By Taliah McGuire, Contributing Writer
In 1985, Harvard professor and mother, Yla Eason, created Sun-Man, the first mass-market Black superhero in decades. Sun-Man became a groundbreaking character for Black children and comic book fans, who were finally able to see a hero who looked like them and who harnessed his identity as his greatest superpower.
In a recent interview, Eason talks about about how Sun-Man and Rulers of the Sun will be adding a new chapter in to the Masters of the Universe adventures and will be giving He-Man a new, powerful partner in the battle against evil.
OGNSC: Are you excited about the reintroduction of Sun-Man? Do you feel like a trailblazer in Black history?
Yla Eason: We are very excited! I am so happy to see Sun-Man making a comeback and with such a huge partner like Mattel. I’m humbled that so many think of me as a trailblazer! I hope that my creation of Sun-Man and entire line of diverse action figures makes an impact. Black children seeing themselves represented in the world is so important for their self-esteem, creativity, and ability to achieve.
OGNSC: What can you tell us about Sun-Man receiving a new partner? Possibly a woman? And how do they tie-in?
Yla Eason: Sun-man is getting a slew of new partners in the fight against evil when he joins the Masters of the Universe to protect Eternia. Sun-Man and He-Man will join forces against evil! While I can’t speculate on future characters, we hope that bringing Sun-Man’s legacy and adventures into the MOTU franchise will empower a new generation of children to discover and harness their own power for good.
You may not know that we created Butterfly women, a line of women who were empowered as a part of the Sun-Man universe back in the eighties. They may see a rebirth.
OGNSC: You created Sun-Man to give Black toys to underserved Black children. Why were you so passionate about this issue? We know you’re a mother yourself, so did that impact why it home for you?
Yla Eason: When my son told me that he could never be a superhero because none of them were Black, that really broke my heart and frightened me about his perception of his future potential. If he put fences around his imagination, restricted his fantasy life, and limited his achievement because of his skin color, then he would be damaging his future to thrive and grow successfully.
As a result, I set out to make a superhero that looked like him and other Black children because when they don’t see themselves in images it can cause them to believe that they cannot achieve anything or don’t hold importance in society. The beauty about Sun-Man is that his powers lie in his skin – his beautiful brown and “magical melanin’ skin which we coined ibn 1985 – that’s powered by the sun. It sends a clear message that brown skin is something to be celebrated.
In addition, I had the honor and privilege to discuss the impact of positive toy images with Dr. Kenneth Clark, who with his wife, Mamie, was famous for conducting the Black doll study that led to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools. In that study, dolls were used to reveal that segregation caused Black children to have “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community.“ Dr. Clark helped me understand the psychological importance of positive representation in toys and their ability to convey significance in societal roles. He supported my belief that Black boys needed Black superhero toys to see themselves as powerful. He added that his doll study showed that a feeling of inferiority “affects the motivation of a child to learn.” Creating this toy was a mandate and a way to honor our ancestral roots.
OGNSC: Does your son know what you’ve done for the community? Does he ever play with/ Has he ever played with the Sun-Man action figure?
Yla Eason: Yes, now that he’s grown, he understands, and now sees that society and his friends affirm its importance. At the time Sun-Man was created, he was only beginning to understand race and its role in America. He knows that there needed to be Black representation and what better way than do it with a superhero. Now he confesses to me that I was ahead of my time with this concept. He used to play with him all the time and would take him to school with him. Once I walked into his after-school program and al kids swarmed me and were screaming with excitement. I said, “what’s going on?” and they said “Menelik told us you could get us any toy we wanted.” So, yes, he bragged about his mom getting him what he wanted and figured I could do it for all children.
OGNSC: What was the inspiration behind the design of Sun-Man regarding his costume and his look?
Yla Eason: It was very important for me to showcase that Sun-Man is not just a Black version of a White toy. He was sculpted to reflect hair with an Afro style, skin tone, facial features, design, accessories, and comic book storyline representing a character of Royal African ancestry. His costume is reflective of his superpowers that he receives from the sun. Because we were on the beach on vacation in Jamaica when my son made the comment about not being able to be a superhero, the red, yellow, and green colors represent the Rastafarian colors and the red, black and green also represent the Black liberation colors and the yellow represents the source of his powers, – the sun.
OGNSC: Would you ever want to create any more action Black action figures? Or does something different like collaborate with the Black Barbie or companies like American Girl?
