Please bear with me, and millions of other moviegoers, as we relish the thought of that mythical land on the African continent that is more advanced than any other place on earth.
Just let me savor that fantasy of an Africa, rich in natural resources as it is in reality, but an Africa that retained control of those resources, an Africa that was never exploited by colonial powers or superpowers or multinational corporations.
Many of my generation of southerners first knew Africa as the backdrop for Tarzan’s adventures. None of us wanted to be the primitive Africans we saw on the screen with him. Cheetah the chimpanzee was a more favored character. To be called African was an insult. That, of course, began to change for us during the black consciousness movement of the 1960s.
Now hashtags like #whatblackpanthermeanstome and #wakandaforever are inspiring people to pour out their feelings on social media. The film, even though it is a product of Hollywood and not a black liberation manifesto, is a revelation, a catharsis, an occasion for celebrating blackness and Africanness and, yes, womanhood. The festive turnout at movie theaters across the country resembles the height of Mardi Gras.
Why? Because “Black Panther” taps into a hunger to belong and, for black viewers, provides a chance to imagine an alternative narrative to the one that began with the transatlantic slave trade more than 500 years ago. What if…?
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture a few days ago, as we toured the galleries about the transatlantic slave trade, the revolts by Africans who resisted, and the long steady struggle for freedom in this land, one of my Morgan State University students said, “Why am I 21 years old and just learning about this?”
Because black people were told generations ago that we had no history, Arturo Schomburg began collecting more than 10,000 books and artifacts about Africa and the diaspora that became the famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. The same assertions inspired Carter G. Woodson — the second black man to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard — to found the Association for the Study of Negro (now African American) Life and History and to create Negro History Week. In 1976 that week became Black History Month. This month.
February is when even corporate America gets in on the act and black auteurs release books (like Rochelle Riley’s “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery”) and documentaries (Stanley Nelson’s “Tell Them We Are Rising,” about historically black colleges and universities, debuted on PBS this week). Because we are descendants of people who were kidnapped and enslaved and then relegated begrudgingly to second-class citizenship, we need this annual ritual of memory and affirmation. If we were Wakandans, there would be no such need to validate ourselves to ourselves and to others. What if….?
It is lost on none of us that the movie has been created by black folks — the director and nearly all of the actors are black — and that that is no small feat. In my childhood it was a neighborhood event whenever blacks were on television. Just a few years ago the “Oscar So White” social media campaign brought to the fore the lack of opportunities for blacks in the film industry. Now “Black Panther” is a Hollywood cash cow, having taken in some $200 million over the weekend, and sequels are sure to follow. Whether this marks a sea change or is a fluke remains to be seen. But, what if…?
Even as we revel in Wakanda, we can take this fantasy only so far. Wakanda is perfect for Wakandans, but a major storyline revolves around the division among Wakandan leaders over whether to share their resources with oppressed blacks in the U.S. and elsewhere. A reminder that in the real world African Americans are not exactly Africans, and we have some issues to work out within the diasporic family.
But let me live vicariously for a moment in Wakanda before returning to what USA Today has proclaimed “the nation’s most dangerous city,” a Baltimore where police corruption, lead poisoning stunting the development of children, bodies mounting from gun violence — even the flu epidemic — are an overwhelming reality.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: email@example.com.