Bambadjan Bamba, the Grey’s Anatomy and Suicide Squad actor who revealed his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status last November and just appeared in Black Panther, says that he “jumped” at the chance to appear in the movie, and not just because it would eventually turn out to have one of the top-grossing opening weekends of all time. It was personal. “The Black Panther, who has appeared in Marvel comics since the late 1960s, is a card-carrying member of the Avengers and, we later discover, an undocumented immigrant living in New York City,” Bamba writes in a Washington Post editorial:
In the seminal 2011 comic series “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear,” the main character, T’Challa — the ruler of the fictional country of Wakanda — deals with the complexities of being an African immigrant without papers.
In the comics, T’Challa acquires forged immigration papers and assumes a new identity, “Mr. Okonkwo,” an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo who owns a small diner in the New York neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. He is living there secretly to take over the role of another Marvel superhero — the Daredevil — as the neighborhood’s protector.
This story resonated with me because, while I was trying to maneuver through life without legal status, I was also dealing with the realities of being black in America. To be black without papers meant that I was walking on an additional layer of eggshells, never wanting to appear too “aggressive” or “suspicious” for fear of giving law enforcement a reason to criminalize me and triggering deportation proceedings.
Bamba came to the U.S. when he was just 10 years old and, like many other immigrant youth, had no clue that he was undocumented until he was a young man and tried to apply for financial aid for college. He had decided to stay quiet about his status as a DACA recipient up until recently, but called Donald Trump’s decision to end the program last September “the last straw … not only am I married, but I have a daughter now. I didn’t feel like I could still sit back and keep hitting the snooze button.”
He was inspired by other DACA recipients to spur into action, and now he’s hoping his own action helps spur others. “It was incredible to read the Black Panther comic, in which this year’s biggest superhero is undocumented and has to grapple with that new identity. Representation of immigrants—documented or undocumented—in popular culture is sparse, and it becomes even more sparse when looking at the representation of black immigrants”:
The fact that the comic book character of Black Panther is undocumented should not be more shocking than his supernatural abilities, particularly when you consider there are 575,000 undocumented black immigrants.
Why do we rarely hear their stories in popular culture?
Inspired by the Black Panther, I became an ambassador for Define American, an organization that challenges common perceptions of immigrants by urging people to “come out” about their citizenship status and own their identities as Americans, even without papers. The Black Panther’s story has given us a rare pop-culture conduit for our mission, using social justice themes in the film and comics to engage fans in real-world action around race, identity and immigration.
It’s all the more relevant when Donald Trump and his administration are launching attacks directly affecting black immigrants, including ending DACA—there’s about 11,000 black immigrants in the program—ending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for tens of thousands of Haitians, and ramping up policies that result in “black undocumented immigrants [being] detained and deported at disproportionate rates.” Bamba says it’s his “hope that, when people see this movie, they use its themes to foster the tough conversations about the experiences of undocumented immigrants and encourage all Americans to recognize the contributions of black Americans and African immigrants to our culture and prosperity as a nation.”