Yla Eason: You may not be aware that during Olmec Toy’s 14-year existence, we created a full line of toy products from action figures, to dolls, to historical figures and games. We created the Bronze Bombers, who were a line of Black military action figures inspired by the Tuskegee airmen and Black solders like my father. We created a memory matching game – “Black By Design” which featured 36 everyday inventions created by Blacks, such as the traffic light, elevator, and air conditioner to show pride in our contributions.
We created a Black fashion doll, named ‘Imani” whose hair included braids, and little afros and African inspired fashions. Her companion boyfriend was named Menelik, after my son. We created ‘Our Powerful Past” a line of historical figures and made Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King figures posed standing in front of podiums. We created baby dolls a called “Kids of Color” and toddler dolls called “Hip Hop Kids.” We introduced a line of dolls that featured lighter skin tone and deeper brown skin tone Black dolls and we also made Asian, Hispanic and Native American dolls. The company grew to $5 million in sales and was significant in influencing the multicultural representation in the toy industry from 1985 – 1999.
Many of the toy and doll representation concepts you see out today, we pioneered. We introduced the term and concept that dolls should be “ethically correct.” As the legendary advertiser and author of “Brainwashed,” Tom Burrell said, “we are not dark-skinned White people.” Therefore, our toys should not be either.
I am open to exploring other positive licensing partnerships with our legacy line of toys with Mattel.
OGNSC: Who are some influential Black creatives that inspire you today? Can be in film, music, toy design, science, books, etc.
Yla Eason: Growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during segregation, we were always told to “be a credit to your race.” It is an outdated term, but a worthwhile aspiration to believe in uplifting and contributing to the betterment of people of your race who have been so denigrated throughout society.
Therefore, I look for comments, actions, and representations that are about either challenging a negative Black image, improving, and eliminating a harmful practice, and positioning us as intelligent and self-sufficient. I am inspired by social justice warriors. I think it takes a tremendous amount of creativity and bravery to both critically examine and issue, make others aware of it, and create a method to change, improve, or correct it.
Currently, I am inspired by the movement of Blacks to examine the racial bias in data and algorithms that discriminate harshly against us in decisions about health care, employment, housing, and educational opportunities. This movement seems to be led by several Ph.D. Scholars from California and other locations, such as Timmit Gebru, Joy Buolamwini, Kalinda Ukanwa and Ruha Benjamin who coined the term” The New Jim Code,” to highlight the racial bias in data analytics.
Also, the organization started by Tony Effik, (SVP, NBCUniversal) “Black and Brilliant” is addressing employment and educating Blacks in computer analytics and Artificial Intelligence.
And, Bryan Stevenson, an awesome speaker and lawyer, who stared the Equal Justice Initiative” to free wrongly convicted Blacks in prison. The movie “Just Mercy” starring Michael B. Joran and Jamie Foxx, was about the wonderful contributions he has made during his life.
In addition, I am impressed with the MACRO multimedia company. My former agent, and friend, Jelani Johnson, works at this organization dedicated to telling great Black stories. They did the movie, “Judas and The Black Messiah”, which was the first Hollywood all-Black produced movie.
Whenever I hear comments that Black celebrities make to corporate executives that enlighten them and make changes for others, I am inspired. – such as Beyonce making Vogue aware of the need for Black photographers and LeBron James using his voice and influence to speak out against racial injustice. These breakthroughs and acknowledgment of issues that do not affect them, but impact the lives of their fans, is refreshing.
Likewise, I am inspired by another young Black woman, Aurora James, and her “15 percent pledge” which attacks the fact that Blacks represent more than 15% of the revenue of many retailers, yet their store selection does not reflect supporting our vendors. Her movement encourages companies to “dedicate 15% of their total purchasing power to supporting Black-owned businesses.”
When I started my company, to my surprise, my biggest fight was with the exclusion and dismissive attitudes and statements I received from big box retailers who would not carry my products in their stores despite most of their shoppers being Blacks. They told me ‘Blacks don’t want Black toys.” I learned that the most expensive and exclusive real estate in America was on the store shelves. And this was before the internet and online shopping, so I faced severely limited distribution outlets without their support.
That’s why I’m excited about the partnership with Mattel because of their power in being able to place the Sun-Man toy on locations worldwide for all to see and own.
Additionally, Mattel designers developed a new premium action figure, which includes a comic that tells Sun-Man’s origin story and features deluxe artwork which has amazingly already sold out on the Mattel Creations website.