Making Sense of Black Panther: A Perspective

As originally seen on blackpraxis.com

Okay, so I’ll be honest. I was dreading the release of Black Panther at least as much as I was looking forward to it. As soon as somebody said “Africa,” I got that familiar clenched-jaw, knotted-stomach feeling I get when I’m anticipating having to politely explain to somebody that yes, what they just said was, in fact, xenophobic and racist, and that no, just because Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé have exploited images of the African continent for profit, doesn’t make it okay.

Put simply, I don’t trust Western media with African narratives.

I had weeks to hone my skepticism, getting more and more cynical by the day. By the time I went into the movie, surrounded by people overflowing with hype, I was indifferent at best. When I walked out of the theatre, however, blinking rapidly and decidedly overwhelmed, I remember not quite having the words to articulate how I felt. Did I like it? That was simple enough, I loved it – irrationally so. I was already plotting on how I could see it again. Did I think it was an objectively good movie? Well… Recently, Lupe Fiasco went on a mini-rant, saying that people are unable to critique Black Panther like they would other films because of its cultural value. Which is not a lie.

But for me and for many, I don’t think there’s an inability to critique the film (in a traditional film critic-y way) so much as a lack of interest in doing so. Major capitalist undertaking aside, Black Panther is so much more than just another film, and that became apparent as soon as we saw the cast. From the sub-storyline weaving through all the Marvel stuff, to the fact that the white characters were, at best, plot devices to help drive the narrative forward (lessons in white ‘allyship’? conversation for another day?), Ryan Coogler and his team were very intentional in cultivating the world of Wakanda. Black Panther was not like other films, at all. For better or worse, Black Panther was an ambitious exercise in representation.

Hearing isiXhosa in a superhero franchise of this magnitude was a peculiar kind of cognitive dissonance for me. The fact that the actors had taken the time to learn a real African language, rather than just making one up (looking at you, Tarzan), showed a respect for the continent that’s been lacking in Hollywood. Granted, most of the accents were… inconsistent, at best. But honestly, that meant very little in the grand scheme of things. Before I’d even had a chance to digest the language, mine ears detected the dulcet tones of “Wololo” and “Gobisiqolo” – two gqom mega-anthems that make people do foolish things on dance floors. I was torn between the sudden, bizarre threat of tears and the knee-jerk instinct to do the gwaragwara right there in my seat. Thankfully, I spared my friends the embarrassment and did neither, settling into an open-mouthed stance that I assumed for most of the rest of the film. Already, in those first few scenes, I became aware of what it feels like to see, and hear, yourself and your people reflected back to you in positive ways.

The sheer diversity of the ethnic groups that were represented, along with their nuances and mannerisms, was awe-striking. From the mountain-dwelling, snow-loving Jabari led by the fearsome (and infinitely hilarious) M’Baku, to W’Kabi’s rural Border Tribe, to Okoye and the fierce Dora Milaje warriors and all the beautiful Black brilliance in between; all the Wakandan tribes drew from existing African cultures – a refreshing counter-balance to the abundance of deliberately misrepresentative, stereotypical, reductive and essentialist views of the continent. It’s been said before, but the costume design team deserves ALL the awards. The attention to detail and the seamless blending of history and Afrofuturist themes showed how much time they must have spent doing their research. A Twitter user gave a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the cultures represented in Wakanda through fashion, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. To see this vision of an Africa untouched by colonisation, this imagining of a small piece of the continent that is brimming with wealth, allowed to develop into the picture of prosperity and harmony, was affirming in a way I didn’t know I needed.

And then came Killmonger.

Erik Killmonger is the embodiment of the lost brother. Folded into his character are the descendants of the Wakandan empire who don’t reside within its borders. The choices Coogler made in writing a mercenary so callous, so calculating, so violently punitive, and having him be the sole African-American character in the film is certainly questionable. It doesn’t lend itself to positive representations of African-Americans and, if digested uncritically, his character can be used to support people’s problematic biases, conscious or unexamined. It’s easy to feel strongly any one way about Killmonger. But to dismiss him as evil and power-hungry is to ignore the very real pain of being ripped from your people and what it means to never truly be able to return home, and to embrace him as a “Black revolutionary” is to embrace a version of Black justice that’s anti-Black woman and is wrapped up in using the white man’s tools for world domination.

