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Monday August 15th

Column: Wakanda forever, but for whom?

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In school hallways, young white students greeted each other with the "Wakanda forever" gesture, prompting their Black classmates to pull down their lower lips to check for iridescent Wakandan lip tattoos. Obviously, they didn’t have them. 

My friend Jenee Palmer, who is writing her master’s thesis for Equity and Social Justice in Education at San Francisco State, texted me about the experiences of the young students she's been interviewing last Saturday. 

While I can imagine the startled looks on the faces of these white kids, and I admittedly find it kind of funny, this interaction begs a larger question about the role of Black Panther in American culture.

To whom does Black Panther belong, and for whom was it made? 

In the film, one of the central points of contention lies in whether Wakanda should share its wealth of vibranium and technological knowledge with the world.

Similarly, it is clear that the Black filmmakers, cast, and other creative contributors like Kendrick Lamar have tapped into a wealth of cultural knowledge and beauty with Black Panther. The question now is whether communities of color should feel obligated to share this wealth with White communities who are already making efforts to appropriate it.

As the first unabashedly Black Marvel superhero film, Black Panther was a risky endeavor. However, it continues to break box office records to near-universally high praise across racial lines. 

For this I am grateful, because the success of Black Panther will undoubtedly create space for more Black art in the American mainstream, and has already inspired young people of color to be shepherds of Black culture. 

In order to preserve this trajectory, though, we must be careful to avoid three of the historical pitfalls of the white American majority when Black excellence threatens its superiority. 

Firstly, we cannot fall victim to Barack Obama syndrome. By this I mean we cannot be disillusioned into thinking that there are no longer barriers for Black artists in the film industry because of the success of this movie. 

Secondly, we must be critical of films like Black Panther. While I am overjoyed by the success of the film, we must hold Black art to high standards. Pandering to Black audiences just for the sake of seeming “woke” or racially sensitive only undermines the film’s legitimacy. 

It is possible to be just as critical of this film as one would any majority-white production, and to do anything less only reinforces stereotypes about Black inferiority which contradict the core mission of Black Panther.

Lastly, a comment on the original point of cultural appropriation and ownership. 

In the film, Wakandans had the agency to decide whether to share their wealth with the world, and had this agency because they were previously allowed a space to thrive without impediment by “the colonizers.” Similarly, we should allow a space for Black art to thrive in the realm of American culture without colonizing it. 

Let Black Panther benefit communities of color, especially Black youth, as it was intended to.  

Once people of African descent in this country achieve more exhaustive ownership of our culture, narrative and bodies comparable to the Wakandans then, and only then, should conversations about sharing our vibranium (culture) with the masses be entertained. 

Until then I urge you to support Black art with your dollars, make space for Black voices to be elevated in all mediums and be fanatic consumers of Black media. But please keep “Wakanda forever” off of your lips, colonizers. 

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