The reality of Blackness in the fiction of Black Panther

The release of Marvel’s Black Panther really spoke to the Black writers here at Black Girl in Maine Media, and this week, we are offering our reflections on the film. Today Samuel James shares his thoughts. 

This is not a review of Black Panther. It started off that way, but then I kept hearing white people talk about how they don’t get why this movie is so important to Black people. So, if one of those white people is you, let me tell you why this movie is so important to this particular Black person.

My father raised me to understand that I was born into a place designed to deny me everything it possibly could. From the smallest pleasure to my actual life, if this world could take it from me, it would. And the reason this place would deny me is because it doesn’t like the color of my skin.

My father also raised me to believe I could be anything, do anything and get anything I wanted in this life. These things seemed contradictory when I was a child, but as I grew older, I realized that they weren’t.

See, my father never told me the problem was the color of my skin. He told me that the problem was how the color of my skin was perceived. This meant that the problem was not and never could be mine. The early lesson in life’s unfairness was that I’d have to figure out ways deal with this problem (a lot), even though it was not my own.

Since then, every single day, in one way or another, I have been told that my problem is my Blackness. That it is on me to fix this problem. I know that is not true. I know I cannot be wrong simply for existing even though the world around me is convinced otherwise. I am often thought of and treated as arrogant and stubborn and stupid for not agreeing. I am often made to answer for other people’s ignorance, their words and actions. The navigation of these things is the common Black American experience.

I grew up watching my father listen to Duke Ellington and Sade, read Langston Hughes and Octavia Butler, watch Sidney Poitier and Phylicia Rashad. Black excellence existed all around me as far back as I can remember, and so it was reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

But, whenever the idea of “race” was brought up around or by white people, it was usually negative. It was a view only through a white lens. I saw that white people were naturally adversarial in their appreciation of Black art. Nothing done by Black people was good on its own. Duke, Sade, Langston, Octavia, Sidney and Phylicia were good at what they did, you know, for those people.

This meant all discussions of race we were forced to start from a point of competition. Once I realized this, I discovered that the rules were established, the teams were made and the fix was in a long time before I even knew I was playing.

Now, you should also know, even though this is my reality and I write about it the way I do, in no way do I live my life as though I am burdened. I am a legitimately happy, optimistic and joyous person. I celebrate and fully enjoy what I have every single day and I laugh a whole hell of a lot more than I cry.

I tell you all of this to give you a sense of my reality as I walked into the theatre last week to see Black Panther.

So, Black Panther

It’s easily the Blackest blockbuster ever. And it’s such a work of genius, I consider myself incredibly lucky to live in a time in which it could be made. I’m not gonna lie to you, I’ve seen it twice and cried like a baby throughout both viewings. The thing is, it celebrates Blackness on a scale that I’ve never seen.

First off, the women. There are no weak Black women in this movie. There are no sexualized Black women in this movie. There are no stereotypical Black women in this movie. All of the Black women in this movie are fully developed characters with their own power and intentions and individuality independent of the male characters. In other words, Black Panther celebrates Black women as people!

Secondly, Wakanda. If you’re not familiar, the fictional land of Wakanda is an African country that has such advanced technology that it can actually hide itself and its wealth from the rest of the colonizing/colonized world. What Wakanda shows itself to be is a fantastic and futuristic microcosm of Africa itself: a vast land of immense diversity not only in people, but in ideas and cultures as well.

And thirdly, the characters. Because the story is being told by a Black person, the characters reflect a Black person’s understanding of Black people. Art imitates life, and more specifically, the artist’s particular view of life. For example, since whiteness isn’t so much a race or culture as it is a designation of power, white art often allows white people to be the center of everything, even things that couldn’t possibly involve them.

This being the norm, Black Panther shows Black characters in an unusual way. In the movie, not only are we not drug dealers and pimps and rapists, we are intellectuals and leaders and heroes—but not only are we intellectuals and leaders and heroes, we multifaceted and complicated. We are human. Black Panther celebrates the humanity of Blackness. And while this movie is certainly about Blackness, in no way is it about “race.”

Even in the best of cinematic scenarios, Blackness is usually about race. Of course, there are wonderful exceptions, but usually a lead Black character means there is either a racist person or system or both that takes up the entirety of the Black hero’s journey. Now, that is not a bad story, but it’s not the only story. Obviously, a Black protagonist overcoming racism is a story that needs to be told until it’s irrelevant, but our struggle is not all that we are. We are beautiful and strong and complete all on our own. It is not necessary to compare or victimize us, fictionally or otherwise, in order to see us, and that’s why this movie is so important.

