Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater was an epicenter of black excellence on an exceptionally frigid Sunday evening (Feb. 18). Throngs of beautifully hued families decked out in dashikis, tribal face paint, elaborately braided hairstyles or just plain all-black-everything rivered their way into auditoriums playing Marvel’s highly lauded Black Panther film. It was a stark visual display and brilliant reminder of the exquisiteness that is the African diaspora, particularly tangible while standing in the middle of what we know to be the mecca of the Black Renaissance. Whether or not you were a blerd or comic book aficionado, if you were black you were innately tasked with supporting a superhero film that centered and exalted blackness, black culture and — most importantly — black people.
Without so much as a cursory Google search on the fictional plot of Black Panther and its glorious setting of Wakanda (I confess, I am not a comic books lover), I entered auditorium No. 9, fully open-minded and ready to receive the messages of greatness that I had previously gathered on Twitter and throughout other social media platforms. In a social climate that is more and more vehemently anti-black, and in a climate that uses black struggles, black pain and black bodies as fodder for exploitive news, I was eager to experience alternative storytelling as it pertained to the black experience, and I was especially eager to witness a paramount, 3-D spectacle of Afro-futurism in a month that celebrates the histories of black people.
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
I immediately and affectionately fawned over the women. Black women in their varied hues of mahogany who were strikingly hairless. An all-female special soldiers unit tasked with protecting the kingdom at all costs and preserving the strength, integrity and traditions of Wakanda. Okoye (Danai Gurira) serves as a powerful force as the head of intel of Wakanda, while Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) finds her calling as a war dog and undercover spy for her nation by going out into the world and helping those in societies outside her native homeland. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is King T’Challa’s kid sister who serves as a shining emblem and hopeful indicator for the future of women in technology. The men — who are extraordinarily dashing as it must be noted — participate in something like a matriarchal society.
The heart of the story begins with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being tasked with taking the Wakanda throne after his father passes. A dreaded family secret that forever changes the course of Wakanda is brought to light when we learn T’Challa’s father long ago murdered one of Wakanda’s spy war dogs living in California with a son he made with an American woman. Said son is Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan, and he is perhaps one of my favorite figures in this narrative. I know what you’re thinking: He’s a cold-hearted villain. He’s got vengeance running through his veins. Hear me out.
As a woman of African-Caribbean heritage, Killmonger was, for me, one of the most vital components of the story that is Wakanda, which is only fictional in name. Killmonger was born and raised in Oakland, but he’s of Wakandan blood on his father’s side. Like plenty of stories told through Hollywood’s lens, Killmonger was a ghettoed black boy raised without a father who managed to overcome the obstacles placed before him. In this story, he emerges a genius all his own: an MIT graduate and ruthless war dog himself. His purpose? To return to Wakanda, overthrow the kingdom, avenge his father’s death, and to also give black men and women the ammunition to fight oppressors. His character, as predicted, appears to be killed off in the end but not without echoing the single most poignant line in the whole story: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
Killmonger was looked at as an outsider; he was not of Wakanda as far as Wakanda was concerned. Even if the movie didn’t portray it or expound on it, anyone of us could make the connection that the Killmongers of the world are often made to feel lost, perhaps ostracized.
As someone who never wanted to be buried in the ground, and as someone whose body is a reflection of those who managed to survive in me, the line struck a chord. It made a home in me. And soon thereafter, it began to suck the marrow out of me. It wasn’t just a powerful statement, it was also a visually impairing one, one that harks back to the bleak fate of our ancestors and the idea that we are set free only in death. Sharing the same quote on my personal social media account sparked the dialogue that we as black folk across the diaspora need to be urgently confronting, unpacking and making sense of today: a conversation on the disconnect between our black people throughout the Americas and the continent herself.
Killmonger was looked at as an outsider; he was not of Wakanda as far as Wakanda was concerned. Even if the movie didn’t portray it or expound on it, anyone of us could make the connection that the Killmongers of the world are often made to feel lost, perhaps ostracized. Maybe like we don’t belong anywhere; like we are not enough of any one thing to simply belong. There’s a brutal history of slavery, of rape and genocide, and thusly of displacement that lends to the notion that black people in the Americas don’t know where they come from. In knowing and speaking with people from Nigeria, Ghana and other nations in West Africa, I’ve come to realize that they are taught to view black people outside of their nations as “other,” while those of us in places like the Caribbean aren’t even taught about slavery, which occurred in larger deposits before hitting the Southern region of the United States.
“The extent of my knowledge about slavery was pretty much nonexistent,” explains Ene, a Brooklyn resident who was born and raised in Nigeria. “We never talked about it. Not in school and certainly not at home.”
On Killmonger’s final words to T’Challa, she added: “His sentiment about death over bondage was painful because as an African we often view Black Americans as lost and “other.” I had no way to relate to that but empathize with the pain. There’s a disconnect and a lot of it is misinformation and the general unwillingness of some Africans to revisit slavery and what that means for everyone.”
The biggest and most important conversation that comes out of Black Panther, I’d wager, is the one concerning the diaspora. The disconnect between our people and the continent. When the dust has settled and we have enjoyed the movie for what it is (a powerful display of black representation and the possibility of it all in alternative storytelling) the conversation we should be having is one of bridging, restoring, reconnecting and reclaiming.
Because how can a people move a nation if we don’t even know where we come from?