“Who are you?”: Black Panther and the Politics of Belonging

The very first moments of Black Panther are the moments wherein two children—cousins, separated by geography, culture, and time—experience the same tragedy at different stages in their lives and in radically distinct circumstances. They both lose their fathers. One, a young man, gets to lay claim to the leadership of an entire nation in response—to have access to political, economic, and physical power the likes of which few have ever known.

The other, a child left fatherless and dispossessed of his birthright, gets to keep only his rage.

Ryan Coogler is responsible for a masterpiece in Black Panther in part because he is really good at making movies that encompass many things at once—sleek anticolonial afropunk, intense diasporic dialogue, high-octane action movie, cool-as-ice spy movie—in a franchise that has gotten very good at being sharply composed single things called “Superhero flicks.” This is not to say other Marvel movies are bad. With few, if any, exceptions, all of them are—pun not intended—marvelous films.

Black Panther, however, is a revolution. Not merely in the sense that “it is revolutionary to see blackness this way,” though it is. But also in the sense that this movie is a revolutionary dialogue.

The core of the film—and of the physical geography of the nation of Wakanda—is vibranium. As history goes, centuries before the age of humankind, a meteor struck the African continent and bestowed a rare and powerful mineral to its earth as a gift. It is indestructible, capable of storing and redistributing the dreadest physical force as kinetic energy. Wakanda is lucky, though—its discovery fuels their economic growth quickly enough that they can shelter themselves in technology and mystery before colonialism could knock on their doors and take it from them, like it’s historically taken from the rest of the continent. For the sake of their culture, their people, and the safety of the rest of the world, the Wakandans wall themselves off from international conflict. But they inevitably find themselves asking the fundamental question of what that isolationism costs.

Most of the introductions in the film happen in a very particular way. When Wakandans ask each other “Who are you?”, it happens not with any distrust or confusion, but with a display of pride. They are asking you to confess yourself, to admit that you are one of their own with the gusto of someone who deeply values what that means. You get to be someone. You get to be.

That tone, of pride, of eagerness, is present even they ask Killmonger who he is. They don’t know anything about him, only that he’s arrived at their gates with the body of an enemy as a trophy. And in that moment, he gets to be, gets even to speak to them in their own tongue.

Outside of Wakanda—that is, here, out in the world with the rest of us—there’s been much digital ink spilled about belonging, about afrofuturistic myth and its ownership. Of course, you get the trolls out of the way first—judging black people for loving its unapologetic blackness, feeling left out by its anticolonialism, even going so far as to compare Wakanda’s policies to that of a white nationalist ethnostate. Then, there is the genre itself. We’ve been asking questions of black belonging in science fiction and its various “punk” subgenres for a long time, and lately some of those questions have become both more real and more nebulous. Even in nerddom, there is a trend to ask blackness for its travel papers, whether it has the right to name one subgenre territory or to enter another, whether any of the words themselves are available for them to use. It’s pretty ingenious, when you think about it—being so perfectly robbed of your connection to a place and the depth of their culture that you have to prove that you deserve to be anywhere.

It’s almost like some of us feel we have to be Killmonger in order to get into Wakanda at all. We have to infiltrate, bear gifts, struggle, fight, undergo judgment, just to be present. We have to be conflicted about undeniable beauty, because it is closed off to us by the many unseen motors of power that we cannot control.

We see ourselves in Killmonger. But we don’t want to.

The film’s central conflict of isolationism versus globalism is so much more complicated and intense when you read it as that deeper personal conflict—the conflict of belonging. On that distant, macropolitical surface, it’s kinda easy to still pick a side, even if you do see both perspectives clearly. On the one hand, a nation standing on a mountain of the most dangerous material on the planet has a duty to the world to protect it, especially if the only things they’ve seen of the outside world is war, exploitation, and conquest. On the other, there is virtue in sharing knowledge, especially if the victims of war and conquest are your neighbors—or were, before they were robbed of their connection to your region’s culture—even if they’re not your own citizens.

It’s also very easy to render those simple ideals as harsh extremes, which the movie also shows us by juxtaposing T’Chaka’s decision to lock the borders so tightly that he’s willing to take a life in order to keep its resources safe with Killmonger’s plan to liberate black people worldwide by dispersing Wakandan weaponry, igniting war and instability, and essentially embracing and embodying the ideals of empire. It’s important to point out that part of why this conflict persists is because T’Challa and Killmonger cannot know how the other feels: the former knows what slavery and conquest by outsiders looks like, but not what it feels like, what anger it charges; the latter has trained and prepared for this moment of homecoming to this place he’s dreamed of and never seen, but brings with him the only baggage he knows, the master’s tools.

That conflict bleeds into the personal in damning ways as well. When you’re cut off from a portion of your self-concept, often you do anything to reconnect. Often you find that urge taking all kinds of syncretic shape. Often the parts that you have and the parts that you want will collide and give birth to something that struggles to find a place to be, a place that asks who you are. When the furthest cultural object you can reach with your own body is a detachment, is the sting of the consequences of slavery, you find some manner of self to make out of what’s left. When that detachment and pain still exists elsewhere, you want to share your home’s wealth and healing with the world.

I’d go so far as to say that every interaction that the black diaspora has had with genre is that syncretism, that sharing, that begging to be asked who you are. Sword and Soul is our name. Steamfunk is our name. Afrofuturism is our name. Afropunk is our name. Our desire to lay claim to things we have been robbed of, to have a place to go when we’re too black to be seen as valuable in a white man’s world and too cut off from tradition to be seen as kin to an African continental heritage.

In Wakanda, people know who they are and who their ancestors are. In Wakanda, people have the power to commune with their past. In Wakanda, their very soil is a source of economic power that no colonial power gets to raid or steal. Why wouldn’t the diaspora latch on to that just the same? Why wouldn’t they find power in that image?

But the movie is also really damn good at literally asking questions about identity, about the desire to belong, physicalizing that struggle. After all, Killmonger is right—right only about a couple of things, but one thing is enough. A place he has never seen is his home, too; he deserves to be there, to hear his name called by his own people. Even if his entire strategy is hostile and unhealthy, you can understand why he would be angry. The desire to belong has arguably made folks do worse for less.

It’s meaningful, too, that the movie also asks questions about global policy and power, and emerges from that questioning with the answer that the Wakandans owe the world something, that they need to be good neighbours as well as taking care of their own. And that would be a hard question to answer in the real world—how do you open yourself up, extend a hand, and try to be truly neighborly in the face of this violent, domineering world?—but the solution seems to be that when you are strong enough to bear that weight, you have to make the effort, to do it for those who can’t. Letting in those who have been cut off is better—is worth more—than continuing to leave them (with)out. Would that this weren’t as complicated as it is beyond Wakanda.

Black Panther exists, on so many levels, to both open a door into a radical blackness on the screen, and challenge us about the very construction of that door in our own world. We get to see ourselves as defined, powerful, with international political agency. We also get to see that familiar question asked again, and answered in style: where does diasporic blackness belong? Who does it belong to? What belongs to it? How do you lay claim to it? How do you share it? What do you struggle against to make a place for it? In the real world, far beyond the cloaked mountain walls of Wakanda, some of us may never stop struggling. But at least here, for a couple of hours in the theatre, we belong somewhere. Somewhere wants to let us in, even when they are of two minds. Somewhere asks us who we are.

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work is published or upcoming in Uncanny MagazineStrange HorizonsSunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-SpeculationArsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine. You can find his blog at therisingtithes.tumblr.com or on Twitter @therisingtithes.

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