How Black Panther Portrays the Differences in Representing the Black Communities in Africa and America
In 1990, Nelson Mandela came to the United States to rally support for the fight against apartheid in South Africa and it was like the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. Or so it seemed to many of the Black-Americans at the time.
It was inevitable of course and I imagine he probably expected to have the mantle of leader of Black American culture thrust upon his soldiers. Yet watching the Townhall meeting in New York, I remember one line that clearly stood out from anything else he said.
When asked by Rev. Calvin Butts about if America could ever reach its ideal to end national racism, Mandela responded that while he opposed all racism wherever it maybe found, his main concern was with the racism in South Africa:
“We fight a special kind of racism in our own country. And we expect all people who are victims of racism to fight that evil. But I am here and I am primarily concerned with what the people of the USA and its ordinance of government are doing to promote the struggle against the struggle of apartheid in our country.”
With those few lines, Mandela drew a line in the sand: he was not the second coming of MLK and would not get involved in the racial issues of America. He was there for South Africa and South Africa alone.
How Africans viewed racism was not defined the same way as the decedents of African slaves living in America.
"How Black people in America think is still a uniquely American perspective and that can come to light when issues are brought up such as religion, animal conservation, or human rights."
Cousins but not Brothers
The 2018 movie, Black Panther, is being celebrated as a success in large part for the racial issues it weaves into its story. Yet it hints at two different experiences of racism that is often glossed over as simple semantics. The two main characters, T’Challa and Erik Killmonger, are cousins, but raised in starkly, different circumstances. T’Challa’s experience was not only solely African, but tribal as well. Black people were identified by their tribe and nation rather than their skin color. His decisions later on in the movie to help Black urban communities is rooted in his moral compass of right and wrong and not from loyalty to his race.
Killmonger was raised in the ghettos of the America. His experience was on a racial scale unlike his cousin’s. His father, N’Jobu, who had been sent to the US as an agent, saw the racial divide and believed his homeland should do something to assist, adopting the Black-American perspective. His brother and T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, not only disagreed, but after being forced to kill him, leaves Erik, his own nephew, in the slums because he is not part of Wakanda or his tribe. Being Black was not enough or even family was not enough. This divide provides the fuel for the movie.
What Mandela’s comment in 1990 and Black Panther’ family politics in 2018, both point to is a yearning in many Black communities to connect to our African roots and proclaim solidarity. Yet we find that is difficult to achieve because of the different perspectives on how to view community. Like T’Challa and Killmonger, African and Black American experiences with racism are similar and connected but are still different. The main one being that African nations and tribes still views itself through the traditional lenses as a default. America in contrast sees itself as a single community.
How Black people in America think is still a uniquely American perspective and that can come to light when issues are brought up such as religion, animal conservation, or human rights. For example, in Uganda, Homosexuality is not only illegal but can lead to imprisonment, and this is supported by a large number of the populace. Many Blacks in America don’t really care whether someone is gay or not as long as it remains their personal business.
All American sub-cultures have a messiah complex, someone or some group who not only embodies the values of their community but actively fights for them. Though very different now than it was in 1990, that desire for representation still exists among many Black Americans today. Black Panther strikes that tone and also expertly establishes the reality that there are clear differences in how exactly that representation works. As we deal with globalism and nativism all in the same breath, it’s going to be important to recognize those facts.
Nelson Mandela addressing the Town Hall in New York City, 1990, courtesy of BDS South Africa
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© 2018 Jamal Smith