The Black Panther movie has hit theaters. If you haven’t seen it, you should. The last time I saw black people showing this level of deep personal pride was when President Obama was elected. We declared “Yes, we can!” and became “Yes, we did!” And, eight years later, we’re asking “We did this?!!”
For most black people, at least the ones I know (or have seen interviewed on TV), the movie has been like a balm for a newly injured old wound.
Amid a new yet familiar assault on our personhood, the intersectionality of our identities and our recommitment to be “both and” and not just “either or” – yes, you can play sports and have a political point of view; you can have personal power and a communal view – a visit to Black Panther’s Wakanda felt good. It felt necessary.
For most black people, we are often guarding our hearts and minds against the offenses that come at us directly, and we are frequently checking with ourselves and family and friends about the perceived offenses that strike glancing blows. (Did that person who responded to my last op-ed intend to call me colored? Uh, yes.) At times, we are longing for the comfort and safety that comes with being invisible. In other instances, we are wrestling with wanting to be seen and heard – to be appreciated and not commoditized or culturally appropriated. So, spending time in Wakanda felt good. We could revel in our identity and the elements that make us uniquely us.
I left the theater wondering, though, who are Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and what were they thinking? What inspired them to create the Black Panther superhero and to do so in 1966, no less? You know what was happening in 1965 and 1966, right? President Johnson was proclaiming his “Great Society” and eventually declaring war on poverty. Malcolm X was assassinated. Bloody Sunday in Selma happened in March 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. was marching and young people and poor people and white people were with him. Daniel Moynihan released The Moynihan report, which focused on the causes of black poverty in the United States and posited that black families were pathological and black women the perpetuators of this pathology. It was 100 years after the end of the Civil War, and black people were just getting the right to vote with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1966, James Meredith was shot.
What were Lee and Kirby thinking? Short answer: they wanted to challenge stereotypes. In 1966, America was seeing blacks as second-class citizens – not as superheroes. By all accounts, Lee and Kirby didn’t set out to explicitly indict the establishment – they didn’t have a political agenda. They simply invited people to try on a different perspective. Though imperfect in its inception and certainly not exclusive in their effort, they decided that they didn’t have to imitate life as they knew it; they could reimagine it.
They could disrupt the narrative. They could tell a different story. That is the real superpower, the super human strength we all have. Words can create worlds; they can also destroy them.
On the pages of a comic book then, and for two hours in a movie theater now, the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther still feel good. They still feel necessary.
Not because black people don’t know who we are, but sometimes we need to be reminded – on a large scale, with an amazing cast and dope soundtrack, with the whole world watching.