Author: aimeelehmann (page 2 of 2)

The King Is Dead…

As I stood in line for Black Panther’s opening night, what struck me most was the overwhelming sense of pride that rang through the theater.  Many people wore kente cloth or other African-inspired clothing, celebrating with bright colors and unabashed excitement.  As a theater, we cheered to watch T’Challa and company kick butt, find justice, show compassion and do it in a way that we’d never seen before: with kick-ass women wielding spears; heroes speaking Xhosa or African English; characters overtly dismissive of a Western-centric history (Shuri’s use of ‘Colonizer’ was a perfect takedown).  In those two plus hours, we experienced more than a film, but a vision of a Black society full of its own power.

After the film, two scenes in particular left me with a guttural yearning: the times when King T’Challa and Nakia visit a crowded marketplace.  Although the market was merely background, to me it showed such a diverse view of African wealth, class and tribal intermingling—making me both homesick for something vaguely familiar and also hungry for a true-life version of such potential.  Not just a magic land of spaceships and vibranium, but a culturally-rich, financially-thriving, ambitiously-secure, pan-African society.  That possibility, more than any other, made me love the vision of Wakanda.

The death of Chadwick Boseman this week has provoked a true outpouring of grief.  That his death comes amidst the death of so many other Black men and women in America—after a summer of startling new images of gunned-down Black people on a regular basis; with continuous proof of the devaluation of Black lives; in a country so afraid of its own history that it must actively ‘other’ Black people in ever more dehumanizing and violent ways—this loss of a Black King, unafraid to show his own Black power in a society run by Black lives, feels like an even more symbolic loss of hope in a society mired in our own racist and polarized present.

Of all the privileges I can claim, one of the greatest has been my experience of working and living in East Africa for most of my twenties.  First, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, and then as a health worker in refugee camps in South Sudan and Northern Kenya; and then as a public health advocate for maternal and child health in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. 

While recently reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, I realized that those years granted me an indelible experience that most white people in America don’t have.  That of living in a society where the assumption of power is not white.  Where continually the overtly smartest person in the room, the person with the most power, the person you need to ask questions of, get permission from, keep on your side to be able to work—is Black.  That when you look at a television family selling toothpaste, they’re Black.  Where the beautiful women in the magazines or the CEOs and celebrities being interviewed within, are Black.  Where the sellers—and buyers—in the market are Black; where math teachers, nurses, accountants are Black.  Where everyone, young, old, weathered and well-dressed is Black. 

It was also a society where I, as the white Other, was able to find acceptance.  Which isn’t how the Othering process works here. 

In my Peace Corps village, Kajire, I didn’t have a mirror.  For two years, I existed un-reminded of my scraggly hair, no conditioner, and my ever-increasing abundance of freckles.  But every now and again, I’d end up in a hotel with a mirror and I remember being shocked on those occasions by my whiteness.  The mirror wasn’t reflecting back to me what I was used to seeing around me. It was a surprise to note how strange that feeling was. 

I imagine then, how it is for Black kids growing up in a continually white-focused America—who only on rare occasions see themselves writ large on multiplex screens, or in their classrooms or in the White House—suddenly experiencing Wakanda on the screen.  Watching a world that reflects them, or their possibility, and on such a grand scale, even if in an imaginary world, or maybe even more importantly, in an imaginary future—where all the scientists and security officers and politicians and leaders are Black.  A whole world of strong Black people, existing in all dimensions of society.  Not that the same thing doesn’t exist here, but that we aren’t shown it often enough, as a society. 

In Wakanda, viewers are given the assumption of life that I learned while living in Africa.  That power and presence and authority are Black. 

With the death of Chadwick Boseman, the tragedy of his loss is not just one more Black life lost.  It is somehow the loss of that assumption of power in our world.  T’Challa has left the room.  Leaving us all a little less rich.  A little less powerful.  Less full of his inspirational force.

