Am I welcome in Wakanda?

I was a late comer to Wakanda. When I did arrive, my Pan-African senses were pleased with the drips of South African house music and the incorporation of every beautiful textile the continent possesses. I was relieved that there was no tinge of jealous “authenticity” politics afoot. And off-screen, Black people everywhere rejoiced in 2 hours and 15 minutes free of racist micro-aggressions. What a sacred space at a troubled time.

Yet, I exited the theater wondering if I would be welcomed in Wakanda. African-American women were conveniently absent even from this supposedly inclusive and utopian Black space.  As an African-American woman, as a mother to an African-American son, as a wife to an African man, as a traveler to non-fictional African countries, as a scholar of Africa and its Diaspora, this movie hurt me to my core. Why is the African-American woman (STILL) subaltern in a contemporary display of utopian Blackness? (whaddup Spivak!)

And, further still, what exactly was being said about African-Americans? (Not that part at the end where we are basically rescued from the ghettos by our enlightened African brothers and sisters – that I don’t necessarily agree with, but I can live with it.) What I mean is, why are we always portrayed as Erik Killmonger? Self-centered, egomaniacal, bloodthirsty, violent, self-destructive, vengeful… shall I go on?

Now, I am no stranger to seeing Michael B. Jordan play characters of questionable character, but Erik Killmonger was too much. He was well-trained, but quick tempered. He used the tools in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to build his own coffin. Painted as a righteous mutineer gone power crazy, Killmonger is simultaneously the colonized and the colonizer’s worst enemy. He was the walking stereotype of the angry African-American man – maybe justified in the beginning, but notoriously drunk with power and toxic wherever he goes.

This movie, for me, reinforced negative stereotypes of African-Americans to present mythical African glory. This zero sum game is just another example of a colonized mind and the continuation of White hegemony, even in supposedly sacred and autonomously crafted Black spaces. Like braid extensions at the natural hair expo, I feel that this film still misses the mark. It gives credence to superficial narratives and it omits crucial voices.

Did anyone ever think that taking Erik from California to Wakanda was not an option, because – oh, I don’t know – he had a mother!? And from the Black excellence he exuded in the military, my best guess is that she was African-American as F. Taking her son wasn’t an option for more important reasons than Wakandan shame. That same love and pride that Angela Bassett (depicting an African mother) showered on T’challa, that’s African-American women all day. And somehow, that cultivator, that influencer, that decision-maker, that elder, was absent. Better yet, omitted. Why, for, come?

Like so many narratives about the conversation between Africans and African-Americans, Black Panther regurgitates tropes and past transgressions dominate the dialogue. We should be talking about partnership among troubled equals. This exchange could have been different on screen and should be different in real life. That passionate longing for belonging in African-Americans is somehow always framed as futile. Like asking for reparations, we are paternalistically discouraged from looking back and preemptively halted for fear that we will get (rightfully) unbridled or bloodthirsty – like Killmonger. Yet, like movements for actual reparations (Georgetown slavery Archive), African-Americans are owed the opportunity to make peace with their pasts. And, rest assured, we know how to do it without destroying our futures.

To watch this movie and not see a commentary on how African-Americans are our own worst enemy is to be deaf, dumb, and blind. Those who don’t see it my way, haven’t been to Africa and haven’t known this conversation as intimately as I have. This movie is nowhere near accurate.  When I first went to Ghana in 2006, I remember discussions with Kofi Awoonor about the Transatlantic slave trade. There were side eyes at the White girls in the group, whose White guilt was so thick you could cut it with a knife. There were layers of Blackness confronted when a light skinned Black woman was called mulungo (White, foreigner) and wasn’t embraced on her expected “return to the motherland.” It brought up her own uncomfortable memories of being ostracized for being bi-racial. Needless to say, everybody was working through their own positionality. Above all else, what gripped me from the many conversations between Blacks and Africans during that trip is a comment from one of the junior academicians at the University of Ghana. He said, “We lost you – our most powerful resource. Do you know what it is to lose your strongest, your most-able bodied, your youth? Look how we suffer because we sent you away.”

This is the real conversation. It acknowledges agency and objectification. It recognizes history as a continuum and not a series of ruptures. It talks about socio-economic consequences for labor migration. It speaks to cultural interconnectivity, not in terms of fictional theory, but in realities of development. This conversation is about restorative justice… not revenge.

This movie sucks the air out of the room because it falls so far afoul of this useful conversation. I hope moviegoers remember that we do not have to do our (neo-) colonizers’ bidding by having Hollywood ticket sales rebuild our burned bridges. No matter how many beads and handshakes we have on screen, the story is built on old tropes that don’t serve us in real life. Black Panther excludes the lynchpin connecting Africa to America – the African-American women, mothers, and aunties – the guardians of our cultural continuities. If Wakandan value doesn’t come in the form of inclusion of all Blackness, let’s hope it has cleared the way for conversations like these that call out the exclusions.  As a mother, an African-American woman, and a member of the Pan-African diaspora, I have to believe that this movie is not us. It is not us any more than X-men is us, no more than Batman is us. We do not live in Wakanda any more than we reside in Gotham City. Killmonger is not my son and I am not absent.

 

 

 

Too Close for Kenya

Flor da Kangra, Dharmsala, India 2013The terror attacks in Kenya have weighed heavy on my heart. So much so that it’s taken til  now and with great deliberation to even discuss my disdain for the entire affair. My peripheral intersection with the events in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall have left me grieving — perhaps for a sense of youthful immortality that has, apparently, died a quiet death.

Like 9/11, Nairobi’s attacks affected me around the edges in a way that some might say have shaped me. When those four planes headed West ward they departed from both a town I’m from and a town I was residing in at the time. Only years later when I moved to New York for almost 7 years would I associate those events with those towers. My fears, at the time, weren’t for people in the WTC, but for people possibly on those planes. Had my aunt Trudy traveled for work that week? Wasn’t a friend’s parent traveling from Logan? Such were my thoughts then and thankfully my people weren’t on those planes. I wasn’t touched – some might say – because they weren’t touched. Yet, sealed in that close call somewhere was the feeling that if it could happen so close to home and spare me and mine, perhaps this would always be the case.

Kenya undid all of that. For the reality is that as the events unfolded, I quickly thought “Of course, I don’t know anyone in Nairobi.” The same way I’d thought, “I don’t know anyone in Libya,” “in Syria,” “in Afghanistan”… But I did know someone in Kenya. I knew someone in Nairobi. I knew someone in Westgate Mall. In fact, I knew two someones – one who lived and one who died.

The irony that these two people would be my two people, in the same place at the same terrible time, is haunting. They’ve been part of an interwoven story in my life that’s left me speechless and afflicted with writer’s block since the realization dawned on me.

She hosted me at Barnard on prospective weekend. In deciding if I’d chose Barnard over Hopkins, over UNC, over… I’d slept on her floor and tried to live her life and be one of her friends. In deciding to choose the college, I chose her shadow – taking courses she had taken, being similarly disappointed with the administration’s ‘color blind’ shenanigans, sharing a suite with her my junior year. The cake may have been that, but the icing and the irony is that she went to Ghana in 2004. On an otherwise unprecedented trip led by British novelist Caryl Phillips, she and a cohort of Barnard women made the reverse transatlantic journey. From what I hear it was chocked full of white girl guilt trips and Black girl breakdowns. Soon after, she graduated and headed for Harvard Law, as she’d always planned. And I headed into my final year.

I, too, joined Caryl’s course and I also went to Ghana. In 2005. Similar tales resulted, except that my cohort upped the ante with multiracial girl ambivalence. I, too, met with Ghanaian students, had an amazing Ghanaian tour guide, and spoke with Ghanaian intellectuals – one of whom was Kofi Awoonor.

He met our group throughout the ten day trip. He introduced us to the students of University of Ghana’s Cape Coast campus. He dined with us and entertained us with diplomatic war stories at an Ivorian restaurant in Accra. And he even took us out to a resto-bar overlooking the Atlantic. Or maybe I’m mixing up my boys born on Friday and he only went to the dinner with us.  Or maybe there are other punctuations I should remember, but don’t now. Nevertheless, he was a figure and remains a phantom – tireless and effervescent – in my Ghanaian memories and my West African dreams.

Just shy of 7 years have passed since that trip. And in those 7 years of separation, I’m sure he’d long since forgotten us – she from ’04, me from ’05.

Some twist of fate made these two individuals, my people, show up in Westgate Mall that day.  One could say it was no coincidence. Neither are Kenyan. Months earlier, maybe even weeks earlier, neither was even in the country – much less in the mall!  I bet they didn’t even know that the other was there. I suspect that even if they’d passed one another, they wouldn’t even have recognized each other by name or face. But there they were, fighting for their lives.

Unfortunately, he lost.

There are requiems that must be written for the loss of such lives like his. But you could google such memorials and they’d be more intimate than anything I could produce.  Yet her shattered serenity I know more dearly and could argue that it too deserves commemoration of its own. I could pity these two people and praise their bravery or simply honor their greatness – tragedy not withstanding.

What these events have raised in me is the nagging knock of mortality at my own door, followed by – not the fear that life is too short – but the fear that the world is frighteningly small.

I know people in Libya. I know people in Nigeria. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. And in Washington, DC. Safety has become its own mirage, now more than ever. It’s trigger finger, though, remains brilliantly, divinely, randomized.

Perhaps if it weren’t these two people, these uniquely separate individuals, whose lives intersected almost a decade ago for just ten days…

If they could find themselves deeply entangled in danger in a foreign country, far from, distant from, their own…

Were it not them, were it not now, maybe I’d still feel spared the disruption of the world’s violent explosions so closely to home…

Ifs and buts get us nowhere…

So it was them. So it is now. So far, but so close.

I wish we were close enough to hug, but weren’t not. We’re just close enough for tragedy, but not enough for comfort. I’d like to hug her to let her know that I love her and that I’ve always appreciated her shadow. I haven’t the words to express both condolences and respectful distance. I haven’t the vocabulary to say that I’m happy she walked away, bruised but breathing. That these events aren’t hers alone to suffer. For, we are all utterly too close, too shamefully close to a Kenyan mall near you.

And I am so sorry, so deeply sorry, for her loss and for the loss of Kofi.

…We’ll always have Ghana.