Student Captures 1st Place in National Council for Black Studies Student Essay Contest

Elise McCutchen, a senior in Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), was recognized recently as the first-place winner in the undergraduate division of the National Council for Black Studies (NCBS) Annual Student Essay Contest on the topic “I Bet This Never Happens to Superman: Black Superheroes in Comic Books.”

McCutchen was an honored guest at the Student Luncheon of the 34th annual NCBS National Conference, which was held in New Orleans.  She delivered a summary of her essay and received a plaque and a check for $350.

“I’m very excited about it,” said McCutchen, a Long Beach resident who grew up in Cerritos. “When I wrote this essay, I expected to hand it in and get a grade.  It was really exciting to be recognized for my work.”

Africana Studies’ Professor Bede Ssensalo praised McCutchen’s achievement.  “I am very proud of Elise’s success,” said Ssensalo, who has served as her mentor.  “This is the kind of student achievement that any educator hopes for.  It was very satisfying to see her accept her award in New Orleans.  A lot of students enroll in universities without really finding themselves.  I see my role as an instructor as helping students to find themselves and bring out the best in them.  I feel I was able to do that with Elise.”

Ssensalo also applauded the NCBS Essay Contest. “This is the kind of thing CSULB students ought to be participating in,” he said.  “Contests like these inspire students to put their best feet forward. Essays like these are one step away from academic publication. This kind of contest not only reflects well on the department of Africana Studies, but also on the entire CSULB campus.”

McCutchen’s essay examined what is represented by such popular African-American superheroes as The Black Panther, Luke Cage, Icon and Status.  “The first two characters were created by white authors and artists and the second two by black authors and artists,” she explained.  “By comparing these two pairs of superheroes, I tried to show who was the most authentic and what made them so.”

McCutchen was surprised to discover negative stereotypes in black superheroes of the 1970s.  “I wondered what made characters like that and looked for current black superheroes who contradicted those stereotypes,” she said.  “What I found is that those characters created by white authors and artists used more slang and participated in more violence.  They had names that focused on race.  Many served a white, wealthy community as opposed to serving other black people.”

But black-created characters also have negative qualities.  “For instance, the character Icon is portrayed with angry expressions,” she explained.  “That and the focus on his muscles encourage the stereotype of the angry black man.  What other black superheroes did differently was to counteract possible negative indicators in the text with positive ones.  Their creators incorporate African-American literature and history into the comic books.  They offer a diversity of black images.”

McCutchen attended the Orange County High School of the Arts before independent study in her junior and senior years which she completed in a single semester.  “I was really young when I first enrolled at CSULB in 2006,” she said.  “I was only 16 when I applied and 17 when I started.  My first exposure to campus was when I attended a young writer’s camp here.”  McCutchen plans to graduate from CSULB in May with a bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies.

After graduation, McCutchen plans to participate in Teach for America, a federally funded program which recruits college graduates to commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. Beginning in fall 2010, McCutchen will teach special education in a Los Angeles area high school. She also hopes to earn her mild/moderate credential as well as a master’s degree in special education beginning this fall.