Sheena Howard: Following her dream and changing the comic book scene

Dr. Sheena Howard
Photo credit Antionette Lee/KYW Newsradio
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Dr. Sheena Howard lives in Southwest Philly with her 2-year-old, her mother, and her cat.

That may sound like a normal life, but at 35 years young, the Philadelphia native has already distinguished herself as an author, teacher, academic, and comic book game-changer.

Howard graduated with a Ph.D. from the historically black college Howard University at age 26. While there, she said, she established her identity as a Black, queer woman.

"It gave me a lot of appreciation for little things,” she said, “like natural hair and feeling good about your natural hair; gaining strength from stories of Black people that came before you; having an appreciation for your ancestors and your own family history."

That identity laid the foundation for her comic book writing.

"At Howard, that's when I started doing my work in comics, preserving the history of Black people in the comics industry."

Her first book, called “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” grew out of the work from her dissertation.

"I wrote that book because that's the book that I wanted when I was writing my dissertation on Black comic strips, and I couldn’t find it,” she recalled. “It was really upsetting to not have a book that really delved into the history of Black people in the comic industry."

Filling that void paid off for Howard. The book won her an award at San Diego Comic-Con, making her the first Black woman to receive an Eisner Award — the equivalent of an Oscar, but for the comic book industry.

"I felt like I was following my purpose and my calling to really help in whatever way I can to preserve Black history, to challenge the negative sort of stereotypes and images of Black people."

Howard sees herself as "an image activist" by using her personal experiences to challenge "the normal stories that we feel are acceptable to tell and share."

She continues to pursue her calling through her writing, film producing, and teaching at Rider University.

Q: Tell me about your story and how you got to where you are.

A: I was born and raised in Southwest Philadelphia. I went to West Catholic High School in West Philly. My mom put me through private school (as a) single mom. She definitely made sure that I got the best education that she could afford.

I always liked school. I liked school. I liked having perfect attendance. I liked getting good grades. I also played sports. In high school I played track, cross-country, volleyball and soccer. I was recently put into the West Catholic Athletic Hall of Fame.

So I ended up going to college on a full basketball scholarship. … Basically, along with the values my mom instilled in me — you know, hard work, efforts equal results, as well as the lessons I learned from basketball like teamwork, how winning feels, how losing feels, working together with different types of people — I think all of those experiences taught me about life and how to operate.

I think my experiences also taught me about race relations — how to deal with diversity and different types of people and how to code-switch in different types of situations depending on what you need or want, and basically understanding the ability to talk to different types of people as a positive thing. I think those skills were really valuable for me to learn.

Q: What would you like to achieve over the next five years?

A: I would like to continue along the path of writing more fiction books and telling stories that people are not familiar with or uncomfortable hearing or reading about. So I'm trying to grow as a fiction writer.

I would like to increase my number of speaking engagements. I do a fair amount now. I would like to continue along the path talking about Black history, my work, the different things that motivate me, how to find your purpose — all of those sorts of things. Eventually, I would like to do another film, another documentary film.

Q: What advice would offer to others?

A: As a writer … you have to have thick skin when you get criticism. When somebody gives you criticism, you take the criticism that is helpful to you and you take the other stuff and throw it out and move on. That would be my advice. You’re always going to get criticized for something. Some of it is helpful. When it’s not helpful, ignore it.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: It means a lot to me to be awarded the KYW Women’s Achievement Award. It’s always nice when you receive awards like this. It’s just the universe showing you that you’re moving in the right path and the right direction. It’s one of those signs that say, “Yeah, you’re on your right path.”

Sometimes the closer we get to our destiny, the more roadblocks are actually put in front of us. And sometimes we can get stuck on seeing those roadblocks. But you also have to view things, like this particular award, as the universe pushing you forward into that direction. So I think this award is most important to me because it shows me that my work is touching people.

It shows me that I’m being recognized for a positive impact in my community, and hopefully it will give me a broader audience to inspire people to follow their paths, no matter if you have little babies at home and kids or, you know, demands from your career or demands from your household. There are still ways for you to figure out how to follow your passions and dreams.

You can meet Howard and the other amazing women honored this year at the KYW Newsradio Women’s Achievement Awards on June 27.