Saturday, March 3, 2018

Finding Wakanda

Like most of the recent movie-going world, I, too, have already taken my second trip back to the land of Wakanda to bask in the glory and greatness that is Black Panther. I will say that while my first viewing of Panther was one of excitement and joy, my second viewing was an otherworldly experience, thanks to my choosing to see it in 4DX. Let's just say in addition to 3D visuals, every bullet T'Challa took, every car chase twist and turn, each rhino's stampeded step, even the mist from Wakanda's bountiful waterfalls, was brought to life by the 4DX experience, which is designed to engage every humanly sense and place viewers right into the center of the action from the comfort of their theater seats. However, as its 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating and $700+ million take at box offices worldwide reflect, Black Panther doesn't need any 4DX "tricks" to be engaging: its superbly acting cast, and strong story line of redemption and resilience was enough to deem it certifiable "magical." 

However, it's more subtly woven theme of hope and pride is what is striking the loudest chord with the African-American audience, as reflected in the countless social media photos of moviegoers adorned head to toe in African garb, the many private sold out screenings that have been held, and the number of videos shared of overjoyed students headed to theaters ecstatic to, for once, see a superhero reflecting their hue. Airline agents at various airports around the country changed flight gates to Wakanda. Friends changed their regular dapped up greetings to the one T'Challa and his sister, Shuri, lovingly share. Conversations among women included the topic of considering shaving off their crowns of glory to "represent" like the  Dora Milaje. To put it mildly, Black Panther has left all of us proud of where we once came, of who we are, and hopeful of what we could become. 

However, it is not lost on me that Black Panther has too created an unspoken feeling of melancholy and discontent as we struggle to reconcile that despite the strives we've made in this country, unlike in fictitious Wakanda, we do not control any invaluable resources, we have not been able to fully sustain ourselves independent of any Westernized hand print, and the remnants of colonization does continue to exist in every fabric of our lives. To put it mildly, Wakanda is a dream of which we'd long to never awake lest be reminded of the nightmarish reality of just how "far from home" we actually are. When the first slave ship pulled us from the Motherland and dropped us in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, we inherently knew we could never go home again. And yet Wakanda teases us with the idea of what we could have been had we never been forced to leave. 

In what seems to be a common question among people of color as of late--"Have you seen Black Panther yet?"--I too ended up in a very lengthy conversation with a gentleman recently precipitated by that very question. Our conversation took us from discussions of Black Panther to civil rights to gentrification to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Me being a Howard alum and he a Hampton alum (and, yes, there was the obligatory "real HU" rift), the latter part of the conversation led us into a discussion about another recent talked about viewing: the award-winning documentary "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities" which aired on PBS and chronicled the rise (and sometimes fall), of those great institutions. Nonetheless, in a full circle moment, the conversation ended with what I suspect many think about after leaving a viewing of Black Panther: How do we create a Wakanda now?

While indulging in one of my nightly guilty pleasures--Vice TV's "Desus & Mero"--Desus jokingly wondered if every black person who owned a pair Jordan sneakers cashed them in, could that amass to the wealth of the fictionalized Wakanda. Of course the answer is no, but what was real was the shared feeling of desperately wondering how do we get close to making that a reality. And though the possibility exits, a system that was never designed for us to win will most likely ensure a dream of that magnitude never becomes a reality. As the gentlemen I spoke with so reminded, we were put in a race where the other runners got a 200-mile head start, and yet we're expected to catch up. Seemingly impossible. 

However, that does not mean that we should not task ourselves with working to create our own "Vibranium" right where we are and, despite our disadvantages, that must be mined and protected at all costs. It does not necessarily have to be a precious invaluable metal, but a resource nonetheless that will continue to sustain us. The definition will be different for each of us. For some, that "Vibranium" will simply be building a strong family unit; for another that will be giving back by sowing into our communities; for others that could simply be taking a young boy or girl under their wing as a mentee. Yet, for me, that "Vibranium" is continuing to support our greatest incubator of black intellectual property: black colleges and universities. 

As I write this on Howard University's 151st Charter weekend celebration, it is a great time to be reminded that HBCUs must continue to be cherished and sustained. With HBCUs producing more black PhD recipients in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields than any other body of institutions, they continue to create our own "Shuri's" and hold the key to our advancement. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, an all-time high of 448 doctorates were awarded by historically black colleges and universities in 2014; thus HBCUs conferred just 0.8 percent of all doctoral degree awarded in the United States in 2014. 

Human rights activist, Malcolm X once said "Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today." When I reflect on those words, I am inspired that despite the challenges we have faced as a people, education has and continues to be that gateway that will help us create our Wakanda right where we stand. And for those without access to that great resource, it will be our job to meet them where they are and help carry them to where they must be. Our ultimate liberation may not include fancy cat suits and flying cars, but we should not for one minute fail to realize that possessing an education is both invaluable and untouchable, and will always be the great equalizer. Let's continue to build our "new land" right where we stand, and be invigorated by T'Challa's passionate decree, "I did not yield. And as you can see, I am not dead. The challenge continues...." And so it does for all of us. 

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