Mourning the African cultures I never got to experience while watching “Black Panther”
This essay contains spoilers about “Black Panther.”
I have finally been to Wakanda.
After watching movie trailers on repeat and drooling over every melanin-drenched cast member of Black Panther, I finally saw the film during opening weekend — and it was a cultural experience. It was a damn near spiritual experience to be surrounded by all shades of Black in a theater full of afros and Ankara prints, gathered around a screen full of characters who looked like us. The film itself was beautiful, whether you were a Marvel nerd or knew of Basotho blankets and countless references to several other African cultures in Black Panther. Its cinematography was striking, making me believe in the lush and technologically advanced land in which it was set.
But even more striking to me than complex and heroic dark-skinned characters were the emotions I felt watching African cultures on screen that, as an African-American, I have never been able to fully connect with or experience.
The film’s central conflict stems from Wakanda’s long-held isolationist policies and their ignorance to the plight of their kinfolk around the world. It all comes to a head when Erik Killmonger, a villain with a just cause but unjust methods, attempts to open T’Challa’s eyes to the fact that African-Americans are suffering at the hands of police brutality, racism, and other forms of systemic oppression.
There is one powerful line in particular that had me tearing up when that conflict reached its climax. Spoilers below:
Killmonger chooses not to make peace with the Wakandans and instead says, "Throw me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped off the slave ships because they knew death was better than bondage."
It took one sentence to both put me in my feelings and sum up the historically contentious relationship between Native Africans and African-Americans, one in which competition and/or animosity has existed.
Even when moviegoers dressed up to see the film, there were accusations of African-Americans appropriating African garb. But unlike when white people appropriate cultures because they’re “on trend,” I very much believe that some African-Americans don traditional dress in order to feel connected to their ancestors.
Killmonger’s words touch on the fact that, during the transatlantic slave trade, there were those who chose death over the loss of freedom and culture, and those who did their best to just survive.
Killmonger’s words also touch on the residual anger I have often felt as someone who cannot trace my family’s origins.
Yes, my family descends from Africa; I can say that I have family in the American South. But that’s it.
To know that my lineage’s direct connections to a specific place — to a language other than English, to foods other than fried chicken and collard greens — can only be traced back a few generations, to then see a fictional nation where a Black person’s origin story does not involve trauma — where cultural traditions are rich and Black people are warriors — made me mourn for a very real connection to Africa that I was never able to have because my ancestors were presented with only two options: jump or persevere.
While it is undeniable that African-Americans have made a lasting cultural impact worldwide because we’ve pieced together our our own traditions in America, I have always known that we were more than our oppression, more than our centuries spent in bondage. Black Panther reminds me of what could have been. But it also serves as a reminder that there is more than one kind of Black experience. The conversations that will surely follow after Black people watch this film are an opportunity to create more understanding among us.