Heart-shaped herb: Wakanda and ancestral healing

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 LaLa Drew shares their thoughts. 

I watched Black Panther this past weekend in 3D, in NYC, surrounded by brilliant, beautiful, shining and proud Blackness. Let me just say this, Black Panther comes through. I will preface this by saying my spoiler game is shameless. If you have not seen Black Panther get right and come back when you have.

There is a narrative among Black people of brokenness, broken communities, broken families, broken homes. This film addresses those head on in a subtle but oh, so powerful way. Not only do T’Challa, Shuri, and Ramonda (played by our Queen—Angela Bassett) have a beautifully strong connection, but Erik Killmonger and his father (before his death) have a strong bond as well. We can feel the connection in the conversations they have about Wakanda, the past, and life in general. Black Panther successfully displays the ways in which we as Black people can and do hold and uplift one another. Even M’Baku, the leader of a tribe in Wakanda (who was the only one to challenge T’Challa’s rule) comes through at the end, albeit in a grand, and perhaps very calculated fashion—all hail the hero! Nevertheless, he comes through.

There is an herb, it is called the “heart-shaped herb” which, when ingested allows one to cross to the spiritual plain and speak with the ancestors. In the film Both T’Challa and Erik do this. The difference in experience is staggering; much like the African experience and the African American experience, which I would imagine, is the point.

When T’Challa crosses over (which he does twice, once at the beginning of the film, and again at the end) he is able to speak with his father, as is the case with Erik when he consumes the heart-shaped herb. However, their experiences are strikingly disparate.  T’Challa, born and raised in Wakanda, is taken to a land with a tall, sprawling tree in the foreground which is surrounded by expansive landscapes. Present is a sense that the ancestral realm is endless. Erik’s crossing however, takes him to Oakland and the apartment where he lived as a child, and held his father as he died.

T’Challa’s reunion with his father leaves him with the confidence to lead, having been granted permission, and indeed, the expectation from his father that he has been prepared to lead. His father’s clear stance is that, if T’Challa feels he is not ready to lead, had his father failed him? This is a powerful moment, a passing on of lineage and responsibility which instilled confidence in T’Challa and his ability to be both Black Panther and ruler. T’Challa had that access to ancestry, history, and quite literally, roots, much like Africans in and outside of the continent.

Erik’s experience was not so transformative. The spiritual plain was closed in, congested, you could hear the street outside. Erik was reverted to a child, where he watched his father die, literally held him as he bled out. There is a moment when Erik is sitting on the floor, and his father appears. He says, “No tears for me?” Erik replies “Everybody dies.” (Then cries a single thug tear.) His father only nods, but there is a sadness there, you can feel the disappointment and the failure his father feels in response to his son’s anger and hatred. This feeling is like the failure T’Challa’s father would have felt, had T’Challa felt he was unable to lead Wakanda.

Again, we see the separation which comes when Africans are taken from our homes and become, after generations, African Americans; we witness the break down of lineage and history. Erik grew up listening to stories of Wakanda, of the sunrise but after the death of his father, he wants to destroy Wakanda the home he never knew.

The second time T’Challa returns to the spiritual plane, it is to confront his father. To demand an explanation, not of how he could slay his own brother, but of how he could leave behind his own nephew alone, unprotected and disconnected.

At the end of the film there is a recognition between T’Challa and Erik. T’Challa brings Erik to a cliff where he can finally see the sunrise he had heard of all his life. Longed so desperately to see and witness and feel the light wash over him. “Maybe we could still save you.” T’Challa says. “Why? Just to put me in a cage?” Erik responds, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage…” before pulling the spear from his chest and bleeding out like his father.

Black Panther dives so deeply into our experiences. It lifts us up, rips us open and leaves us exposed and wanting so much more. Black Panther gives us hope, shows us love, and shakes up the traditional narrative of what it means to be Black and what it means to be African and what it means to be African American living and dead. This film explores not only our history, ancestry and lineage, but it dares us to hope for the future. Black Panther gives us a model of how to lift each other up, how to love each other, and how to create the world we wish to live in.

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6 thoughts on “Heart-shaped herb: Wakanda and ancestral healing”

  1. Thank you, LaLa! This focus on the symbolism of the different spiritual travels of T’Challa and Erik–one African and one African-American–was one of my favorite parts of the movie. There are so many powerful themes to celebrate, and discuss, and work on that the subtlety of those visits with their fathers could almost be overlooked–and yet it’s really the core of the movie. Thanks for sharing that.