Until now, there hasn’t been a movie of this scale to show Black people on our own, in all of our diversity and beauty and strength and humanity. And this movie is important to me because there hasn’t been a movie of this scale that has shown everyone what I saw in my home as a child:

Black excellence is reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

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A film and the affirmation of Blackness…my musings on Black Panther

Like millions of others in the past few days, I made my way to see Marvel’s Black Panther. This was no small feat for me given that my interest in superheroes has always been less than zero. Growing up, my father was a sci-fi and superhero comics geek and as a result, I was forced to see television shows and movies that did not speak to me. I suspect that forced encounters with all things sci-fi and superhero related helped to cement my dislike for these genres.

Truth is that until a week ago, I had no interest in seeing Black Panther, until I started paying attention to the buzz and finally checked out a trailer for the film. Gorgeous Black women in positions of power? A nearly all-Black cast (and, I assume, much if not most of the crew)? In that case, how bad could it be? I won’t attempt to dissect the movie because my words won’t do it justice given that I am a newbie to this world. What I will say is that I cried, I felt pride and I felt represented and that’s what I want to talk about.

How utterly powerful and life affirming it is to be represented in a world where the people who look like you are typically relegated to roles that are not uplifting and do not speak to you as a person. A world where powerful and affirming representation of people of color is the exception and not the norm.

Having been born in the early 1970s, I can tell you that when I saw images of Black women in media, we were loudmouth bitches, we were downtrodden and long-suffering, we were comic relief and occasionally we were extra sexy in that way where men would be happy to fuck you but love you. Did that feel like true representation? Nope.

The first truly positive image of a Black woman that I can recall was Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show. I was in middle school before I saw an image of a Black woman that represented bits and pieces of the world around me. My mom was a stay-at-home mom so while I did not grow up with a professional Black woman in my life,  I did have a mother who was nothing like what I saw on television or in movies. But I still had few images of Black women as change makers outside of their homes. Given that I only had one Black teacher in my K-12 years, that means that I spent the majority of my life not seeing women doing things that I would eventually go on to do.

When I finally grew up and decided what I would do with my life, I had no idea that my decision to run non-profits would almost be radical. Black and Brown women are over-represented in lower level positions in America’s nonprofit sector. But as recent as last year, the data showed that less than 20 percent of non-profit leadership specifically nonprofit CEOs/executive directors are people of color. Let’s not even begin to break that down to Black women specifically. I landed my first executive director position at the age of 31 but lest people think that is a norm, I am an anomaly. More importantly there was no roadmap for me because I never met another Black executive director until I took my current position in Boston and that is only because there is a support group for Black non-profit directors as we are a rare breed and we face a very specific set of challenges. That’s another piece for another day.

In case you are wondering why I am sharing this, it’s because, as I said before, representation matters. To see yourself mirrored back in the world is a powerful experience. While I grew up in Black spaces in Chicago, what was modeled was that there are limitations due to my Blackness and gender and most certainly the larger world did not tell a different story.

This is why Black Panther is so many things for the Black American diaspora. It is a chance to re-envision our Blackness and for Black girls, women and femmes a chance to see a larger world of possibilities. Even the film’s use of darker skinned Black women is modeling that Blackness is beautiful in its many forms which goes beyond the often trite “Black is Beautiful” statement. Black may be beautiful but if Blackness is best represented by lighter skinned Black women with looser curls, what message are we sending to the darker skinned women/femmes with tight curls? If we never see the deepest brown shades represented as beautiful, how can assess that we are beautiful? A question that I still at times struggle with.

As a woman who was told all too often that I was “cute for a Black girl,” I have never quite known what to do with that. Even now, as a middle-aged and now single woman, I have encountered more than a few men in the past year of dating adventures who felt the need to let me know I am okay for a Black woman. Do you know what I hear in those moments? I hear disdain for Blackness and I don’t hear a compliment.

In a world that centers all things white, whiteness and proximity to whiteness, a blockbuster film that centers Blackness and uplifts Black women is a much-needed paradigm shift. It is not just a new way to re-envision our world through the lens of Afro-futurism but it is also an opportunity to take stock of the Nakia’s, Okoye’s and Shuri’s who are already in our midst but who are often overlooked. I imagine a world where a Black woman won’t feel that she is traveling life without a roadmap as an anomaly but instead will know that she is another in a long line of changemakers because Blackness will not be relegated to the margins.