I rewatched Black Panther last night.  I cheered again.  I watched the people and food and the high-tech public transport in my favorite market scenes.  Again, it made me wistful.  But there was sadness, too, that I didn’t have before, when T’Challa still lived among us.

The King is Dead.  Long live the King.

Wakanda forever.

Chomping on…birthdays

Last week I turned 51. A rather humbling number. Not the exciting turnstyle year of 50, with flashing disco lights, dancing and partying until 3, but rather a stumble over the precipice of middle age, into the next decade. The next ‘0’ birthday for me will be 60. The decade of grandparents and false teeth. Sheesh.

Last year I rocked in my birthday with a group of friends and family invited from the five continents of my life. The night started with a toast in puddles from the just-departed rain as fifty of us studied photos of the lovely folks who have peopled my life over those years.  Old family photos from my Connecticut birth through my early Michigan years; later ones of a best friend and a future husband in Kenya; our wedding photos from Germany with all the friends I married into there; my father-in-law with us in Australia and Ethiopia; new friends from Berlin opening that new chapter of my life. All faces in the photos, looking younger than they do now, were reminders of a well-peopled life. Less a looking back than a summing up. A mid-life of fullness. A happy place.

It was good to cast my thoughts this year, back to then.  How open the world was!  People traveling from all states and countries.  A world taken for granted for far too long. 

Last August, after a late night of multi-generational dancing and a few skits (“I thought it would be an early night but once the muppets started dancing to Rocky Horror, all bets were off,” the caterer told us later), my birthday guests joined me the next morning at the edge of the River Spree for a tromp through my favorite views of Berlin.

We started at the Berliner Dom, an evangelical church in the middle of a godless city, with its stunning views over my beloved yet, un-beautiful, favorite city. Berlin is not Paris or Prague. Its beauty comes not from well-groomed gardens and gorgeous old buildings, but from its history, its decay, its stories.  The way it’s never given up. From the top of the Dom you can look in all directions over a once-destroyed, once-walled city and see neither–but feel it all.

After the Dom, we alighted a boat to tour the city by water, floating down the Spree; past the train station where families were split between East and West; past the markers for those who were shot trying to escape; past the Reichstag, whose burning brought Hitler to power before it sat, half a century in disrepair, born again only after reunification and now capped with a glass dome to symbolize the transparency and rebirth of democratic governance.

Where the river curls along the banks of the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park), we disembarked and strolled through a thick, dense forest of trees that during WW2 were hacked, split, and stolen for firewood.  A living message of regeneration now.  Gathering in a secret rose garden hidden deep inside the park, we stood for pictures at the fountain: a smiling pack of disparate souls all brought together by friendship and love.  From there, we continued to a small lake at the edge of the green, the closest Berlin gets to a real Beer Garden, and feasted on bready pretzels and potato salad and that strangest, most thirst-quenching of German beverages, a Radler; part beer, part lemon-lime soda.  I watched each of the faces around me, smiling, chatting, laughing, collecting more memories for going forward, happy with each of my 50 years.

Flash forward to this week. 

Three of us sat on our Ithaca front porch as we ate cake and fielded phone calls from many of the same souls from last year.  The connections are still there.  The people, in person, are not.  Our world, everywhere, has contracted.  Things we so long took for granted, we cannot.  Flying here and there; being part of a global life; seeing who we want, when we want—it all works a little less well this year.  So, it was a quieter birthday.  Less planning.  Less dancing.  Less meaningful in some ways—and yet, still satisfying.  Still surrounded by friendship and love, just more of it from afar.  But still reflective, too.  At 51, there’s probably more looking back than forward.  There’s maybe more pessimism where there used to be more naivete.  Definitely more fear.  More uncertainty.  And yet, 51 is nothing to spit at, as my grandma would say.  Maybe this year, that’s my lesson—not to take that for granted, either, given all that’s happening in the world.  Be happy enough with my smaller life and find ways to still seek joy.  What brought me the most joy last year?  People.  A well-peopled life. 

That’s maybe this year’s takeaway.  People.  A well-peopled life.  That’s the thing to celebrate.