When it was announced that T’Challa—THE Black Panther—would become an official part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, social media lit up with excitement. People who were familiar with the comics were buzzing about which iteration would be translated to the big screen and how he would fit in with other characters, such as Captain America and Iron Man. Then, in 2016, Captain America: Civil War was released into cinemas worldwide and audiences went wild, as did I.
Here we had two black men who were representative of the richest and most advanced nation on Earth: the father—T’Chaka, the king—and his son T’Challa. As the plot of Civil War advanced and T’Challa interacted with the other characters, one thing remained constant: T’Challa was constantly shown respect and, in some instances, deference because of his position as a king. The only person who seemed to forget to whom she was speaking was Natasha, but she learned quickly enough to mind her manners. Yes, I cackled with petty glee when the Dora Milaje security chief told Natasha to “move or be moved.” But I digress.
As time drew closer to the Black Panther premiere, Marvel released more trailers, and in one of the promotional featurettes that serve to give viewers insight into the world of Wakanda, I heard this: “Wakanda’s walls have been up since its inception; it’s the best-kept secret in the world because they have something the world wants.” And a revelation took shape.
When I heard it, a thought that had been sitting in the back of my mind came to the forefront: that Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Everett K. Ross’ (Martin Freeman) intention to find a way into Wakanda and take its resources for themselves is exactly what Europeans did to Africa.
From the moment Europeans learned to sail the open seas, they did it with one goal in mind: Conquer foreign lands and seize control of whatever resources they could get their hands on. Who cared if there were established societies with their own systems of government? They invaded, pillaged and decimated entire countries and their indigenous people, without a care for the destruction left in their wake. And it seems that this is exactly what Klaue and Ross intend to do.
They don’t care that Wakanda is a sovereign nation with a thriving society that wants to be left alone. Like the English and Portuguese of yore, all Ross and Klaue care about is their own selfish need to take what they consider to be Wakanda’s most vital resource, vibranium.
In the Middle Ages, the Ottoman Empire successfully prevented European travelers from making significant inroads into continental Africa, forcing them to settle for exploring the coastal regions of Western Africa, as the Portuguese did in the 1400s. Eventually the Portuguese, French, Dutch and British made their way into the African interior, but it wasn’t without significant resistance from native tribes.
For centuries, African nations have had to defend their right to exist because white people and nonblack people of color believed that black people were less than, and unsophisticated “savages” who needed ruling. But instead of finding uneducated beings, Europeans were quite surprised to find a continent that was rich in more than minerals such as gold. They found people who had created governments, trade that spanned the Eastern Hemisphere, kingdoms with grand palaces and, most important, knowledge.
Similarly to countries like Egypt and empires like the Ottoman, Wakanda is a land unlike anywhere else because it is developing technologies advanced far beyond what the world knows, and it’s mostly because of a young black girl, Shuri, who is the head of technology as well as T’Challa’s sister. As everyone in the West looks to Tony Stark as a pinnacle of intelligence, Shuri is creating technology that would make Tony blush in shame. For goodness’ sake—Shuri made it so that T’Challa’s panther suit automatically recharges by absorbing the kinetic energy from striking bullets. Your angsty fave could neva.
There’s a saying that goes, “The most disrespected person in the world is a black woman,” so it’s quite interesting that in the MCU, the most intelligent person is a black woman. This is significant because in our society, black women are constantly denigrated while the work we accomplish is co-opted; we are insulted for our looks and fashion while nonblack people copy them without shame. And since appropriation is a trend that never seems to go out of style, we have two white men seeking to steal Shuri’s technology in order to claim it as their own and turn it into a bastardized version as a means to bring destruction for their own selfish gains.
Like the early colonizers who saw black people as “less than” simply because their skin was dark, and their hair and facial features not like white people’s, Klaue and Ross see the Wakandans as people they can walk over, shoot through and push aside, simply because they don’t view black people as individuals with rights and ownership of their home.
Instead of approaching T’Challa in peace and friendship, Klaue and Ross conspire to enter Wakanda through subterfuge so that they can learn the secrets that King T’Chaka and the elders have protected for a millennium.
But like the Portuguese, Ross and Klaue will learn that black people—particularly black women—will fight tooth and nail to protect what’s theirs. In Wakanda, there is a resisting force of warriors known as the Dora Milaje, and like Queen Nzinga of Ndongo (now known as Angola) and the legendary female Dahomean army, the Dora Milaje, led by their general, Okoye, and aided by Shuri’s technology, will do what they must to protect their king and kingdom against all invaders because they have no other choice.
The way I see it, black people have always had to fight to hold on to what is rightfully ours, not only our land but our very identities. It’s as though being black equates to having to struggle, especially when colonization comes into play. Even though slavery was abolished in the Caribbean and North America over 150 years ago, the impact is still felt today and affects the African Diaspora in myriad ways. One of those ways is our understanding of who we are as a people and as individuals. By that I mean knowing where we literally come from.
From an early age I knew what slavery was. I was taught about colonialism and its effects not just on Africa but also on the Caribbean. We learned that Barbados, as the easternmost island in the Caribbean chain, was the first port of call for slave ships. It was on the island that some of the most devastating and insidious characteristics of colonization were revealed.
Once the ships landed in port, those held in captivity were made to accept European names, their hair shaved and tribalwear stripped away. In essence, their very identity, along with their freedom, was stolen. Over time they were made to be ashamed of what made them distinguishable not only as Africans but also as a tribal people.
A prime example of this effect was in how the slaves dressed. Gone were the colorful robes and beaded collars that identified them as belonging to a specific tribe, as well as their marital status and even age. Instead, our ancestors had to wear stiff cotton and bleached muslin. The women could no longer wear the traditional and intricate hairstyles; instead, they were forced to cover their heads in plain cloth, leading to insecurities that affect us to this day.
Even though the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s created an emergence of pride in and appreciation for African culture and traditions, black people in the Western world still have to contend with ignorance of our heritage from people of all walks of life and ethnicities. How often are black women insulted for the way we wear our hair, while white women are praised for being “trendy”? How many stories are there about black people being snubbed for wearing traditional African clothing, only to see white models strutting down catwalks in imitations while designers like Stella McCartney get applauded?
Though I’ve always been proud of being black and having African ancestry, I didn’t realize how much I longed to see my heritage on-screen until one Sunday night in 2017. Marvel had released the Black Panther teaser trailer, and the world, the collective black community, was shaken to our very core. And we—I—haven’t been the same since.
In Wakanda, there are people wearing their traditional garb with pride. Characters like Erik Killmonger are covered in tribal scarification, and there’s an elder adorned with a lip plate as worn by the Mursi people of Ethiopia.
As someone who loves everything about film, I’ve always felt bereft at not seeing enough positive representations of black people or of Africa herself in mainstream media. So the power of seeing a film of this magnitude, with the backing of one of the world’s biggest film studios, centered on black people living in an “African” nation, untouched by the destructive hands of colonizers, cannot be overstated. In one moment I realized that we, black people, were being given a major piece of the proverbial pie.
To have one of the major plots of Black Panther be about a black king, his army of black women and his black sister fighting against two would-be white invaders and their goons is what I would call poetic justice. I can’t wait to see the colonizers and interlopers be beaten at a game they never had a chance of winning this time. WAKANDA FOREVER.