There is a sort of instant connection made among black and brown folks who work in corporate environments. An unspoken understanding that is hallmarked in passing head nods, cross-the-table eyebrow raises, and, if you’re lucky, affirmed at lunch table discussions and business council meetings.
Throughout the country, there are countless of these interactions as black and brown people find themselves in cities away from home. Cities that are very, well, white.
As two new, similarly-aged women of color entering a Midwest retailer, Natalie* and I were two of these people. I had relocated for work and yet that same job was leaving me unsettled, while the cold climate wreaked havoc on my skin and the corporate climate went for my mind.
7-months into my tenure, Natalie and I found ourselves on the same email thread. In typical corporate fashion, there was a myriad of CC’d stakeholders but only a couple of melanated people. After hovering over my picture, Natalie scheduled a coffee chat with me.
“You were the only other women of color I’d been on an email thread with in over a year of working there,” she later disclosed. “I had to get to know you.”
And so, one cold February morning, Natalie and I met for coffee inside the heated corner of a communal meeting space at work.
I’m sure in that first meeting, we exchanged the standard information on where we were from, and how we both found ourselves so far from home. What I do recall is that with Natalie, as with so many other black and brown corporate professionals I had met, I felt at ease. There was nothing awkward or weird or trying-too-hard about our conversation. Instead, we were just two girls — both with New York roots, a penchant for style, and an intimate understanding of one another’s culture — who were using a corporate lounge and coffee instead of a couch and wine to form a friendship.
By the end of the conversation, we were giggling like we had known each other for years. We both needed that safe space; the feeling of familiarity in an unfamiliar environment.
As we wrapped up, both needing to dash off to the next meeting on our calendars, Natalie shot me her million-dollar question.
“By any chance would you want to go see Black Panther with me?” she inquired.
The Marvel movie starring Chadwick Boseman had come out a week prior but I was out of town when my only two friends in the city met to watch it. At this point, the fanfare was uncontainable and, despite my wishes, I figured I’d just have to go see the movie alone.
I pause here to make the case for watching movies alone. I love it. I love the feeling of my own independence doing it. I love the opportunity to decide whether I like a movie with no other person influencing that decision.
But, as a black person, Black Panther wasn’t a movie that you saw by yourself. It was an event. And as independent as I believed myself to be, I didn’t have a desire to show up to this affair alone.
So, when Natalie popped the question, I could barely slow down the all-hailing YES from tumbling out of my mouth.
“Perfect!! I’d rather watch the movie for the first time with someone who’ll get it,” she said, winking at the fact that her white significant other might not appreciate the nuances as brown and black folks would.”
She didn’t have to say anything else. I understood the words between the words.
Two days later, Natalie and I strolled up to the movie house, me in my African-but-probably-missing-the-mark headwrap and her in her way-too-cool-for-Minnesota fedora hat and faux fur vest.
But unlike some of the photos we had seen of people decked out in their finest Wakanda-inspired attire — the moviegoers at the theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota couldn’t look any more cabin chic. We immediately knew that our decision to attend the movie together was the right one.
We grabbed our aisle seats in the crowded theatre and prepared to be transported to a place markedly different than what we found ourselves surrounded by.
Immediately, the movie forewarned us it was to tell us a story of home. And it never missed the mark.
Despite having just met, we brought our same school girl-like antics to the crowded movie house. We called out the jokes that went over other people’s heads. We moved our bodies to the fire tracks when they came on. We let our appreciation for people who looked like us on screen pour out of our beings.
“Damn, you gotta do all that?” we’d ask as we jokingly fanned ourselves over the beautiful black men adorning our screen.
“Ahhh, I’m so here for this,” one of us would say as T’Challa and Shuri had one of their sibling exchanges.
“Did he just call her auntie?” Natalie said through tears as Killmonger spoke his infamous lines in the council meeting.
For me, I needed that break from what so much of my life was centered around in that season: office theatrics. You see, even when a minority is accustomed to moving in majorly white environments — as both Natalie and I were — it doesn’t take much to be reminded that you’re othered. Microaggressions disguised as innocent comments; the oft-ignored stories of police slain black men you silently wrestle with; cultural norms that seem to leave you on the sidelines.
In something as simple as going to see Black Panther, we got an ethnic experience. Even if it was only happening in our minds.
I’m sure our moviegoer friends didn’t necessarily appreciate our commentary. But neither of us cared. The only person Marvel had given me before that moment was Storm. And this — this was an entirely different affair.
It’s likely that everyone in the movie house that day enjoyed Black Panther but as a person who was living a corporate life in which I didn’t feel very seen — Wakanda touched me and every black person I know in a far deeper way.
Wakanda surpassed a promise to tell me a story of home. It gave us the head nods and the chants and the music and the characters and the intellect that we weren’t accustomed to getting in our everyday lived existence. Albeit fictional, it gave us a vision of what a home could not just look like — but rather what home was supposed to feel like. The comfort; the overflowing joy; the excellence that was not simply postured but that was normalized.
After the movie, Natalie and I took our obligatory Wakanda Forever photo by the movie poster, permanently digitizing the day that our friendship was cemented.
We will forever thank Black Panther for giving us a piece of home when we needed it the most.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.