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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Racism roadmap, or Let’s talk about it

I’ve been online a lot recently. Too much, really. I’m not gonna lie, this means I’ve been losing my temper a lot. We got a racist governor up here in Maine, we got the “president” and his whole klan. Oh, and until recently we had a Nazi as the town manager of Jackman, Maine. He was fired, so at least there’s that.

Still, when I start to think about how often the morally weakest among us are activating each other, my face gets hot. I’m gonna try to keep cool on this because I like to write concisely, but, you know, my face is hot.

Here we go.

Racism isn’t measured. It’s not even defined, nationally. When an attempt is made, it’s often by those who can’t actually experience it. Race itself is designed only to designate power. White on top, everyone else in a big pile on the very distant the bottom. This makes racism an incredibly complex system that includes us as individuals as well as our institutions. And since we as Americans are not great at learning from our history, it only gets more complex over time. 

As a Black person, I wince when I hear someone call me “colored.” It’s not that the person is racist, necessarily. It’s that the use of that word shows that the person’s understanding of race is so out of date, the amount of work needed to understand the current complexity of the issue is unlikely to get done. And, honestly, there’s probably a reason the work wasn’t done in the first place.

Understanding of race is like a map. It needs to be up to date. A map of your town from the 1800s would not help you find a thing today. Everything would be unrecognizable. Sure, the map is valuable in that it’s important to learn about where the roads were back then. They’re the basis for the roads we have now, but that old map would still leave you lost as hell the second you stepped out your door. And it wouldn’t matter how much you loved the map or the good ol’ days from whence it came. We all gotta live right now.

Now, more or less, we operate under the presumption that we all want to be on the right path. Even though we live that way, we know it’s not true. We know that some people want the path to themselves, or just don’t care where they’re going at all, but we carry out our day-to-day as though we all agree.

The problems come when we’re all in the car together and we start to get the feeling the driver isn’t really looking at the GPS.

Yeah, we can ask him if he’s lost, but if he says no, that’s kinda where the conversation ends.  

Luckily, our understanding of the situation is not reliant on his admission. Like, if you’re on hour-three of a trip that only was supposed to last 10 minutes, you don’t really have to ask to know the truth.

The driver should to pull over and ask for directions. He needs to find someone familiar with the area and ask what to do. In other words, he needs to find someone who’s been down this road before. In other words, he needs to defer to someone with experience that he does not have…I think you see where I’m going here.

Unfortunately, in a moment like this, the driver probably doesn’t really care about being on the right path. The important thing for the driver is to never admit that he’s a racist—um, I mean lost. The driver must never admit that he’s lost. He may not even know he’s lost, even if everyone else around him knows. But it doesn’t really matter if he knows or not. Everyone else is trying to get on the right path, so he’s either gotta get in the back and let someone else drive or get the right directions! Ain’t no one got time to wait for some damn fool to figure out how to use his moral compass!

In fact, no! You ain’t gonna get in the back! You gonna get out of the car and figure out your shit all by yourself. If and when you do figure out how not to be lost, you can catch a ride with the next car going this way. They pass by all the time.

OK. While those of us who have been down this racist-ass road before can easily recognize just how lost you are, maybe you aren’t sure. Maybe you really don’t know whether or not you are lost. If that’s the case, please consult the list below. Do you use any or all of the following phrases?

1: I’m not a racist, but…

2: You’re too sensitive.

3: You’re probably hearing/seeing/feeling/understanding it wrong.

4: I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that.

5: Black people are racist, too.

6: I have a Black friend.

7: You call each other that word.

8: I’ve been called honky.

9: That’s not real racism.

10: I’ve been pulled over, too.

11: All you have to do is obey the law.

12: You destroy your own neighborhoods.

13: I agree with you in theory.

14: That’s not how you get your point across.

15: Black-on-Black violence.

16: Slavery was a long time ago.

17: The Irish were slaves, too.

18: I never owned a slave.

19: Stop complaining.

20: I don’t know why there’s no white history month.

If so, you’re as lost as this motherfucker right here and you need a map. Luckily, many are available. Here, here and here are great places to begin your quest.

Good luck finding the place. We’ll leave the light on for you.

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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How does the president get away with all this dumb sh*t?

This question is everywhere. I see it online, I hear it at the grocery store and I feel it in the air every time his name is spoken, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to answer it, but I’m gonna warn you right now, you ain’t gonna like it.

A long time ago Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and a bunch of other wealthy, white, male inheritors created a system that benefited them and everyone else of that description. This system assures that wealthy, white, male inheritors, born into positions of vast ownership, will see that ownership as well as their very identities afforded full representation and protection under the law.  Anybody not possessing those four traits has varying degrees less representation and protection.