The crux of unpacking the themes brought up by Killmonger’s arrival lie in the in-betweens.

Killmonger lays bare the very deep chasms that exist among Black people in and of the diaspora. He is a destructive machine, but not entirely of his own making – let’s not forget that the white supremacy designs and uses Killmongers for its own imperialist, capitalist gains. His story is fueled by a sense of retribution for his abandonment, but is also an example of what happens when Black people don’t talk to each other, choosing instead to make assumptions about each other’s realities, motives and intentions from opposite ends of the room. Undoubtedly, there has been fault on all sides. But it’s dangerous to talk about power in this film and conflate worlds. I’ve seen people slip into false parallels, talking of an Africa overflowing with resources that’s abandoned African-Americans, and using Killmonger’s rhetoric to justify their disdain for Africans. To be abundantly clear, the overwhelming majority of African countries do not even have control over their own resources, and it seems silly but necessary to emphasise that Wakanda is not Africa. That said, the conversations sparked by Killmonger’s character introduce impossible questions – questions about what we owe each other. How do we begin to complicate the privileges of being African and having connections to our land and our roots, when African-Americans so often don’t want to address the privileges and implications of holding an American passport? How do we extend a hand of invitation to learn and share in each other’s cultures when we have watched each other use and abuse them, on all sides, for profit and good times?

We all know Wakanda is an ideal. It’s easy to love. And one could argue that the Black Pantherenterprise is a call for some version of Pan-African unity. But how do we begin to move towards whatever kind of Pan-Africa we’re going for when, so far, it’s only been possible in the realm of a fictional, ahistoric world? #WakandaForever is great and all, but where do you all disappear to when it comes to #AfricaNow? One critic invited us to “consider that the news of a fictional country resisting colonialism has spread faster and further than the real news of ongoing political turmoil in the only real country in Africa that managed to do so… Why is it easier to develop a Black Panther curriculum for young people in the United States than to do the same with Ethiopia, a real place with real people that did successfully resist colonialism but is now dealing with the fall out of indigenous imperialism?” Where is this level of showing up and showing out when it’s time to mobilise around contemporary African issues, or when African students at your schools are trying to make their needs as international students heard within Black communities? Really ask yourself: when the hype around this film dies – admittedly, in the somewhat distant future – will you be as passionate, as invested in the real Africa as you were in Coogler’s fictional one?

things

i could write pages and pages
of poetry
to capture the breadth of
this thing
talk of what we spar and laugh about
for hours
on hours on hours on hours
i suppose
i could soliloquise about
this thing
about the depths of learning and
unlearning
and with that i could say
just how
light and heady and dizzy and steady
this thing
how your mind is like a galaxy
and i
lose myself in the velvety depths
of course
i could sing things about
this thing
that would
that
would
no
never mind
that

– but –

i won’t
because
you know

this thing
is
a thing
for
the ages.

le cul entre deux chaises

the thing that hits you first is the smell
a thickness
i don’t know whether it’s the trees
the collective breath of insects
the alchemy of the Sun and Its people
what i do know is it’s different here
on cue my bones are denser
my skin browns and sizzles
my lips fuller
glistening
home becomes more difficult to define the longer you are away
now intangible
fleeting.
and when it visits – for It chooses and not you –
i breathe and i breathe and i breathe
it is not the where
though the where is like a calabash and
how can you drink without your container?
it is who it is why and most often it is when.
when you are at your most transparent
and when you are at your most full
when you and your special love go and just Be
it settles in your teeth.
when you are furthest it breaks bread and reeks of your sweat
when you are cradled
child-like
and that smell –
it is that smell alone that is your heritage.

