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Why Black America Resonates With "Dragonball"

Mixed with Black, White, Native American, Jewish and Asian ancestry, Koriander is not afraid to tackle issues of race in media.


We Give Our Ki to Goku's Genki Dama

A Black father cosplays as Goku at a Comic-Con pre-COVID with his baby dressed as Gohan, sitting on a cloud made of glued and dyed cotton. Teenage boys are wearing hoodies of Vegeta at Hot Topic. WWE's New Day are all dressed like Nappa. The fandom for Dragonball feels welcoming.

Some people over the years have been puzzled by how great and vast the Black community is for Dragonball when juxtaposed to any other anime. While other anime-based franchises certainly have their fans in the Black community, Dragonball holds a special place in the hearts of Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, and to a growing degree, Gen Alpha, but the reasons for that are hiding in plain sight.


Goku Is Not Your Monkey

Dragonball/Dragonball Z in the United States was the most accessible anime franchise to Gen X and Millennials growing up in poor neighborhoods. While cable viewers of the late 1990s could watch Gundam Wing and Outlaw Star on Cartoon Network's Toonami block, if you only had bunny ears, your anime options were limited to an edited 65-episode run of Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and Dragonball Z, with select episodes of Dragonball playing out of order early in the morning.

This leads to another reason why Black America was able to accept Dragonball. In many markets, the dub was altered, not just for violent and sexual content, but to satisfy Caucasian ears. The Harmony Gold dub of Dragonball changed "Goku" to "Zero" because they thought Japanese names would be "too hard" to pronounce for American viewers. Ocean and Funimation dubs of the series restored some of the names, but changed others so as not to confuse the little Buffys and Angels running around at home. Americanized Japanese names were created, further changing the culture so that Kuririn and Yamucha were now Krillin and Yamcha.

To anyone whose ethnic name has had to be altered in order to appease the listener, this injustice strikes a chord.

And then we learn in Dragonball Z's second act that the Saiya-jins were originally a warrior race with their own planet and with a rich kingdom with a clear hierarchy. But after King Cold and Frieza annexed their planet and the planets they had already conquered, the Saiya-Jins found themselves in a form of slavery to Frieza. Their children were sent away at early ages to gather supplies and destroy lands while the rest were used in conquering planets for profit on behalf of Frieza.

Once Frieza's fear that there might be a Super Saiya-Jin among them took over, he had the entire race exterminated, and since this moment in history, their history had been erased.

Frieza had spread propaganda about the Saiya-Jins the entire time, so as Goku learns decades later about where he comes from, all he is told is about how dangerous, evil, and thuggish the Saiya-Jins were. Goku becomes so repulsed that he denounces his blood in self-hate time and again, only wanting to see himself as an Earthling.

Friends and family do nothing but regurgitate this hate until long after Vegeta joins the group, but once he does, he spends season after season having to prove to everyone that he isn't going to be the monster Frieza raised him to be.

Frieza gaslights Goku by calling Saiya-Jins "Monkeys" over and over, referencing Saiya-Jins' tails, their ability to turn into apes, and Goku's adoptive name of Son Goku, which is a reference to the Monkey King Son Goku in the tale Journey to the West. When Goku turns into a Super Saiya-Jin because Frieza murders his best friend, Frieza plays the victim card, putting himself into the role of the abused.

Anyone growing up in Black America can relate.


Gohan's Broken Promises

Another example comes from the story of Gohan, Goku's eldest child.

At a very early age, Gohan is expected to grow up fast, and not just because Piccolo wants to use his power to fight Vegeta and Nappa.

Four-year-old Gohan is already doing algebra because his mother is expecting him to study and get adult priorities together in lieu of a childhood. As Gohan grows up, more adult responsibilities are thrown onto him, and along the way, he gains an abusive teacher who beats him for being "a thug" in a filler episode, and adults treat him as a threat because he is half Saiya-Jin.

While Goku can be forgiven for the first time he is taken from Gohan, for the rest of the series, Goku chooses to be M.I.A. from Gohan's life. Goku is given chance after chance to stay at home and raise Gohan, but outside of training for the Androids and the Cell Games, Goku takes no interest in raising Gohan, and all Chi-Chi can do is dump more pressure and responsibility onto him. Piccolo steps in as a surrogate father and does more to raise the boy than his parents, leading him to also being Pan's main grandparent once Gohan starts a family.

Goku chooses to stay away before Chi-Chi finds out she is pregnant with Goten, leaving Gohan to care for the boy after Chi-Chi begins name calling the child because he too is a Super Saiya-Jin. Gohan juggles caring for Goten with a full time job as a crime fighter and as a high school student.

Gohan only wanted to be a scholar, but every time he goes to reach for that goal, his little hand is smacked by everyone except his mother. He is told how "wrong" it is to try to get an education, he is mocked by the people who should be supporting him because he isn't doing enough in their eyes, despite saving the actual Earth.

Many young Black men can relate to Gohan, because in America, they are treated as adults while they are still in kindergarten. Police officers treat Black children with the same force as they would Brock Lesnar, and adults expect more out of them at an earlier age than their peers.


Shenlong Can't Grant This Wish

Black Americans see more representation in Dragonball than in any other anime or cartoon. This is because they can resonate with characters who don't have to act like thugs in a gang, dancing clowns, or like "the token" friend as we normally see in other shows. With the darker skin tones of the manga, it's even easier to see themselves as Goku or Gohan.

Unfortunately, that also comes at a price.

Mr. Popo, for example, is not a human. He is a demigod and a benevolent character who helps Kami, but he is drawn like a 1940s racist depiction of a blackamoor, and in the manga and Japanese sub, he speaks like Elmo. The English dub tries very hard to re-color him and make his speech like an English gentleman's, but it only makes it worse. There's also background characters in the series depicting Black men with 1940s era peach bubble lips.

This highlights the need for more accurate and positive Black representation.

While Dragonball does a good job of tackling the issues of Black Americans at a similar level Marvel's X-Men has, we can continue to evolve.

Dragonball is an important anime franchise that has inspired generations. Hopefully, it will inspire more to create new shows that highlight Black stories without having to hide them like the four star ball.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Koriander Bullard

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