This also means that there are two sides of the dollar. One side tells the dollar what to do. The other side gets told what to do by the dollar. Wealthy, white, male inheritors are on one side and the rest of us are on the other. They are free. The rest of us just have permission—and not as much as we think.

Now, just so we’re clear, you should know that when I talk about freedom, I’m not making claims on your feelings. Like everything else, this ain’t about your feelings. I hope you feel free as a muhfuckin bird, but please understand that if the president had to live your life for just one goddamn day, each second would feel as though he was serving a sentence of eternity in a space prison.

This is how free he is: Tomorrow he could get on his plane, fly to every continent and buy property on all of them.

This is how little permission you have: You probably couldn’t do even one part of that. Chances are you can’t afford property on every continent. You probably can’t afford property on just this continent. Chances are you don’t own your own plane. You probably couldn’t afford to be a passenger on a world tour, even in coach. He could do all that tomorrow and chances are you couldn’t even get permission to take the day off tomorrow.

But that’s not where their freedom stops. People on that side of the dollar are also free from our morality. For example, paying your bills. If you and I don’t pay our bills, we feel terrible and irresponsible and eventually we will ending up facing civil legal action or criminal charges (depending on what didn’t get paid and why). You know what happens when the president doesn’t pay his bills? He fuckin doesn’t pay his bills. It’s essentially theft, but the same holds true with actual theft. If you get caught stealing a $1 worth of candy from the corner store, you will go to jail. On the other side of the dollar you can get caught stealing billions and billions and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get to keep it. Back on this side of the dollar you couldn’t even steal millions, let alone billions because you don’t even have permission to know where that amount of money is located.

And it ain’t just morals that only exist on our side of the dollar. Intelligence, work ethic, self-esteem, talent… Every single thing that you think is necessary to reach success only counts on our side. This is because the actual level we are trying to reach is that of the wealthy, white, male inheritors. Those four traits are the standard by which we measure not only our success, but our actual worth as citizens.

So, intelligence, for example. The president is an imbecile. It’s obvious on its face. And on his face. I mean, he paints only most of his face and his “hair” various shades of very unhealthy urine. Somehow, some people look past that and think that he must be intelligent because the randomness of his tweets cause such chaos. Or maybe they think he’s made smart business moves or that he’s been clever with tax loopholes or various other actions that are actually taken by his lawyers. In the end, I guess people believe what they want to believe.

In this country, we want to believe that we can earn our way to the other side of the dollar, but you do not earn what you were born with. And no amount of talent or intelligence or self-esteem or work ethic can change the situation of your birth.

It goes the other way as well. I’ll say it again. If you are a wealthy, white, male inheritor, you are born into a position of vast ownership in which that ownership, as well as your very identity have full representation and protection under the law. You can be the most talentless, stupid, self-loathing, lazy, urine-colored muhfucka in the world, and none of that will change the situation of your birth either. Also, it’s not just money we’re talking about here. Family, community, connections, these things are all inherited as well. You can be broke as a joke, but if you’ve got family, community and connections it won’t even matter.

Back before he was the president, he bankrupted a casino, because he’s a stupid person. His dad tried to help bail him out by buying more than $3 million in chips. It turns out that that is illegal, so his dad got a fine of $65,000. I mean, they can call that a fine all they want, but really, that’s a fee.

I could go on and on and on…

So, that’s why he gets away with it. He is a wealthy, white, male inheritor who exists on the other side of the dollar, and don’t think for a second he’s the only one. They are everywhere. Look over to the UK and you’ll see current toast of the town Prince Harry saying all kinds of racist shit and dressing up like a Nazi (and that means something over there. Sure, it’s offensive here, but the UK fought WWII on their own land and it cost them almost 450,000 lives. It’s probably just about the funniest goddamned thing of all time for their own royalty to act like that shit is cute). His stupid-ass uncle was the same way. People on the other side of the dollar get away with it because, while they hold us to account, no one holds them to anything.

“Getting away with it” isn’t even the right phrase because it implies that we hold authority over them, when the opposite is true.

Anyway, the president will never be jailed. You’ll never see his kids jailed. There won’t be trials or charges or anything like that. I know some of you believe in fairness and karma and have faith in a system for which there is no existential evidence. So, if you’re still holding out hope that’s totally fine. In fact, I welcome you to argue your points at the public debates I’ll be holding tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 p.m. right outside the courtroom where all the other criminal, wealthy, white, male inheritors are usually put on trial.

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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.