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.