When Marvel’s Black Panther meets black America

by Christen Hill | February 19, 2018 9:24 pm

I was standing in line at a Georgetown movie theater this weekend when a woman asked if there was an African celebration taking place. She glanced at my orange tiger-striped head wrap and asked if I was from Africa. I told her I was there to see the movie Black Panther. She hadn’t heard of it.

Even after having spent two summers in college in Ghana, I must admit that wearing something so culturally specific gave me a bit of internal trepidation. I was hesitant to wear the wrap all day and decided to put it on just before going to the movie. I wanted to go with something subtle just in case I was the only person there dressed up. But to my surprise, I was welcomed by a fellow donning a black beret and leather jacket, obviously paying homage Huey P. Newton, leader of the historical Black Panthers. We took a few selfies together with some other strangers who donned their own African garb for the occasion.

My social media timeline was full of other people wearing African- or 1960s-inspired Black Panthers attire to celebrate the premier of the Hollywood blockbuster that starred a black superhero and centered the history and experience of black people in its story.

Seeing how black Americans were reacting sparked a huge question for me about the dichotomy of black America and African culture. For years there’s been a distinct separation between the two. Black American baggage from slavery and civil rights loom in ways that can’t  be unpacked easily while Africans bare their cultural traditions with pride, seemingly disassociating themselves with the same oppressed identity.

As I settled in to the movie, I wondered why the initial Black Panther comic book series about an African super hero was named after such a staunch American civil rights group? Didn’t the writers at Marvel know that black Americans and Africans had beef? I guess not.

Growing up, I was taught to fear the Black Panthers’ militant style of advocacy. I was told they were violent extremists. It wasn’t until recently, as I nurtured my own education about the history of black Americans in this country, that I learned the Black Panthers had started food initiatives and school breakfast programs. They were devoted to protecting and serving their communities and were relentlessly tracked and targeted by the FBI.

So up until now, I had let freedom ring non-violently Dr. King-style, but still harbored confusion about how I could support the community in which I am part. Do I embrace my African roots, of which I have no direct ties, or do I create a path within the American fabric, even though it feels as if America has never really embraced people who look like me?

In the 1960s, African Americans warmly embraced African culture as their own. It was a sort of rebellion against the institutional racism that oppressed them for so long. As black American culture gained ground socially, it was the same unapologetic ownership of blackness that propelled the movement exponentially. Black folks were caught wearing the highest afros and most stylish dashikis.

Black Panther the movie did an excellent job at unearthing some of those underlying currents that still haunt American society today.

Several themes resonated for me.

First, the white people. Only two main characters were white and the relationships between them and those who ruled the fictional African nation of Wakanda was filled with distrust. The white characters had to prove themselves. It is a distrust that is real. We all know that without support from our white counterparts, there can be no progress, yet allowing white people into our proverbial homes (in this case Wakanda) and behind the veil that W.E.B DuBois described in his book “The Souls of Black Folks” can be dangerous for communities of color. It is often hard to tell who is a spy and an ally. We must take personal risks and they must make personal sacrifices to overcome this distrust.

Here come the spoiler alerts:

The connection to black American culture was CRUCIAL for this movie. It was a game changer for the audience and showed the nuances of the black experience. One of the Wakanda characters was raised in the U.S., subject to the systemic oppression that eats away at black Americans. The character grew up without his father and used his superpowers as an act of revenge for all he and his community suffered.

Finally, the most glaring example of how the movie Black Panther reflected reality was in the valuable resource vibranium. In the movie it is a mined resource that gives Wakandans their superhuman powers and advances their technology centuries past current American civilization. Wakandans protect vibranium at all costs; in the wrong hands, it could be used to control the world.

In reality, Africa has been stripped of innumerable resources. They have been mined for ages, leaving African countries weak and dependent on western support. Vibranium is an illustration of the potential of having and losing such valuable resources. Arguably, if Africa could have maintained their resources and sold them to the rest of the world at a fair price then they would be a super power as well.

As the final credits rolled, I felt pride and reveled in the superpowers of a movie that was unapologetically black.


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