1970s and the living room of the Detroit suburb where he grew up.


In real life, Spence’s childhood was challenging. Drugs and street gangs had begun encroaching into his working class neighborhood and it wasn’t always safe for him to venture outdoors. Household finances were so tight that for one birthday, the only gift the boy received was a cereal/soup bowl.

But those aren’t the memories that return as Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, browses “Empowered! Black Action Figures, Superheroes & Collectibles," the new exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

The exhibit consists of two-dozen fictional black icons from the 1970s to the early 2000s. It includes characters firmly ensconced in the American mainstream (“Star Wars’ ” Lando Calrissian and “Star Trek’s” Lt. Uhura) as well as lesser known but fascinating figures such as Omega Man, who travels back in time to fight crime and correct social ills.

For Spence, the action figures evoke the elaborate campaigns he launched as a boy with his beloved Micronauts, inexpensive Japanese-made action figures with metal heads. Unlike Superman and Batman and the other toys available to young Lester at the time, the Micronauts had no discernible racial identity.

“That period of my life was really fraught," said Spence, a self-described “comics nerd” who wrote some of “Empowered’s" wall text.

"But it’s only when I’m reflective that I can say, ‘O.K., this was the same time that my dad was laid off for long stretches.’ The toys kind of bleed out everything except a golden light. I was playing out all types of fantasies in my head and exploring in all types of ways.”

The exhibit might make museum visitors smile from the moment they spy life-sized cardboard cutouts of Storm (from Marvel’s “X-Men” comics) and Falcon (the “Captain America” comics) suspended from the ceiling and “flying” into the first floor gallery.

“It’s relatively new to have black characters in the role of action stars and superheroes,” said Jackie Copeland, the Lewis’ executive director. “It’s a very complex cultural phenomenon.”

The exhibit and 40 other action figures were a gift to the Lewis by Robert Hall, the retired associate director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum. (Hall, a lifelong collector, also donated about 1,000 buttons to the museum that will be displayed in the future.)

Hall spent his career in education and often finds himself thinking about how a culture’s dominant images shape behavior. As he put it:

“Heroes and sheroes from African American history have so much to do with creating a positive mindset in young kids. In the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up, we didn’t have that. What we had was 'Amos 'n' Andy’ " (He was referring to the long-running radio and television sitcom riddled with racial stereotypes.)

Hall said he decided to donate the collection to the Lewis because the action figures "weren’t doing me or anybody else any good just sitting around. I wanted them to be used in some way.”

Experts say children who play with action figures are rehearsing the characters of the men and women they will eventually become. But that doesn’t explain these toys’ appeal for those who are already grown.

“If you look at market demographics, the consumer market is primarily adults," Spence said.


For some savvy collectors, the motivation is financial; rare toys can go for a pretty penny. In 2015, for instance, a Luke Skywalker figure from 1978 fetched $25,000, according to the website for the Sotheby’s auction house. (Kaili Lockbeam, the Lewis’ registrar, estimated the value of Hall’s 60 action figures at approximately $850.)

But Spence also thinks that adults respond to toys’ ability to freeze important cultural moments in time. Because toys are often are created in response to forces sweeping in American society, some of them — perhaps unintentionally — reflect a point of view.

For instance, in 1964 and at the height of the civil rights movement, the Hasbro toy company rolled out the first ever black action figure, an African American G.I. Joe.

The black soldier was surrounded by his white war buddies in what Spence described as an example of the integrationist ideology advanced by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that sought to incorporate black Americans into the mainstream.

Two years later saw the advent of the Black Panther, the ruler of the fictional land of Wakanda, a hidden society of technologically advanced scientist-warriors — and a nod to the nationalist ideology and black power movement espoused by Malcolm X.

Some characters and story lines were created as explicit social critiques.

One example: a revealing panel from the 1977 DC comics in which Superman attempts to recruit Black Lightning to join the all-star Justice League of America. The wall text notes that the offer was made only after the Man of Steel disguised other team members as second-string superheroes, and had them attack Lightning to ensure that his super powers were up to snuff.

“This issue speaks to many discriminatory ‘tests’ that African Americans had to take to vote, get a promotion, or a job,” the wall text reads.

Once the trick is revealed, Lightning angrily refuses to join the Justice League. He decides instead to continue teaching school in the inner city, reasoning that’s where he can do the most good — and thereby demonstrating true superhero bonafides.

Other toys make a social point that in retrospect seems so obvious that it’s amazing that no one thought of it before. Take “Omega Man,” an action figure created by the Kansas-based community activist Alonzo Washington after a lifetime of being frustrated by racial stereotypes.

Omega Man figures were produced in two skin tones — one the color of coffee, the other, of tea — to reflect differences in the real-life complexions of the African American children who were the toys’ target audience. Omega Man received a limited distribution by major retailers in the 1990s, according to the wall text.

“Representation matters,” said Jenn Biddle, the Lewis’ marketing and communications manager. “Children want to see superheroes who look like them. My dad is black and my mom is white, and that’s why Omega Man speaks to me."

The exhibit will include such interactive components as a “selfie station” where visitors can photograph themselves wearing superhero masks. Special activities — perhaps a selection of costumes, perhaps a panel made up of comic book creators — also will be planned for Oct. 19 to coincide with the Baltimore Comic Con 2019.

Copeland doesn’t remember being aware as a girl of the dearth of black female role models in popular culture. But she vividly recalls the day in 1966 when she switched on the television and found one: Lt. Uhura, the comely and highly competent translator on “Star Trek.”

An embrace that Uhura later shared with the Capt. James Kirk, commander of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, has been widely credited as the first scripted interracial kiss on American television.


“I was just mesmerized by Uhura’s presence," Copeland said.

“After a year, Nichelle Nichols, the actress playing Uhura wanted to quit the TV show and go back to singing. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said ‘No, we need you as a role model on television. You’re very important.’

"So she stayed.”

If you go

“Empowered! Black Action Figures, Superheroes & Collectibles,” runs through Feb. 23, 2020, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. $6-$8; free for children under 6. (443) 263-1800 or lewismuseum.org.