The art of ‘Cosplaying While Black’

By Reggie Allen

Special to the Times

A cosplayer portrays Sinestro, a character from D.C. Comics. (Provided photo)
A cosplayer portrays Sinestro, a character from D.C. Comics. (Provided photo)

Cosplaying, or the practice of masquerading as one’s favorite movie, book or cartoon character, is a key component in the world of conventions, or cons. Popular ones like Dragon Con have gained more attention for their attendees rather than their special guests.  Congoers will spend thousands of dollars to create an outfit that will only be showcased for less than 48 hours. For some, it is a hobby. For many, it is a lifestyle.

However, the road to being comfortable in one’s cosplays did not come easy for everyone.

“I’ve gained some tough skin over the years,” said Kyler Wilson- Baptiste, an Alabama-based cosplayer, who goes by the name Scummybear.

The Huntsville native began his cosplay journey in 2011 at Kami-con, the largest anime convention in Alabama. After hearing about the convention, he was hooked. Using an old tunic and his mother’s lace front wig, he had concocted his best attempt at a Link costume.

“[It] looked terrible. Loved every minute,” Scummybear said.

Over the years, the Alabama cosplayer had made a name for himself, but not all of it was positive.

“I’m pretty sure I hold the record for the amount of times called ‘[racial expletive] Link.’” Scummybear said. “What I hated most was for other people to get the same treatment, especially online.”

Michael “Knightmage” Wilson, a Youngstown deputy sheriff by day and a black cosplayer by night, countered, stating that judgment is inevitable no matter who you are.  It is all about finding communities that are supportive of your cosplay choices.

“You will always be judged on something. Race, gender, size, craftsmanship, etc.,” Knightmage said. “But the thing to remember is that no matter what there’s going to be way more support out there than anything else.”

Many cosplayers of color have found solace in the internet, creating various pages and support groups to bolster those that enjoying the costuming hobby. Many bloggers have coined the term “Cosplaying While Black” to describe the practice of people of color masquerading outside of their race.

Outside The Comfort Zone

While the lack of black representation in Sci-fi and fantasy culture plays a part in one’s hesitation to venture out of their comfort zone, it is the fans that can be the most condescending. Over the years, various film projects have been in the hot seat for casting black actors for characters that are assumed to be white.

The West-End hit “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” received a lot of backlash when it was announced that the role of Hermione Granger, a character originally portrayed by a white actress, would be played Noma Dumezeni, a black actress.

“When that happens it does have a negative effect on people making them think they shouldn’t do this or that,” Knightmage said.” On the flip side, it also shows that you can be these people. It’s all in the way you choose to look at it. In the end, truly you are the only one thing that can set barriers for yourself.”

Knightmage’s impressive interpretations of popular characters, such as Spawn, Ghost Rider and Batman have reached viral status on various blogs and social media platforms. But it wasn’t always that way. Like many black cosplayers, Knightmage was initially subconscious of what others might think if he masqueraded out of his race.

The Ohio cosplayer recalls donning his first official costume. An avid fan of comic books and all things sci-fi, Knightmage decided to be the Green Lantern, an integral member of the Justice League for Halloween. There was just one problem. He felt obliged to be the black one. In the comic books, there are various characters that have taken on the mantle of the magical ring-wielding crime fighter. However, only one variation was of African-American descent.

“I’m a fan of [black Green Lantern character] John Stewart, but I felt as if I had to do his suit as opposed to the other Lanterns,” Knightmage explained. “I knew of cosplaying and conventions but didn’t know that world was so vast. Once I got into it, I quickly realized that I was wrong on my hesitation. I could be whomever I wanted.”