As Marvel's latest superhero movie, rightly called Avengers: Infinity War, lays siege to the weekend box office, let's recall that it's enormously popular predecessor continues to rock the big screen. In its 10th weekend, Black Panther is still in the Top Ten and remains in 1650 theaters as of late April. But let's face it. If the panther had failed financially on the same scale as 2016’s Birth of a Nation, no one would be talking about it now. We don’t talk about failure in this life, regardless of what it might teach. We talk about money. That is how we spell success.
Setting aside the apples-to-oranges issue, Black Panther is arguably the superhero-dollar-sign equivalent of Broadway’s Hamilton. Not only did the film earn back its $200 million budget during opening weekend, its worldwide gross reached $1.3 billion within seven weeks and even nudged past Titanic's spot as America's third top-grossing film of all time. Only the No. 1 ranked Star Wars: The Force Awakens and No. 2 Avatar have grossed more.
Released against a backdrop of “Take a Knee” and the tragic demo-loop in which black citizens are routinely killed by white police officers, the panther pounced into a cultural landscape that included Get Out and the Twitter feud between black intellectuals Cornell West and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Laced with resurrection-tinged street-cred and Biblical overtones, Wakanda’s superhero was nothing less than a fictional black messiah. Chief T’Challa even had an unlikely (though probably unwitting) John the Baptist in the person of Childish Gambino, whose hit single, “Redbone,” from Awaken, My Love! heralded Black Panther’s central conflict like the voice of one calling in the wilderness.
Yes, “Redbone.” With its 70s-throwback funkadelic sound, Gambino’s song is presumably about the difficulties of intimate relationships between light-skinned African-American women (redbones) and chocolate-brown black men. But at the meta-level, the song echoes and amplifies schisms endemic to the black race, like the conflict between the educated elite of Black Panther’s Wakanda and poor blacks left behind to fend for themselves in America’s inner cities.
Thus, ”You can have it if you want it,” in the “Redbone” lyric becomes a plaintive, aspirational prayer exhorting audiences to embrace the positive characterizations of the Black Panther movie. Scientists, statesmen, STEM—you dig?
And yet the chorus of that same song includes this warning: “Stay woke, niggas creepin’. They gon’ find you, gon’ catch you sleepin.’
Though still not a word white people should use, niggas in this case has little to do with race and everything to do with the internal and external forces that subvert, corrupt and threaten Wakanda as well as the entire world.
Viewed through this lens, even the album’s title, Awaken, My Love!, becomes an updated version of John the Baptist’s “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Translation: Stop behaving like unconscious zombies and stay woke in order to better receive the new messiah and his gifts.
What this means is that Black Panther succeeds financially because it speaks to us on multiple levels, from the purely escapist to entrenched core issues that are entirely personal and subjective.
Thus, whether it wants to be or not, the movie becomes a Rorschach test, especially for African-Americans. The images on screen may seem as objective as ink blots. But as with most works of art, and in life itself, what you see depends almost entirely upon what you look for—and on what you’re predisposed to see.
Shortly before I saw the film, I found myself south of Atlanta working alongside a man who appeared in my mother’s neighborhood several years ago, quickly becoming indispensable as an all-around handy man. Painting. Carpentry. Plumbing. You name it, he could do it. Always sober, always a gentleman, always on time.
Not only that—the vegetable garden he established in a decades-fallow backyard on our street became the stuff of local legend. And no wonder. To see it was to view an organic kaleidoscope of watermelon, squash, collards, cabbage, string beans, and tomatoes. It reminded me of the miracle garden at the Findhorn Eco-village in Scotland.
Unlike the three or four other men who shared the old house once owned by a deceased neighbor, Mr. K. relied only upon his bicycle and the city’s public transit system to get around. Unencumbered by the broken down luxury cars favored by his housemates, which lined up like scrap metal in the driveway and in front of the house, Mr. K. was also physically fit beyond his years. This is why I call upon him from time to time when I’ve got a job that’s too much for me to handle alone.
During the day’s work, as we loaded a truck together, he mentioned that he’d just returned from visiting his sister who had just been released from the hospital. She still lives in the little south Georgia town where they grew up, a place I’d never heard of.
“Is that where you got your green thumb?”
“Well, you see, I grew up farming. Me and my grandfather plowed a whole lot of acres behind a mule. A whole lot. That’s what we did. Worked hard all year long. White man give us a little money at the end. Wasn’t much. A few hundred. Rent had to come out. So did our food, the stuff we didn’t grow, you know.”