photo: swazi landscape

an update | a little love letter

hello humans ☺︎

i’ve been trying to figure out how to begin this update/little love letter without being too weird about it, but after a ton of different permutations there’s really no getting around it because weirdness is in my bloodstream so, uh, hi *nervous giggle* and welcome (back) to Writer Sometimes.

i’ve always been a book junkie, some would say a touch on the precocious side, so words have been with me since i was old enough to recognise what they were. when i started writing, however, there was very little intentionality behind it. i was dealing with the death of my favourite uncle just days before my 13th birthday and there was a restless tinge to my grief, like my heart was crumpling and my head was going to explode. on a whim i tore a page out of the phonebook and picked up a permanent marker, and a few minutes later my first poem was born. i haven’t been able to function without writing ever since, and i have piles and piles of journals chock-full of my preteen issues (reading through old diaries is scary, y’all), teenage angst and adolescent growing pains. as i continue to evolve, so do those musings. writing is intensely personal for me. i don’t believe in writing for the sake of writing (yeah i said it). for me to write is to feel, and if the latter is missing, writing becomes disingenuous. thankfully (or not), the combination of me being a libra and an enfj means i have no shortage of feelings, but the point is my pen and my limbic system are deeply intertwined. hence the name of this space.

so why did i start this blog?

there are thousands of blogs on this here interwebs, most of them geared towards visibility and a very deliberate message. they tend to be littered with imperative statements ranging in topic from how to grow natural hair to how to get your first million by the time you’re 25. i’m a consumer of many of those blogs, and think many of them are brilliant and have brought their owners great success. but by no means am i interested in reproducing them or being part of the blogosphere writ large. a year and a bit ago i showed a poem to a friend. she didn’t even know i wrote, and encouraged me to post it on social media. a few glasses of wine later, inhibitions severely lowered, i did it. the flood of commentary and general warm fuzziness made me choke on my cheap moscato. all types of people, those i never expected to have read anything i’d written and those who’d known me for years, friends and professors, people familiar to me and strangers, were finding comfort, joy, healing and all kinds of other feels in my words. it was kind of startling to be honest. but i continued to share, at least what was comfortable to share. at a point social media became treacherous territory and the words demanded a home. so here i came.

i wasn’t really sure what i was doing but i was doing it all the same. and now, a year later, there are people subscribing to this space and it feels like an intimate conversation every time i post something. this blog is not meant for mass consumption. it’s designed for those who led to its creation in the first place. those who stumble on it and then stick around. the little family that’s amassed along the way.

so, on that note, bye humans. thanks for seeing something in me that i never really saw myself.

k, enough mush. more words soon come.

warmly,

– B

Oh, But You Can Warsan.

There are a hundred things I can attribute to this.

Maybe it’s the broken wine glass on my floor,

Maybe it’s the unfinished prayer I started in the shower this morning,

Ropes taken months to wind tight unravel in a sigh and I,

Consumed,

Catch it in the nick of time,

Throw my body hanging off the other end so my weight will be a stopper,

Women – how are you not terrified?

Do you not see your fathers in the arch of his back,

Thousands of lewd men in the curve of his lip when he looks you up and down,

You want to separate silhouette from shadow but sometimes when he moves too quickly,

You duck a blow imprinted in years of memories,

And You.

So unbelievably human,

After I sewed angel wings into your skin,

After I washed your feet with holy water,

After I spoke to God over and over again to make me clean enough for you to lie down in,

I’m jolted when I realise that you too, need oxygen,

I have ripped myself open for lines of you,

The pain is my pleasure and I used to laugh at those who were

Clearly under some sort of spell,

But how could my heart get this big without magic?

And here I am, reduced to nothing but feeble, open arms,

So if turn your back on me,

With those hairline fractures gathering like clouds,

I will run until I’m free of your smell,

Until your molten chocolate melts off my clothes,

Until I’m lost…

And can never trace Home back to you again.