What Black Panther Means to Me

I’ve been going through a lot of my old writing recently.  I write a lot of fantasy.  The first characters I spent any time on was a pair of elvish twins named Bristanas and Solthis.  They were “dark elves,” and my story would eventually see them use magic to lighten their skin in order to pass on the surface world.  Another story about a King and a curse.  Another set of short stories about taking fantasy tropes and turning them on their head.  The first short story turned into a novella.  The hero, after surviving a battle with “The Dark One,” or whatever, has PTSD and can’t live with people constantly asking him to relive what was essentially a great war.  I realized recently that, without thinking, I made all of my characters white.  No, that’s not right.  I didn’t make all of my characters white.  I didn’t specify their race, their color, and by default, in my mind they were white.

I’m black.  My family is black.  I see black people around me all the time, but when it came to my writing, if I didn’t specifically think of a person as black, they were white.  I am a black man with an imagination and yet, when I write, I didn’t write people who look like me.  This happens when reading, too.  When writers don’t specify a character’s race, I assume they’re white.  I don’t insert people that look like me into these characters even if I have the chance.  And, again, it’s not that I don’t think to.  I keep saying that.  It’s that it doesn’t even occur to me to do so.  I can’t impress upon people how profound this realization was to me.  How utterly sad it made me to realize this.

Enter Black Panther.  T’Challa has long been a favorite character of mine.  It’s not that he’s black, but that he’s confident, intelligent, compassionate, and dope.  Like.  Dope A.F.  But this movie?  A movie directed by a black man, with an all-black cast.  A movie that only had two white characters interacting ONCE the entire time.  This movie is a reminder to me.  The American Black man’s history begins with slavery.  It begins with the rape and slaughter of black men, women, and children.  A white person in America can easily find out where their ancestry.  They have customs, religions, folk-tales, and mythology.  A white person can trace their lineage back to very specific times, regions, countries, and people.  Much of this is even reflected in popular culture.  I don’t know where I’m from.  Africa is a huge continent.  I don’t know what language my ancestors spoke.  Our native tongue was taken from us and we were forced to learn English.  We weren’t even allowed to read.  I don’t know what customs my ancestors had.  We were forced to make new customs.

Hollywood and general media at large tend to focus on these things when creating stories about black people.  We as a society focus on black pain.  We focus on the gangs and drugs.  We focus on slavery.  Trying to consume media for black people given out by Hollywood is a constant reminder of the trauma we continue to experience in America.  Black Panther is none of these things.  It is a celebration of blackness.  It is an amalgamation of African culture, locales, people that we have never before seen in a big-budget movie.  There is a scene with representatives from all of the different tribes of Wakanda gathering for an event.  The music, the movement of all of the people, the rhythm of the drums, the beauty of the backdrop caused an emotional response in me.  This celebration of black joy, of the beauty of people that look like me.  The celebration of a culture that still exists, that in some way helped create who I am was too much.  It’s that scene that keeps coming back to me as I think about the movie.

This movie is more than “just a comic movie.”  T’Challa isn’t the first black super-hero.  Blade came before him, of course, and probably some other silly movies like Meteor Man.  But this is the first BLACK superhero movie.  It doesn’t shy away from that.  Blade is black, but it’s not part of his character.  You could make Blade white and it wouldn’t change much of the story.  The same way you could make Daredevil or Hawkeye Black and it wouldn’t change their character much.  The race is not explored as a portion of their identity.  Luke Cage.  Black.  Black Panther.  Ditto.  The movie hits on the responsibility of Wakanda to those who ascended from Africa and now find themselves at the mercy of oppressors.  And, anyway, that’s beside the point.  There is a certain group of white people are always going to try to find a way to try and steal a moment of happiness for black people.  They’ll never know what this is like because they are the default.  Most probably don’t even think about the representation they receive since it’s as mundane as breathing or drinking water.

But what Black Panther has done for me is make it a little bit easier to see me in my writing. To see people that look like me when I create characters.  It’s made it a little bit easier to celebrate being black.   This is why representation is important.  This is why Black Panther is not like any other movie to come before it.  It lets me celebrate how amazing being black is and, for a couple hours, not worry about all the pain and angst that comes along with it.  That pain isn’t going to go away any time soon.  But the reprieve from it makes those moments that much sweeter.

Now excuse my rambling.  Im finna go watch the movie again.