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But sometimes you’re wrong

Yesterday, my four-year old said something profound and refreshing, in the effortless, unrehearsed way four-year-olds say almost everything. She told me, “I’m really smart. But sometimes I’m wrong.” The timing of her statement was exquisite, as I had spent most of the morning brooding over some unexpected wounds and the loved ones who unintentionally created them. These wounds led me down a path of questioning motives and behaviors, good intentions and profoundly negative impacts, and the many ways in which we can be wrong, even when we are smart, kind, generous, and empathetic. Even the wokest among us prove to be acutely problematic on occasion. In the moment I simply responded, “Everyone is wrong sometimes,” but I let those words sink deeply into my own spirit.

The beauty in my daughter’s simple statement, of course, is the space it holds for multiple truths about herself. She acknowledges her own intellectual strength, without dismissing her fallibility, and the skill to do so is both powerfully healing and tragically lacking in Western culture. Too often our fragile egos and a perversely overwhelming drive to protect them gets in the way of doing the most important social justice work before us—the work we must perform on ourselves.

Take me as an example. I use ableist language. Not as often as I once did, but more often than I’m proud to admit. “Stupid, lame, crazy,” are all words attaching negative value to human states of being none of us are qualified to judge. “Crazy” is just a derogatory term for “mentally ill,” “lame” is a word that demeans the differently abled, and “stupid” is a word to describe someone as intellectually inferior to oneself. So if you stop and think about what it actually means to use one of those terms as an insult or as a descriptor, you start to really feel like an asshole. “She’s acting so mentally ill!” Is it empathetic and justice-seeking to demean someone for presenting signs of needing help or treatment? Of course not. This language is intensely problematic, and the damaging assumptions and stereotypes it upholds need to go.

Yet when someone points out that I’m using ableist language in a given moment, what happens? Honestly, it hurts my feelings for a minute, and a small part of me wants to shout out, “That’s not what I meant!” Still, I resist this urge, and I thank whoever is calling me out, because I understand intellectually that my problematic behavior doesn’t make me worthless or unlovable. It just means my good intentions aren’t serving me well through my language, and I need to make some adjustments. I’m an empathetic human being. But sometimes I’m problematic.

So often we seem gripped by an immense fear that admitting we are wrong about anything important disqualifies us from being well-meaning or conscientious individuals. It’s as if the possibility of imperfection lessens the value of anything we bring to the table of humanity, ever. And this dangerous dualism upholds a mountain of oppression and injustice, by preventing us from being accountable for the ways in which we embrace these destructive forces.

When it comes to systematic white supremacy, this dynamic is too prevalent for words. What I need all well-intentioned white folks seeking to be allies to know is this: You are guilty of complicity supporting systemic white supremacy. This is not an accusation of personal immorality. This is an acknowledgment of a devastating ideological poison which has saturated every inch of the globe, leaving no soul untouched, yet remaining largely imperceptible as the air we breathe. Do you ever breathe? You are infected with it. Profoundly. You are not so special or so good as to have somehow magically escaped.

If I, as a woman of color, have to vigilantly inspect my view of self and of my brothers and sisters, if I have to search my language, attitudes, and behaviors, to be sure that I am free of it, then you must fight it from within yourself as well. And you must be willing to hold multiple truths about yourself within your consciousness if you’re going to accomplish this. You may very well be a compassionate human being seeking social justice as best as you know how. But sometimes you will do and say things that serve racism. Are you willing to be called out? Are you willing to acknowledge your problematic language and actions (or problematic lack of action) and make some adjustments?

If so, consider removing these phrases from your collection: “I don’t see color,” “I have a black friend/significant other/child,” “I don’t have a racist bone,” “I have been doing racial justice work for X amount of years,” along with the knee-jerk reaction to deflect blame and avoid self-examination. Instead, try adopting a stance that invites constructive criticism and self-reflection. Remind yourself, “I’m still learning. I’m learning about how much I have personally benefited from a system which violently oppresses People of Color. I’m learning about my contributions to this system and doing my best to reverse them.” And instead of defending your good intentions when problematic words or actions (or lack of action) are pointed out, listen. Because no matter how much you learn about racism, sometimes you will still be wrong.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Photo by Felipe P. Lima Rizo on Unsplash