'Black Panther' Is For All Black People, No Matter Where You Come From
From the moment it was announced that Black Panther was getting a solo film, there hasn't been a corner of Black Twitter that isn't ablaze. Black Panther is the superhero that we've all been waiting for, and every new detail teased about the film just highlighted the black-as-hell-ness of it all. In location, in inspiration, and in execution, Black Panther is an African tale — and it felt, for a moment while I was watching the film, like Black Panther was also for an African audience. As in, only for an African audience — an African audience who could understand these cultural influences, an African audience who was finally seeing themselves represented in a major superhero film, an African audience that did not, necessarily, include me. But I was wrong.
My initial assumption didn't come out of nowhere. Though I am African, I was neither born nor raised in Africa. I'm a Caribbean American, admittedly more American than Caribbean. As such, what Black Panther means to me is different than what Black Panther means to a Nigerian American, which is different than what Black Panther means to a Nigerian — and what all of us take from the film or understand about the film will be different as well. But, thankfully, the movie makes the point there's no wrong way to see yourself you see in these faces that look like yours. Black Panther gives you a safe space to ask those questions about your culture and how close you feel to it — in fact, the movie actually encourages you to ask those questions.
Of course, I'm not disavowing my African roots. I'm a part of the African diaspora — African in ethnicity. But I'm no closer to the cultures there than research can get me. I can celebrate Black Panther for having a cast that looks like me, but as I sat and watched the film, equal parts fascinated and thrilled, there was another, larger part of me that had to come to terms with the fact that I did not understand it. The culture of Wakanda, influenced by the cultures of African countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and the Congo, were as foreign to me as they likely were to the white man sitting in the theater next to me.
Even if that didn't stop me from loving the movie and empathizing with the characters, it was a humbling experience. But it was also an oddly galvanizing one, which pushed me to want to know more about my cultural background. Especially since the loss of culture — especially for members of the Diaspora — is one of the major plot points of the film. Black Panther spoilers ahead.
Nowhere are the negative consequences of of the African Diaspora on cultural heritage more evident than in the movie's villain. Michael B. Jordan's Erik "Killmonger" Stevens was born in Wakanda but, unlike T'Challa (aka Black Panther), he wasn't raised in the country — at least not for very long. Instead, he was raised in Oakland, CA, in what appeared to be a rundown neighborhood. Between that and his eventual job as a black-ops soldier, Killmonger got to see the many ways in which black people were suffering in a world that seemed socially and politically designed to keep them down — and how they were suffering as Wakandans lived in safety and splendor behind their high-tech barriers.
Thus, Killmonger is motivated by his desire — no matter how bloodthirsty — to right that wrong. And though his methods are cruel and villainous, his stance on bringing Wakandan culture and technology to other Africans is not; it's echoed earlier in the film by Nakia, a Wakandan spy who tries to encourage T'Challa to open Wakanda to the refugees desperately in need of sanctuary. In the end, T'Challa listens to both Nakia and Killmonger, and Wakanda opens its borders. Because, as he says at a press conference at the end of the film, we are stronger as a culture when connect with each other instead of focusing on our differences or hiding behind our barriers.
Of course, T'Challa had sympathetic reasons for keeping Wakandan culture separate even from other Africans. He worried, like many Wakandans worried, that revealing themselves to the world would lead to a dilution of that culture and an invitation for imperialism. And the Wakandans have history on their side to justify those fears. After all, they represent a futuristic version of what the countries and tribes of the continent could have become if not for European colonialism — if not for the geological barriers forced upon us that led me to wonder if I was African enough to understand this film.
As an African American, even one from Jamaica, it's hard not to agree with Wakanda's fears. My island was "founded" when Christopher Columbus claimed the Taíno and Arawak-inhabited island of "Xaymaca" for Spain in the 1400s until the Spanish were forcibly evicted by the English in the 1600s. The English imported so many African slaves that the population was about 94 percent black by 1774, according to Trevor Burnard in a 1994 Journal of Social History report. There were several slave rebellions (and several slave resistances) throughout the 1600s to the 1800s that led to the Abolition Bill of 1808; the Bill abolished slavery on the island, but left the societal system in place that prevented the Africans from advancing or prospering. The economic hardships that continued after emancipation led to more rebellions and more deaths; even now, 56 years after Jamaica declared their independence in 1962, many Jamaicans still live near or under the poverty line.
Yes, I can go there today and see black faces reflected in billboards and advertisements, on products and in most of the people that I pass — but I know it was a long and bloody battle to get there and I know we have a long way still to go to truly prosper in a post-slavery world. So, whether I'm from Africa or not, the fact that Wakanda avoided engaging with the Western world for as long as they did feels like a victory for all black people. It's an inspiring thought: how great we could be if we could have freely celebrated our own culture free from colonialism.
Because that is what, more than anything else, the African Diaspora robbed us of: our culture. We were stripped of our names and given new ones more palatable to white masters. We were stripped of our humanity to justify our mistreatment by, sale to, and segregation from white people. Even now, there are many African Americans who have no idea from what part of Africa their ancestors descended or what their true heritage is; I'm one of them. And there are just as many African Americans who hate being called African American at all; Raven-Symoné told Oprah in 2015 that she identifies as "American" rather than "African American," Whoopi Goldberg declared the same thing on The View in 2016, and JAY-Z wrote a whole song about an unconfirmed OJ Simpson quote where Simpson denied being black at all.
And that's because many of the Diaspora know as much about Africa as your average white man, which is mostly negative stereotypes about how poor or how dirty the countries in the "Dark Continent" are — the same continent where life reportedly began (though this has been disputed). It's like Dwayne Wong wrote for The Huffington Post in January 2016,
Therein lies the conflict in being a member of the African Diaspora and watching Black Panther. It's one of the few depictions of Africa in mainstream media that focuses not on the negative, but instead paints a picture of the continent that makes it as heroic and beloved as it was to our ancestors, as it should be today. But this is an Africa that we've been taught not to recognize, an Africa that it can be all too easy for us to culturally appropriate (yes, black people can culturally appropriate) in our excitement.
These are all the things that I considered as I watched Black Panther, as I was torn between empathizing with Killmonger and silently wishing that Wakanda would keep their borders closed to "colonizers" and "Americans" like Martin Freeman's Everett Ross. And I don't know that these are things that a Kenyan American would consider as they watch the film, or that a South African would consider as they watch the film. I don't even know if these thoughts, these historical considerations, are unique to me, or if they would be shared by other Jamaican Americans.
All I know is this: there's no right or wrong way to connect with this movie as a black person. There's no right or wrong way to answer the hard questions about how much of the culture celebrated in Black Panther is your culture and your heritage. Near the end of the film, Killmonger and T'Challa watch the sun set on Wakanda, and Killmonger talks about how his father once called this the most beautiful sight in the world — a sight that Killmonger never thought he would get to see before he died.
I held that moment in my chest as I left the theater, thinking of everything I don't know, everything I haven't seen, everything I haven't experienced when it comes to my own culture. And I promised myself that I would start asking those questions about, and having those experiences within, the culture that was taken from me. The culture I almost took from myself. The culture Black Panther reminded me to celebrate.