It didn’t take long to figure out that he was talking about sharecropping, a realization that hit me with the force of a returning boomerang. How could sharecropping have been this man’s life? Wasn’t that something that happened long ago in the distant past? I quickly called up what I could remember. Sharecropping was the economic slavery that soon followed the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction. It was a s system that continued in the South through the Great Depression, affecting both whites and blacks. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
After that, my thinking about it became vague. When I was younger, I had seen images of Julian Bond, John Lewis and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee risking their lives in those rural Deep South farmlands to register sun-whipped black sharecroppers to vote during the Civil Rights Movement. But even this seemed long ago and far away. Julian Bond was seventy-five when he died nearly three years ago. And aging John Lewis, now an author and congressman, had become newly famous for his public denunciation of Donald Trump’s “illegitimate” presidency. No longer a spring chicken myself, I had allowed myself to think of sharecropping as ancient history. But Mr. K. was telling me it was not.
When he told me his age, I was shocked again to find out we were born the same year. Although his skin seemed proof enough that “black don’t crack,” Mr. K. nevertheless seemed paradoxically older than his years suggested. As in belonging to an earlier time. The kind of man who removes his hat in the house and says Ma’am and Sir—civilities I don’t see much anymore except in movies. Period pieces. About the past.
I tried to get my mind around the facts. Mr. K. was plowing fields behind a mule at the same time and in the same Georgia where I wore a necktie, blazer, and white shirt to school. While I was learning Latin, Physics and Calculus, he was learning to kill chickens and gut a hog.
“All you gotta do is shoot him in the head,” he told me. “Then you take a knife and slit him down the middle. After that, you just reach in there and pull out the insides. That’s where you get the chitlins from, you know.”
“Did they give you gloves for that?” I already knew the answer—I’m not that stupid—but I wanted to hear him say it.
“Gloves? Didn’t nobody know nothing ‘bout no gloves. You put your bare hands in there. Most of it fell out on its own anyways. Wasn’t nothin’ to it.”
Until this moment, my knowledge of hog-gutting had been limited to the opening chapter of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. The scene where the boy throws up. For me, pork chops have always come neatly wrapped in butcher’s paper or clear plastic, handily retrieved from the supermarket’s meat department. The last time I saw an actual hog was decades ago, when my parents took us kids to rural Carrolton, Georgia, for a cousin’s wedding. The experience was enough to last a lifetime.
When we finished our work, I drove Mr. K. back to the house he rented south of Atlanta. He’s had to move from the city now that gentrification is changing the old neighborhoods, turning the “city too busy to hate” into America’s next unaffordable municipality.
We took shortcuts here and there to avoid some of the city's storied traffic, which inevitably led to a discussion of changes we’d both seen in the city during the past few years. It’s one thing to read in the newspaper or hear old neighbors say the city is becoming white. Or that newly elected Keisha Lance Bottoms is probably Atlanta’s last black mayor since there is unlikely to be a black majority when her term is over. But it doesn’t really hit you until you walk into a hardware store on a street where you once handed out leaflets for Charles Weltner or Maynard Jackson—and find that most of the people inside are Caucasian..
“I don’t believe in thinking too much about the past,” Mr. K. said. “It don’t do nothing but make you mad. That’s why I didn’t watch Roots. I don’t watch nothin’ like that. What I want to watch that for? Where I live is right now. People used to tell my grandfather the white man was cheatin’ him. But he never let that bother him. If it didn’t bother him, why should I let it bother me? You responsible for loving your own self. That’s what he taught me.”
I turned my face from the queue of mostly motionless cars to stare at him. “Your grandfather taught you that?”
“Sure. The white man that run the place we farmed used to let us have a hog sometimes and a few chickens. But he would never let us butcher up no cow.”
“He say, ‘Niggers don’t need no steak.’ That’s what they used to call us--niggers. But my grandfather didn’t worry ‘bout no steak. And he didn’t care ‘bout no name the white man call him, either.”
Mr. K.’s grandfather probably never got the chance to read James Baldwin, but it was that author’s definition of nigger as an “invention of the white man,” which came to mind when I heard this. “I’m not describing you when I talk about you. I’m describing me,” Baldwin said. “I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?”
This led me inevitably to thoughts about the Jungian shadow, man’s inner darkness, the part he doesn’t want to see because it’s too scary to look inside. So he projects it onto the outer world. Often onto entire groups—blacks, Jews, Muslims. Scapegoats all.
Niggers don’t need no steak. Because after all, who wants to feed the darkness you can’t bear to look at?
Mr. K.’s grandfather would not have used Baldwin’s words, of course, but I wondered if that old man, plowing fields in the Jim Crow south, had somehow managed to reach the same inner understanding as the learned writer.
