I should have seen it. The warning signs were there. I wept when 45 was elected. I retired from being labeled “evangelical” (I never claimed it), given their visceral support and/or inability to address the cultures and context of our nation. I have committed to only reading authors of color for 2018 as a method of soul care as I’ve become allergic to most things that are white-centered. When the trailer dropped during the NBA Finals last year, I tried to quiet an entire section of a sports bar so I could take in everything. I was bated by every hashtag about it. Like most of my friends, I’ve seen it three times—and planning a fourth viewing. All my devices have home screens that reflect the movie. My friends have been doing a Lent devotional on it that I seriously want to be published. When Erna told me it gave her a fresh decolonized imagination for the Kingdom of God—a place for leaders of color to be who they were created to be…a place where Tamir and Trayvon and Sandra and Renisha and Emmitt were still alive because their dignity was never devalued—I almost wept. I should have seen it…
I long for Wakanda.
And I am not alone.
Many of us long for Wakanda, too. A place that dignifies Black Voices, Black bodies, Black stories, Black legacies, Black leaders, and most of all, Black women. A place where history and narratives can be trusted because they aren’t centered on whiteness. A place where Black leaders aren’t fatigued from being perpetually placed in positions of influence without the agency to affect change. A place where there are no colonized Black leaders presented as tokens of reconciliation and justice who in reality are in place only to serve the Empire of America and white evangelicalism. It is a place untainted by European influence and free from the pollution of cultural marginalization, and as a result is independent of Western ideologies. Most importantly, as Mr. McDowell from Coming to America remarked, “The boy has got his own money!”
Black Panther has truly changed the game. $1 billion and counting at the box office, the litany of responses affirms a strong desire for many to live in a non-white-centered space. All artistic endeavors are open to critique, but given the rarity of the moment, I want to share a few thoughts about what Black Panther meant to me, and I think more broadly the Black diaspora.
Black Panther Showed Us a Sacred Space
A world without the pollution of colonization, imperialism, and perpetual marginalization.
We could almost smell the air of Wakanda when T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye passed through the cloaking barrier to enter into Wakanda. Outside the barrier, you are less than, inferior or the exception to the assumed stereotype. Inside, you are royalty, immediately treated with dignity, respect, and honor. Black people pass it every time we go the barber/beauty shop, Black church, a good friend’s house, and every other place where displacement isn’t the norm. We saw a community free to be who they are without code-switching or having their cultures commodified for European enterprise.
The film showed us what would have happened if Europe would have left Africa alone. It showed that Africa was technologically advanced, and as John Kani (T’Chaka) said, “Aliens didn’t build the pyramids, Africans did.” We got to see Black women be fierce and feminine without being portrayed as hostile, angry, and bitter. We saw Black excellence in the film and behind the scenes as the cast and crew brought their “A” game as all have said they felt the significance of what they were creating. We saw Black leaders and Black love on full display.
Black Panther Called Us to Something
What if Wakanda was real?
Black Panther, I think, called all the marginalized peoples of the West—and perhaps the world to something new—or at least to rebuild what once was. It gave us a glimpse of what could happen if Wakanda was real. We know our stories, whether lived or created, have equal worth and significance as every other artistic contribution.
There have been ongoing conversations among people of color in majority white businesses, organizations, and theological institutions about leaving colonized spaces and creating something new—from us, for us. We are extremely aware that the demands Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. Bill Pannell, “Bishop” Tony Warner, Dr. Ruth Bentley, Dr. William Pannell, and others from decades past are the same demands millennials and Generation Z are making today. Too many of us are begging to have our stories be told, our leaders to be given agency to affect change, and for repentance from organizations that seem incapable of retaining Black leaders.
Wakanda showed us and I think calls us to consider creating a space where the needs of our communities can actually be met. It is a call to respond to the needs of the time and pulling our resources to create what is needed in today’s society.
Black Panther Affirmed So Much of What is Ignored and Devalued
Women and the Dark-skinned people of the world got water in the oasis of underrepresentation.
Every. Body. In. Wakanda. Is. Dark.
Everyone who has met me can obviously see I am Team Yella, and “house negro” status has always come privileges. I am asked to speak to “represent the culture” A LOT. I often find myself in rooms where I am one of two Black people present. Because I am light-skinned, I am perceived to be “safe,” and asked to be a bridge-builder to “those” in my community. Light-skinned Black people are aesthetically affirmed in music, film, television, and modeling depictions throughout the West. Even beyond the Black diaspora, a terrible result of colonialism is the almost universal depiction of whiteness as beautiful and a rejection or misrepresentation of the dark-skinned peoples of the earth.