    • Jill — have you ever heard of the Mass. Bay’s Colonies, “Laws of Liberty” that were written by the Puritan Oligarchy ? Here the Don’s in 1641 changed the basic tenets of English Civil Law and its conditions of “servitude ” so that the 7 year ruling would only pertain to white servants ; those of color could be kept as servants as long as their white master’s desired them to be — meaning for their working life. Hence the beginnings of bondage of the African diaspora in New England. of course you have seen those magnificent mansions along the mid-coast of Maine,
      they were built by the captains of those Maine built ships that were involved in the triangle of slavery. And of course the only ship captain that was caught and hung because of his refusal to stop this trade was one Nathaniel Gordon, born in Portland ( ref . The family home is still located on State St. in Portland.

  2. Wow–thanks, Viola! I am a white woman of Maine, who has spent a lot of my career working in Africa. I’m embarrassed to say that I am more familiar with your historical references to Africa than the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S. (Next I have to Google “Robert Smalls.”) We do suffer from a false pride that “our people” (New Englanders) never owned slaves, therefore can’t be racist, which reinforces many blind spots about the history of Black people in our own region, not to mention in the rest of the country! I like your “superior DNA” concept–since I accept “survival of the fittest” as a natural law, then it definitely makes sense that our Black neighbors and family members have much to teach us. Thanks for sharing this perspective–how can I hear more?

  3. I am fascinated by the impact on “Black Panther – the Movie” on Shay and her colleagues. While I do not like Science Fiction as a genre, I do plan to see this movie. Because it is based on what is actually historical fact.
    Since moving from the Mid-Atlantic States – particularly from my native Virginia, to New England, I have felt that I am in an alternative universe in regards to the experience of the African American diaspora! Not only is the racism found throughout New England different from that as seen through my eyes as a white woman living in the mid-Atlantic states, where white and black do co-exist and respect each other much so that is found here —- but here in the cradle of “insight and intellectual leanings” that is the home of the Harvard’s, the Yale’s, the Browns — the lack of even a basic knowledge of authentic African American historical fact is indeed problematic.
    The fact that I alone stood at the singing of the “Black National Anthem” last year at a local universities celebration of
    Black History Month” is so affirmative of this —- however I can proudly say that according to my informants – this year they did stand!“

    Fact is, a study of the authentic history of Africa reveals a continent much more advanced than is the European counterpoint – at most points and times of each epoch–in education, intellectual and political prowess. Hence while “Black Panther” is projected as fantasy – it is historically very accurate. Having a science fiction genre is much more palatable, however, I would assume to the white American pathos. While this history is now allowed to be taught— still for the most part limited and selectively- in the Mid-Atlantic States, the southern one’s hopefully, as well; New England like the rest of the United States is the laggard.

    Fact is, genetically, the DNA of the Americans that have an African diaspora heritage is superior to that of those that have a dominant European heritage. Logically, it could have only been the stronger and most intellectual vigorous of the diaspora that could have survived not only the Middle Passage but the brutal bondage that was experienced afterwards by the African diaspora. Truly this diaspora are the descendants of the African Princes and Princesses, Kings and Queens. And to have New England progressives consider themselves as saviors of an inferior cohort living in their midst and particularly the too common attitude that intermarriage between the two is to give their offspring the advantage of their superior European DNA not only goes against this fact but it is abominable!

    Fact is, economically, the United States rose on the back of this African and superior skill set—- not only were the buildings in DC built on their craft skills, but the plantations of the South were built and expanded on the importation of their African acquired agriculture knowledge- based.

    Fact is, politically, at that brief period of re-construction after the Civil War, the brilliance of the African legislative and superior skill set – appeared front and center in such “black” visionaries as the South Carolina Senator Robert Smalls. I am shocked that while Smalls is well known in the mid – Atlantic states and particularly for his bravery in the Plantation Steamship affair ….few in New England are even aware of his name. And of course throughout the Mid-Atlantic States we see this “smartness” continuing in Congressman Bobby Scott of tidewater Virginia and the former Governor and first African American, Douglas Wilder, elected to this office in the United States.

    Fact is, innovation and intellectual prowess, while this is finally reaching the New England “centers of the Universe” in bits and pieces. However this has been recognized in the mid-Atlantic region since at least the 1990’s and can only be credited again to the skill set and intellectual prowess inherent in the African diaspora.

    Fact is, culturally, it is the African diaspora – first in their raising as enslaved people in the south and later migration patterns in the north that have in corollary spread a basic niceness, manners and civility throughout the United States. With the larger diaspora living in the south, this is particularly found in the south. Perhaps the rest of the nation could adopt it as well!

    So I can only say to Shay and others that are the owners of this superior DNA , own your history and become the change agents that the so immature United States under its illusion of “White privileged “ so critically needs. And if the whites do not want to change – does it really matter? We are becoming the minority here, anyhow. It is going to be a battle, but the African diaspora has already proven to be battle ready! Of course even the naming of the movie, “Black Panther”, is so symbolic of that movement that begun in the 1960’s — that was such a threat to the “white privileged” of the United States that it was suppressed by largely the actions of the FBI. This suppression cannot be repeated!

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