“Is Wakanda real?”
This is what my 9 year old asked me after our family went to see Black Panther.
“Real?” I asked, looking into his hopeful and curious eyes.
What to say to my son? His father and I try hard to expose him to positive images of his people and his ancestry. But how many positive images of Africa has he seen in his short life?
Some? Yes. Enough? Definitely not.
“Maybe,” I finally replied. “Maybe Wakanda is real. Or could be real.”
He smiled and said,
“I want to go to Wakanda.”
“I do too, son.”
Just a Movie?
Black Panther is just a movie. I get it. It’s make believe. There are no superheroes (are there?) and the magical and technologically superior land of Wakanda is only an imagined reality. It is a brilliant and awesome product of the minds of director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole. Wakanda is their imaginations, come to life on the big screen. A mythos. A mythos that serenades us, all of us — the Diaspora over. The movie, I think, gave voice to a longing that we all share — a basic, gut level longing to see our ancestral land as it could have been, should be, and could be.
My family and I saw Black Panther with our local chapter of the Cornell University Black Alumni Association. Another great thing that the movie did was galvanize numerous black groups to form watch parties aimed at raising scholarship funds.
To say that we had been hyped to see this movie was an understatement. Every Black Panther commercial that we saw leading up to the movie’s release date caused us to take pause. When the ABC comedy Blackish did a short homage to the upcoming film, my two boys nearly did cartwheels of excitement! I secretly did too.
For our viewing of Black Panther it was requested that people wear black clothing and/or African garb. On the eve of the movie, my husband and I dressed our boys in head to toe black, and then we did the same. Even my relatively conservative parents got in on the action…showing up in head to toe black. My dad even sported a black trench coat! The theatre was abuzz with excitement and almost palpable anticipation, and everyone was anxious to see if this film could really live up to the hype. Boy did it.
Seeing is Believing and Racial Socialization
Do we believe what we see? Even in most movies, which we logically know to be ‘make believe,’ is there a small part of us that believes and assimilates that which we see?
If I am shown an image over and over on the silver screen, or the television screen, is there a small part of me that believes what I see?
If I am told — or rather shown: This is beautiful, and that is ugly; and this is worth aspiring to, but that is worthless, do I believe it? Can my adult mind completely divorce visual cues from perceived reality and assumptions? What about a child’s mind?
Self esteem and positive racial identity among youth are critical to future outcomes. Studies indicate that African American children with U.S.-born parents face the highest levels of risk when it comes to poverty, health, educational performance and future attainment of goals. African American youth must contend with negative racial stereotypes and in many instances, poor social regard. Not just in day to day life, but also in media driven images, our youth are bombarded daily with negative and deprecating images of those that look like them. These negative images and perceptions of discrimination can lead to decreased levels of self esteem among African American youth.
Racial socialization is the process by which society transmits messages to its youth about the significance and meaning of their race and ethnicity.
When I was a child, my father was fond of telling me: Seeing is believing.
If a child sees someone on television that looks like her, becoming a physicist or teacher or empire-builder, does she believe the same about her own possibilities? Likewise, if a child sees someone that looks like him acting the part of the thug, the womanizer, or the deadbeat — does that become part of his conceivable reality? Certainly it’s not quite that simple, but the argument can be made.
For as long as there has been media, African Americans have been hard pressed to see ourselves featured in positive and powerful roles. Therefore, a film like Black Panther becomes so much more than just a movie. It stands as a gargantuan and unimpeachable example of what psychologists call positive racial socialization: Transmitting positive messages to our youth, with the resultant outcome of positive self-esteem, and all the good things that come with that.
Black Superheroes. Yes!
Because racial socialization is such a crucial thing, especially given the circumstances of our American story, I was thrilled, elated and over the moon to see a superhero, King T’Challa (Black Panther) that looked like my sons, and their Dad, and their Granddad. Strong, benevolent, loving and powerful.
I was equally excited to see Shuri, the techno-wizard scientist, princess and beauty played by Letitia Wright. With her whiz-kid quips, intricate braids and identifiably Black features, Shuri shows little black girls everywhere that they too can be ‘that chick.’ Gorgeous, smart, undeniably fabulous and kow-towing to no one!
Technologically Advanced and Very African
A large component of positive racial socialization is racial pride and feelings of self worth. In Black Panther, Wakandans, even with all of their technical savvy and futuristic mechanics, still retained images and themes that we think of as absolutely African. The hairstyles, the dress and physical adornments, even the dances, chants and voice cadences were characteristically African and in some cases African American. In many senses, these things felt familiar. And as an African American, seeing all of these culturally specific and positive elements made me feel proud.
The Beauty was Black
Because I love talking about, writing about and looking at African American textured hair, I was excited to see the various culturally specific hairstyles shown in Black Panther. Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Nakia, rocked some amazing hair in the movie. And with her flawless complexion and natural hair, she was stunning. African American women often have to contend with a limited European definition of beauty. Therefore, it is crucial that we see positive images of our own beauty. One study found that hair was the most frequent domain of perceptions of body image for black women. A study participant said,
“When your hair is right, you just have better confidence in yourself.”
How wonderful for a film to show that natural hair can be not only ‘right,’ but also alluring and stunning. But even more importantly, the film normalized natural hair. Many black women have experienced both ignorance and micro-aggressions about our hair. In the larger culture it can be seen as an oddity, something to question or even touch without permission. The women of Wakanda rocked their natural hair as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do. Which it should be.
Walking with Pride
Did I feel proud when I left the Black Panther movie? Yes. Sure, the movie had action and chase scenes and loud booms — you know, all the stuff of a great action flick. But the imagery and the messaging are what I was most proud of. I was proud that Africa and Africans were depicted in all of their creativity, ingenuity and autonomy.
Does Wakanda exist? Yes. In the minds of the black youth that see this movie, Wakanda is now indelibly marked. The imagery, the technology, the power is theirs to imagine and hold dear. Because seeing is believing.