Not in Wakanda. They all dark and it is beautiful. Finally, dark-skinned Black people got love, screen time, and representation for an entire movie! They aren’t slaves or slain Civil Rights leaders (the only epochs in history Hollywood seems to care about). They weren’t drug-dealers, uneducated, or any other caricature of the culture.
The. Dora. Milaje. Came. Through.
The Black women! The Black women!! The Black women!!! They were on full display! Strong, confident, complex, traditional and not traditional, innovative, unapologetic. They were emotional and it wasn’t depicted as weakness, but accurately as strength. There are not enough words. Nakhia is the moral compass of the entire film. Danai Guira said of her character General Okoye, “I got to protect what would have been.” My sisters have been starving to see themselves told well on screen. I hope it continues—correction, it better continue—because this film proved what they have said and what we have known: they can and have carried their own. You don’t get Black Panther or Wakanda without the women. History and our community know it to be true: we don’t have anything without Black women. They are the strength, the backbone of our diaspora. Oh, and Okoye threw a spear through a jeep—AND STOPPED IT!
Black Panther Viscerally Rejected White Ideologies
The film dismantled the omnipresence and the omnicompetence of whiteness.
If you are a person of color, we know whiteness is ubiquitous. There is no field of study, no job, no business, no justice system, virtually nothing in the West that is not shaped by whiteness. Because it is omnipresent, there is the implicit bias that whiteness, therefore, is universally competent. There is the assumption that because someone is white, they are stigmatized as the expert. Agent Ross models this perfectly in the film.
He is flippant with KING T’CHalla before they interrogate Kluae (which never would have happened with a European monarch). He indirectly infers Okoye’s lack of sophistication when he thinks she doesn’t speak English. He attempted to assert himself into conversations without knowing the tribes, language, culture, or societal customs in Wakanda—and he got no passes throughout the film. Okoye threatened to put him through the table. Shuri called him a “colonizer” and showed him his technology and tactics were significantly outdated by Wakandan standards.
M’Baku threatened to eat him and made him turn around before T’Challa’s resurrection, protecting the intimate moment of the culture rather than let it be consumed and critiqued. This scene alone stands out because it challenges assumptions on both sides. How many History Channel videos have we seen of African tribes depicted as uncivilized and uncultured? Even after seeing Wakanda and her advancements, it took one direct moment from M’Baku to affirm white fears of Black violence as Agent Ross for the first time in the film is horrified by the prospect that he may not be safe existing in a predominately Black space (Reni Eddo-Lodge calls it “fear of a Black Planet”). M’Baku’s actions and laughter (which I think is a legitimate outtake they kept) affirm the demands marginalized people have always had: Respect our space. Respect it enough to listen first. Respect it enough to learn before you attempt to lead. Most Black people were in tears from M’Baku barking at Ross because many of us have been
colonized taught to pause our grieving, our anger, our pain, our very lives to help white people understand our frustrations and contribute their perspective–which often recenters the conversation on whiteness. A case could be made that M’Baku himself is also a king of his own tribe, but he doesn’t have the cross-cultural experience of several university degrees and being an Avenger as T’Challa has. So, while T’Challa dismisses the insults and interruptions, M’Baku has no part in it–and it is life. M’Baku doesn’t silence Ross to dishonor him, but rather to ensure his culture, community, and context are not robbed of honor themselves.
I loved this film. I will most likely see it a fourth time as something new always emerges. Black Panther is an excellent film, but more than adding diversity to the superhero fold and showcasing all the excellence that is the Black Woman, I hope something else happens when the newness of the film fades.
I hope the joy, excitement, affirmation, and representation in the film calls the Black community and margins to a higher standard that requires accountability for white-centered spaces. I hope Black people and Black missionaries go home to different countries in Africa to listen, to learn, to lead, to love and be loved. It may be fiction, but Wakanda has become real for many of us. I hope Wakanda remains for us what leaders look like, affirms the complexity of Black women, and inspires people at the margins to pursue seeing and telling own stories. I hope the billion dollars many of us contributed to will be a bargaining chip in the future so that these types of stories will continue to be told and will expand to include Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous Peoples’ voices.
We heard the voice of the king. “Stand up!” We are Kings and Queens—and we will be given the dignity and respect we are due.