I was initially overcome with excitement and awe after leaving the theatre during Black Panther’s opening weekend. There was so much to process in this much-anticipated movie that necessarily called for deep thought and reflection from all of its viewers; everything from the dignity of every black character portrayed in the movie to the illustrious beauty of Wakanda; the multilayered narrative that captured every second of my attention; and the closing scenes which would leave viewers with the burning question asked of T’Challa by our little brother in Oakland “Who are you?” If only for this question alone, which followed perhaps one of Marvel’s greatest storylines ever, everyone should see Black Panther - once, twice, three times over.
Who are you?
Throughout Black Panther, “Who are you?” was asked many times and it was a question that became lodged in my mind all throughout the movie and long after. When the movie began in Oakland, California, instead of the nation of Wakanda, I was somewhat surprised, but my attention was instantly captured because I thought I am those boys on the basketball courts. That was my hi-top fade in 1992, those were my sneakers, those were my friends and cousins who wore the same gold chains as N’Joku and Zuri. That’s my music playing in the apartment. Identity was immediately established, but it was also connected to a larger narrative. N’Jobu, a man who looked like any other brother in early-nineties Oakland was actually Wakandan royalty and yet he identified with African-Americans. This was fairly new to me. While visiting Nairobi, Kenya as a teen, I can remember being told by a well-intentioned Kenyan friend, “I feel bad for you black Americans because of all you’ve been through in America.”, and this was in one of the poorest parts of Nairobi. From that moment on, in my young mind I was not an African-American, I was a “black” American, actively or passively cut off from the nation of my origin and made to assume an identity that had been forced upon me and my ancestors' hundreds of years ago. During that time I concluded that Africa was not mine; America was not mine, and I was without an original identity.
What’s In a Name?
When T’Challa went through the ritual combat in order to reclaim his crown as King of Wakanda, during the most intense moments of his combat with M’Baku from the Jabari tribe, T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda, yells to her son, “Tell them who you are!”, to which a frustrated T’Challa responds “I am Prince T’Challa, son of King T’Chaka!” As inspired and invigorated as I was to watch this moment in that scene, its one I’ll never experience. An Asian friend told me he was hesitant to give his kids Asian names for fear that they would be mocked. As I listened to him, all I could think was “I have no idea what my ancestors would have originally called me.” What is my original name? I presently possess the surname of an Englishman who most likely had no interest in me ever bearing his name. What I choose to make my last name mean for my grandfather, my father, and my son may give me some sense of joy and accomplishment, but it's merely a kind of fill-in. Who’s ancient blood runs through my veins and what would they call me?
You can imagine how I must have felt when Oakland-born Eric Killmonger stood in the Wakandan throne room waiting patiently for his moment while everyone sought to discredit his true identity. “Ask me who I am?” is what Killmonger says repeatedly until finally one of Wakanda’s elders yells, “Who are you?” Killmonger responds in his native Wakandan tongue, with the same force that T’Challa had during his ritual combat, “ I am N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu!” Eric Killmonger’s moment in the Wakandan throne room was perhaps one of my favorite moments in Black Panther. As this American born African royal shouted his name and ancestry, I thought about every time I’ve faced racism head-on, every time I’ve been disrespected for my skin color, or been ignored and categorized as a stereotype. What I would have given to have a name to identify within those moments. Something that communicated my dignity. Instead the closest moment I had to this was when, as a first grader who wanted to rub his black skin off because of the shame I felt from classmates for being black, my father rolled my small fingers together in a fist and told me to repeat “I’m black and I’m proud; say it loud.” I may not have possessed an ancestral name, but my blackness meant something.
Eric Killmonger’s moment in the throne room was epic, to say the least. His Wakandan heritage, although given to him second-hand by his murdered father, was one that largely became a work of self-education, and as an African-American who has attempted to research my own origins, and as one whose heritage has been significantly marred and even erased, I admire the way Killmonger recognized the importance of his heritage even when believing in Wakanda seemed as though it was a fairy tale. In addition to this, Killmonger also identifies equally with his enslaved ancestors, and in his dying breath he acknowledges their wisdom and bravery when he says “bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Whats the answer to the question?
Lastly, at the very end of Black Panther, as T’Challa stands on the same basketball courts where a young Eric Killmonger played at the beginning of the movie, he’s asked the same question by one of the onlooking youth, “Who are you?” The movie ends before T’Challa responds, but I’d like to imagine T’Challa’s response as he looks back at this boy and says “I am you.” He doesn’t say that, but I think its a possibility considering the entire movie. Black Panther’s overarching point is that Africans are not disconnected from African-Americans. Wakanda’s fate is directly connected with its disenfranchised descendants. While in this world, a silent kind of tension currently exists between the experiences of Africans and black Americans, what is common is blackness and the history of blackness throughout the world. Whether colonized or kidnapped by colonizers, blackness has been attacked mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially and King T’Challa and the nation of Wakanda represent a people and place that promote and protect blackness as royal, successful, and intellectual. Kings don’t typically show up in the hood and black boys don’t usually show up in royal palaces, but in Wakanda, this is a reality. In this nation where bullets have snuffed out black lives, bullets are non-existent and bullet wounds heal overnight in Wakanda. Although a fictional place, Wakanda represents the adorning and enhancing of the word “African” in African-American and it provides a sense in which a historically disconnected people can experience joy instead of dejection.
Black Panther shows both African and African-American people that we indeed have an identity, one of dignity and worth as a people. If I’ve learned anything from this movie, its the fresh reminder that the question “Who are you?” is one that African peoples can answer with dignity and worth. As a Christian, I recognize that while ethnic identity is not supreme, it also isn’t meaningless. While not regarding it as primary, it is sinful to degrade ethnicity as being anything less than what God has intended for it to be, and this has been a sinful reality that has dominated this world for ages when it concerns blackness. Black Panther brings some restorative truth through a fictional method that has given me joy in who God made me be as an image-bearer of African descent in 21st century America.