How Seeing 'Black Panther' With My Students Genuinely Changed My Life — And Theirs

Black people have been losing our minds over Black Panther since the film was announced over two years ago. We purchased the action figures. We read articles on the movie’s cultural significance. We followed members of the all-star cast on social media and tracked all the hashtags. We coordinated our opening night looks. Yet though I knew the cultural magnitude of Black Panther (released during Black History Month, no less), nothing prepared me for the experience of watching it alongside 45 of my college students, staff, and administrators, all of African descent.

When I announced to the students in my California school that I secured free tickets to opening night of Black Panther, I knew that we would be a part of a Black cultural movement. Our city’s Urban Chamber of Commerce bought out an entire theater for the event, and our tickets included a raffle for a free hair service at a natural hair salon, recliner seating, and photo opportunities with characters in costumes. I got nearly free transportation through our city transit department, which was doing a Black History Month tribute to Rosa Parks for desegregating the buses. As the universe would have it, the city bus took us back to our future.

Leading up to the premiere, I emailed my students movie reviews and slideshows of the “purple carpet” at the Black Panther premiere in Los Angeles. I told them that the dress code was their definition of “Black Excellence,” and that I would be wearing a floor-length mink coat, my afro in full effect, and African jewelry. I wanted my students to experience the sheer joy of seeing a movie for us — and by us — all about what happens when Black life thrives without exploitation and colonization. I wanted my students to see what happens when Black thought, innovation, and beauty are the standards.

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In California, according to the state's Department of Education, Black students make up just 5.6 percent of public school students K-12th grade, and just 3.9 percent of K-12 teachers are Black. At the university and community college level, Black student enrollment has hovered around 4-6 percent in the last 10 years. When you look at these figures in the context of the backlash against affirmative action in higher education, (un)affordable housing and gentrification, and a slowly declining statewide Black population, it’s no wonder that my students often feel alone, misunderstood, unwelcome, and discouraged at school.

I have students who have had White teachers tell them and their Black classmates that they would never amount to anything, who have told them that they are “one of the good ones” and equate their academic success with Black exceptionalism. My students have been racially profiled, mistakenly accused of theft, and targeted with violence because of the color of their skin. Unlike me — who grew up with Afrocentric parents in a diverse pocket of the predominantly white city of Seattle — most of my students have never had Black teachers, principals, or doctors. Their schools never offered courses on Black history. On an institutional and personal level, my students' talents and possibilities have been oppressed and stifled.

And so, with Black Panther, I wanted to connect them to the thousands of other Black students throughout America seeing the movie through the record-shattering #BlackPantherChallenge, and to the teachers, administrators, and community leaders who raised funds to buy out theaters. I wanted my students to feel the elation of Black possibility and freedom, and I knew I had achieved my goal when they showed up to my office the day of the premiere in African attire and their Black Panther T-shirts. I felt it when they told me their thoughts on the soundtrack, and we watched the SZA and Kendrick Lamar video for “All the Stars” together. I felt it when our VP of Student Life — a Black man — showed up to tell our group about the Black Panther action figures he recently purchased. And I felt it when our Associate VP of Student Life and Dean of Students — a Black woman and diehard Marvel fan —and her husband showed up to ride the “party bus” with us and watch the movie.

Courtesy of: Zahida Sherman

I felt it even more when the students who met us at the theater showed up in head-to-toe mud cloth, daishiki shirts and dresses, shirts with Swahili words of empowerment, and pro-Black shirts. And then there was the moment when we entered the theater and saw it full of Black students and community members who were utterly and completely free to be themselves that evening. Unlike in our everyday lives, that night saw us not having to shrink, speak, dress, downplay, present ourselves in ways to make others more comfortable and less afraid of us. Wakanda welcomed us with open arms.

My students and staff joked with me that they had never seen me so excited. And the feeling was mutual. Our collective cheers, groans, gasps, teeth-sucking, screams, finger snaps, and thunderous applause for a plot unfolding in a Black-led nation that outpaced every other country in the world was something we will remember for the rest of our lives. As far as we were concerned, non-Black moviegoers were irrelevant — because for once in our lives, they actually were.

After the movie concluded, I asked my students for their reactions. Among their favorite themes were the relationships between Africans and Diasporans, which is steeped in slavery, colonialism, immigration, access to resources, homecomings, exoticization, and stereotypes. Black Panther handled these tensions with care and empowered viewers with bridge-building possibilities in a way we haven’t before seen on screen.

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My students also loved the focus on melanin and Black beauty. Throughout the film, we saw dark, Black skin shown in a way that was stunning, refreshing, and empowering. The women and men of Black Panther took our breath away, repeatedly (special shoutout to Angela Bassett, who clearly does not age). My students also commented on the characters’ hair styles, which were natural, unique, and ever-changing. They especially loved Killmonger’s braids and were thrilled to learn that 25 hairstylists had worked on the film to beautify the characters, according to The New York Times.

The students were also drawn to Black Panther's shade; while the film’s jokes are funny on a universal level, the manner in which characters deliver them are impeccably and culturally Black (Killmonger’s “Hey, Auntie!”or Shuri’s references to the “colonizer” and “another broken White boy” had us screaming). And my students from the Bay Area erupted into cheers of delight every time characters were in Oakland, home of the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which is not explicitly addressed in the film but is common knowledge to many Black people. That Oakland serves as the bridge between Africa and the Diaspora is appropriate, and that it is the hometown of director Ryan Coogler is perfection.

Courtesy of: Zahida Sherman

Lastly, my students loved that every stereotype of Black people was turned on its head throughout the film. At no point were Black people portrayed as lazy, loud, unaccomplished, stupid, subservient, poor, incapable, downtrodden, or in need of a White savior. Wakandans and Diasporans were multidimensional, and worked in every occupation imaginable. Wakandans defined themselves, named themselves, created for themselves, spoke for themselves, and saved themselves. And in Wakanda, each tribe has their own history, customs, and fashion, all while existing peacefully. One of my students compared the way Wakandan tribes and regional Black Americans respectfully size each other up. We all have our own swag, but it’s all love.

It's been several days since I saw Black Panther with my students, and I’m still receiving texts and emails from them with their thoughts. Many of us are going to see it again soon to feast on the richness of its splendor. Thanks to Black Panther, we are falling into formation to launch our wildest dreams.