The party was lit, so-to speak. Afrobeats reverberating in the background, purple and blue hues emanating from a department store bought disco ball. Black students, looking live and lovely, were gyrating and percolating in the little social room of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Black parties on an all white campus are a special bit of a magic. A little treat reminding you that your identity matters. Black parties quench the thirst caused by overwhelming whiteness, and the University of Chicago was a special kind of white. Like the lobotomy causing factory in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it was Optic White.
This Black party was a special kind of Black too. It was hosted by the African and Caribbean Student Association (ACSA). This organization, not to be confused with the primarily American-born Organization of Black Students (OBS), was organized to meet the needs of international students from the countries of its namesake. The two organizations, like the Black diaspora, were once one, but became fractured. In an OBS meeting, one African student aptly said “we didn’t get their jokes.” I took this to mean, more broadly, that there were substantive differences between Black American students and Black students from the rest of the world. Fine, makes sense. As a first year student, I didn’t think much of this difference. I, like Killmonger in Black Panther, just saw us all as cousins.
Sure I may not have known these Afrobeat songs, but the shimmying and shaking is indigenous to all of us. So I did my best to apply the rudimentary Black booty shaking steps to the technicalities of the songs. And if I must say so myself, I was doing a pretty decent job, bringing my Detroit-self to the diaspora. I felt good dancing with my mostly African cousins, and my speckle of Black American brothers and sisters.
So I was quite surprised when an African student I was dancing with turns to me and says, and this was meant to be a compliment, “Are you sure you’re not African?”
Now I know what she meant. I was gettin’ it, and she recognized it. But the irony is ferocious. I was genuinely confused. Language escaped me. What? I mean--I’m not African--at least, not African, African, but I’m Black--? Which means…? Aren’t we both…? . Did this African student not realize that our shared history could lead to both of us knowing how to be on beat?
In today’s turbulent times, it would’ve made perfect sense for Black Panther to be a movie about us vs. them. Instead, Black Panther forces us to have a family conversation. The movie is about us, all of Black people, and the divisions we draw between each other.
My chest was tight when I realized that the villain of Black Panther was an African-American abandoned by Wakanda. It got too real. I know that sense of abandonment. I have met Africans who despise African Americans, saying that we are lazy or violent, unable to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to us. I have met folks born in the Caribbean, who draw divisions between themselves, Black Americans, and Africans. I know Dominicans who “look” Black as hell, but will fight you if they are called Black.
And these family feuds are not just stateside. Once, while studying abroad in Paris, I was heading to a club with a man from Martinique. His hair was sleek and his skin light, but to family members he was unmistakably Black. He walked with a bounce in his step, and his English was choppy, but bright. We spoke of the relationship between Black French citizens who had immigrated from the Antilles, and West Africans in Paris. The latter of whom, though formerly colonized by France, were not considered citizens.
“I am not like them.” He said, punctuating his sentence with a stern gaze. “You see, I, am white, and they are Black.”
“Oh okay.” I said, nodding, with the radical Black Killmonger in me judging fiercely.
To be fair, my Black American brothers and sisters are just as guilty as my African cousins. I grew up hearing the joke African booty-scratcher. My family has made jokes about how “Africans” smell. I grew up under the impression that “Africa,” is one place. In a sense, even here I am limited to speaking of “Africans” as one giant group. My Blackness, our Blacknesses, seem stuck in these gross oversimplifications. We are the Kilmongers fighting for our birthright to a place that has never really accepted us. Or we are the Wakandans fighting to preserve the sanctity and dignity of a place that has been forever under attack. To its detriment, the film perhaps makes this binary a bit too prominent.
People have asked on my social media, “was Killmonger right?” I am not altogether sure what people mean by this question, but I think what makes it tempting is that it harkens on the old “Martin vs. Malcolm,” debate. Instead of relying on old tropes of Black male leadership, I think it’s more interesting if we make sense of Black Panther with the understanding that no one is right. (Except the women of course.) This is not a movie where we should take sides. Killmonger is the villain only because he is the antagonist to the protagonist, not because he is evil, nor because he is wrong. Many Black Americans know all too well what it means to lack a sense of “fromness,” and the ensuing anger that could propel the Killmongers inside us. And yet, King T’Challa still empathizes with Killmonger, and derides his father for abandoning his nephew. We are left with the complexities of the diasporic Black family drama. Africa, the movie preaches, don’t abandon your cousins from the rest of the diaspora, but Black brothers and sisters, you can’t just force yourself back into the family. Thus, we are offered a movie truly about us, a fight at the dinner table projected back at us.
Luckily, we are all more complex than the binary the film projects. I have met many first and second generation African-Americans, who proudly claim us as cousins. I have met Black American chattel slavery descendants, who find kinship with Africans, without the the pomp and circumstance of hotepism and ambiguous acculturation (read: Kwanzaa.) Despite the perils of racism, we are more than equipped and loving to build kinship between us while still acknowledging our particularities.
We would do well to leave this film by asking ourselves questions rather than drawing conclusions. The little boy at the end of the film asks us, “Who are you?” But the camera’s angle makes it clear that the question is really Who Are We? It is the continual asking of that question that gets us somewhere. It is the offering of an answer that doesn’t.
I Thank Black Panther for the conversation.
Aaron is a Chicago-based writer, activist, and educator. His work has been featured in Colorlines, Mused Magazine Online, the Feminist Wire, TruthOut.com, the Advocate, the Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. He is currently working on a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked