Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On Black Panther, 'tho I Haven't Seen It

I'm so glad I was poor in the 90s.

To be black in America is to always be at risk of the collective head fake. Go for self and fulfill your own leanings to any success and you'll meet charges of being skin-folk rather than kin-folk. On the way up, however, it's all about getting that money. Once you get it, other folks start counting it and seeing how much of it you use to do some good in your community. Depending upon who is authoring the indictments, you'll either get props for paying faint attention to kids or the poor, or lambasted for selling out which, quite honestly, is just being black, rich, and minding your own damned business. There's really no way to win, and even in its most casual presentations that should be obvious.

Take Black Panther for instance. Its box office is near-universally regarded as a bold indication of the collective cultural, political and economic possibilities of black Americans. See, it has something to do with black folk, hence it just can't be a movie. It has to be a movement. A movement that makes boatloads of money for very few and raises the bar way too high for everyone else who doesn't enjoy the windfall. So, yeah, pretty much like most of our movements.

Yes, the bar has been raised. Everywhere black American parents push STEM camp on their kids. Everyone is getting a 23andMe kit. Customer service is going to be swamped with calls. "So I'm looking at my pie chart and I'm not seeing any Wakandan DNA." Everyone is all up in their Black Pantherness. Twitter names are all "T'" whatever, which really looks goofy next to so many pre-existing apostrophes. Like, for real, you can T'Challa your name but maybe you should take off the D' before Vondre. To be T'L'Danian is just going to confuse people even more.

Can you imagine what it must be like for a black person who chooses not to identify with that movie's themes and notions? Can you imagine how it must feel to be the only black person in your community who isn't, or even refuses to be, so Wakanda'd out? I still haven't seen it. I've been busy. Once I do, I'm pretty sure it'll be good, but not quite good enough to justify how mean black Americans have been to everyone else since they announced it. We've been so buck wil' over a comic book movie, you wonder when we're all leaving for Africa. We see a teaser trailer and, all of a sudden, we don't have to worry about white folks anymore. Like, who is coordinating travel, and may I use rewards points or my Costco membership to get a better deal? I'm saying, once that bad boy is on Blu-Ray and Disney streaming and no longer front page news, we're gonna hear about all that Wakanda Forevering we've been doing in the lunchroom and in our cube suites on the job. Folks left the movie theater as if they were unplugged from the Matrix, except there wasn't a Morpheus to help you upload kung-fu into your cortex and explain how they woke you up to fight against the oppressive forces who ensure your enslavement.

More like it's your group manager Gary who almost gave you a good performance review until a few weeks ago when you started wearing African tribal garb to work although it's against the posted dress code (and although it ain't your culture.) They could've let that slide but then you kept crossing your arms and fists in solidarity with all the other blacks in the office and now the Director is raising questions about your ability to project manage a diverse multi-disciplinary team.

The idea that we are 'the black community' irks me to absolutely no end. We're no different than anyone else in America. We form tribes with far more specificity and granularity than the skin we're in, and we hold fealty to our tribes so long as they serve us individually. Yep, black folk, too, and not just those who actually uphold and defend tribal distinctions, such as NFL fans. Oh, and street gang members. What I mean by that is we're all colluded in this American mess, even black folk, and yes, even in our own suffering and oppression. A quick tale I'm telling out of school: We rarely acknowledge our mutual blackness unless we're surrounded by a perceived risk of anti-blackness. That lovely bit of physical code the thinkpiece writers describe as The Nod? Try getting one from another black person if you're the only one lighter than a paper bag, or you're on college fraternity/sorority turf and you didn't pledge. Or if you can't relate to anything in a film that appears to be a wild billion-plus box office success because it's easier for black Americans to go see a superhero film with African cultural window dressing than it is to vote. Didn't need an ID or anything.

A recent encounter with a friend of mine at the local car wash—a friend who isn't black—resulted in a call-out for me not having seen Black Panther. Now, I'm the type to flip the bird against any criticism of being out of step with the zeitgeist, but when a white guy chastises my black ass for not letting a Marvel movie change my worldview, that's taking things a bit too far. Perhaps it was frustration at my people over their euphoric nearsightedness (don't you ni**as still have a drawer full of Karl Kani, Fubu and Malcolm X medallions??) I may have been disbelief at our short memory, as this whole marketing-as-movement happened before and our condition—and the manner in which we regard each other—hadn't improved then either. Thing is, we were at a car wash, and only one of us was going home to deal with the existential issues black Americans face, so the only appropriate response at the time was comedy:

"Just so I'm clear, there is a direct analog of slavery in the MCEU, right? Pretty much the same slavery, just like it's the same NYC and Washington, DC, yeah? Bet. So then Wakanda would have known we were being led out in chains and some dood in a mask would've been, "Not our problem," and Wakanda would've been, "Aight." Same kind of enslavement situation, right? And none of us in the US could be Wakandan because they weren't enslaved by the west, right? Wouldn't have been any Wakandan Americans, I'm sayin'? Like, no one's is sayin' "13% Wakandan DNA," that's what I'm talkin' about. So, essentially, the root of Wakanda's black fabulousness is no reflection on our blackness as Americans, right? We got plenty of black Americans in the cast and crew, which is lovely, but they're playing characters who ain't really been checkin' for black folk in America, right? I mean. Skinfolk, though not kinfolk. Am I off with that? No? Aight, bet. Like, I know we got a lot of L' and D' names, like L'Marcus and D' Vondre, but that's not the same as T'Challa and M'Buku, right? Naw, dawg, I ain't trippin'. I'm sayin', I'm just tryin' to go see this flick without having to AncestryDNA first. I ain't tryin' to buy, like, a kufi and carved walking stick 'n shit. It's a superhero flick about a cat who rules a country that didn't want anything to do with black folk in America up until just recently, when it was convenient for them, right? So, basically the MCEU in general, yeah? Okay, great. I'll see it. Maybe they have it on at the barber shop."


Thomas Pluck said...

As much fun as the movie is, you are right. Killmonger (cough-- um, great name) wants to use Wakandan tech to rise up against oppression and he gets killed by BP. Afterwards, BP goes with "revolution lite" aka the tech bro method, don't rise up, here's a computer for your classroom.
For a Marvel movie it's great, but couldn't challenge the narrative that violence is only good when it comes from power, and anything to seize that power is the misguided extremist who will do more harm than good.
Sort of like Wonder Woman- I loved it, but her "fight for peace" mantra doesn't hold up when she has to kill the bad guy to save the world because ... if war doesn't solve everything, that makes us the bad guys!

Danny Gardner said...

I’m certain it all holds up lovely for those whose politics are on the shallow side (prioritize representation, identity, agency,) but the optics of blackness operating at excellence-levels isn’t enough to look past instances of questionable alignment with the rhetoric and principles of imperialism. You’d think 8 years of Obama would lead folks to develop some political sophistication. What it do to associate your skin color with excellence but malign the agency of others who may not identify? Better to check the label on that fabulous African-inspired outfit to make sure it isn’t sweatshop manufactured.