This is not an understanding that ignores history. But exists in spite of it. You cannot ignore a history in which those who invented the nigger also invented cruel and tortuous mechanisms—physical, social, psychological, and economic—to maintain and enforce what that word meant to them. You cannot ignore the machinery that continued from one generation to the next for centuries. Or the race-baiting machinations that put Donald Trump in the White House and led to the resurgent white supremacist movement and its violent demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nor should a just society refrain from doing everything in its power to correct and redress that horrible past.
But history is one thing. Understanding oneself in relation to what lies beyond history is something entirely different. Call that other thing the Cosmos. Or eternity. Transcendent reality. An existential possibility. Or compare it to that sublime plane where T. S. Eliot’s still point meets Stephen Hawking’s quantum description of time. That imaginary field which is anything but imaginary. And which, if you find it, will change you forever. “I can only say, there we have been,” wrote Eliot. “but I cannot say where. And I cannot say for how long, for that is to place it in time.” To place it within history.
Could it be that a man standing behind a mule in the rough farmland of south Georgia had been there?
Because of the traffic, which only got worse after I dropped Mr. K. at his home, it took nearly two hours to get back to my own place north of the city. I spent most of that time thinking about him, his grandfather and that mule. I thought about them again when I saw Black Panther two days later.
When I finally arrived in Wakanda, I was sporting a pair of 3D eyeglasses, which amplified not only the film’s beauty but the fundamental violence intrinsic to the Marvel universe.
What I saw was a movie that pits the black scientists, generals and kings of a fictional African nation against the anger of fatherless youths shooting hoops outside an Oakland tenement building. Elite blacks versus the black urban poor. Both groups, like warring children, longing for a Big Black Daddy, a King, if not an outright messiah, who will set things right once and for all.
Like most dualities, the story compels you to think only in terms of the opposites it presents. As if that were the only lens. But my recent workday with Mr. K. reminded me of a different dichotomy. The simple man versus the complicated man. The man whose understanding of life comes from relationship with the earth in contrast to the man whose sense of self derives from books, social media, and polarized ideologies.
Because I saw the film on the heels of Black History Month, I was also reminded of Frontline’s Two Nations of Black America, which resurfaced on social media as black programs often do during that time of year. The documentary opens with briefcase-toting Henry-Louis Gates, Jr., saying hello to a string of homeless black men as he heads to work at Harvard University. Although it first aired in 1998, the report seemed to predict the root of Black Panther’s central conflict: “Though many African-Americans have joined the middle class, half of all black children are born into poverty, leading to class segregation and new stereotypes.”
If we allow that Black Panther is part metaphor, Wakanda’s King T’Challa embodies the first part of this sobering equation while his abandoned inner-city cousin, Erik Killmonger, represents the latter. Is the film shaking its finger at the putative descendants of W. E. B. Dubois’ Talented Tenth, chiding the black elite for turning its back on poor blacks they were supposed to be responsible for? Or is that just my Rorschach speaking?
Intentionally or not, Black Panther points to an unexpected difficulty of the Civil Rights Movement. Like the Wakandans, African-Americans who were able to take advantage of open housing, better jobs, and equal access to education, moved away from the inner cities. With their departure to the suburbs, urban schools became re-segregated and also suffered from the lack of social cohesion that existed when all blacks, regardless of class, were forced to live together on the same side of town. This created a new kind of black impoverishment out of which grew the culture of hip hop and a suspicious antipathy to middle-class blacks who took their resources “underground” instead of returning to the hood.
Several YouTube comments on the Frontline documentary dissed Dr. Gates because he had sided, as one viewer claimed, with the white man. Apparently, teaching at Harvard is siding with the white man. Learning to play the violin is siding with the white man. Moving to the suburbs. Becoming middle class. Speaking standard English. All these things are white. Assimilation and integration are not only harbingers of a naïve past but signposts of betrayal. For some, it took the 2016 presidential election to reveal the unpleasant, un-Photoshopped national portrait lurking in democracy's attic. One that did not surprise urban blacks at all. Post-racial America is a pipe dream.
The fallout from this predicament is appalling to native Africans like the characters of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.
“As soon as possible, move away from this place,” one Nigerian immigrant tells another who has just landed in an American inner city with her small son.
When the newcomer asks why, her friend says. “Because if you stay here, he will become just like American blacks.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
In the meantime, we place our hopes in Wakanda as an ideal. A concept. A heaven worth reaching for. Although its messianic philosopher-king is not real,, the film's multi-layered message holds a justifiable claim on our attention: Awaken, My Love!
This essay is excerpted from my forthcoming book.
Copyright @2018 Andrew Hill. All rights reserved
I'm a storyteller whose background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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