Lessons from Wakanda: What Black Panther Raises for Black Organizing

I could not wait to see what Ryan Coogler and team were going to do with Black Panther.   As a kid, opening the comic book meant entering a world where brave and brilliant Africans ran a nation, away from the gaze and grasp of white supremacy.  Well, mostly, anyway.  In the “real” world, we were marching and fighting for the sovereignty and freedom Wakandans already had.  And that blew my little grade school mind and helped lay the foundation for the organizer I was to be.  Fifty years later, as I am watching Black children give each other Wakanda salutes as their parents proudly look on, I am again reminded of the powerful effect that story has on culture and belief – and of the powerful effect that our movements have on culture.

Marvel is a case in point because, in its own strange way, it has been in a kind of conversation with Black organizing culture for nearly half a century.  And not just via the Black Panther franchise.  The X-men series was conceived as an allegory about anti Black racism and resistance, recast (rather appropriately) as the story of super “mutants” that “normal” people hated, feared and misunderstood.  Even the series’ leading protagonists, Professor X and Magneto, were inspired by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively.    For more on Marvel and Black Panther check out Todd S. Burrough’s excellent new book on the subject.  I am so proud to say that I had the privilege of writing the foreword.

But you don’t have to be a comic book fan to know that this film is surfacing deep feelings for Black people.  It’s a rare moment where our collective desire for authentic belonging, self-determination and yes, Black power are charging a dynamic (and sometimes hilarious) public conversation about who we are and who we are meant to be.  As organizers, part of our job is to leverage moments like these and fashion them into opportunities to advance the work of liberation.  The film, especially in the ways it shifts and further complicates the original comic book story, offers plenty to work with.

First of all, I want to shout out all of the incredible work going on in this area including #WakandaTheVote, which is the smartest, most culturally relevant civic engagement initiative I have seen in a long time.  There’s the great viewing guides including this one by Intelligent Mischief, Mobilize the Immigrant Vote and Movement Strategy Center and this wonderful teaching curriculum by the consistently dope Tess Raser that uses the moment to help middle school students understand Wakanda in the context of African history and possibility.

Yes.  And.  I know it’s a Disney film.  I know that corporations are pimping its appeal to appear to be down with our folk who are definitely not.  There’s Atlanta jokingly offering “flights” to Wakanda while the city aggressively works to displace our folk; and that evil, big box store that installed photo areas, complete with Wakandan thrones and cutouts, at their Blackest locations.  Still, this film is a deeply layered parable about Black struggle, movement and liberation.  Yes, we should interrogate the patriarchy and militarism that are foundations of Wakandan society (which is even more true in the old comics) and if we stop there, we will miss some real opportunities.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie and want to, you may want to stop reading now.

We are Wakanda.  The enemy, the champion, the shamed, the nameless are all us.  This is a collective story of our s/hero’s journey.  Erik/N’Jadaka, T’Challa, Nakia, Okoye, N’Jobu, Shuri, T’Chaka, W’Kabi and Queen Mother Ramonda all represent archetypal energies that live in each of us – and in our movements.   The traditionalists.  The “burn that ish down” people.  Those of us who don’t do organizational commitment.  Those who believe we can think and tech our way out.  Those who think we will fight our way out.  Those who think that focusing on elevating the self (individually and as a nation) is sufficient.  It goes on.  Our meetings, our movements, our history hold the whole of this continuum.  The film provides us an opportunity to look at how these archetypes operate and what they teach us.  All have their strengths and weaknesses.   What mix is best aligned with revolutionary values?  When we quote Brother Malcolm and say, “By any means necessary,” do we really mean it?  The movie, like much of the movement, elevates conflict as a primary tool for change but is that all there is if we are fully committing to freedom by any means necessary?  What does it mean when we say we are willing to die for the cause, but we are not even willing to sit down with people we don’t like for the cause?

So many questions.  Here are some of my takeaways.  I look forward to hearing yours.

Burning down the garden of the heart-shaped herb and grabbing elders by the throat.   As a young organizer, I would get annoyed by youth tokenism.  It would seem that my elders would plan a whole conference then relegate the youth in the room to a fishbowl so that they could listen to our thoughts, then go about their business.  Now that I am considered an elder (though I love the term I heard from my comrade Alex Tom, yelder) I find myself in spaces where older voices are tokenized, and younger organizers create fishbowls to hear a bit of “wisdom” and then go about their business.  Neither is good practice for mass movement building, but I also understand that at the heart of this practice is a rational fear – as well as some insensitivity.

We want our organizing spaces to be safe spaces.  We are afraid of what happens when we introduce those who might not agree with or value our ways of working and being.  We don’t want someone to come and burn down the garden we so carefully cultivated.

Yet, we can also turn around (often without thinking) and burn down other folk’s gardens because, like Erik, we feel hurt by our exclusion from them.  We cannot see how they might be of value in spite of the pain we believe they may have caused.  When we simply condemn institutions like the Black Church, legacy organizations, HBCUs, hip hop, Afrikan-centered spirituality, Black feminism/womanism, Christianity, Islam, etc., without also appreciating their roles in Black survival, culture and connection, we turn learning opportunities into rancor and pain.

As organizers, we should strive to offer informed, loving critique when appropriate.  Let’s be sure our critiques (which are necessary and important) are constructive, respectful and, again, informed.  Let’s look at who/what we may have by the throat and whether it is really necessary to advancing this project of liberation.   Of course, there are times when burning it down can be the right move if it helps us move forward.  Let’s be wise and loving in our choosing.

The left behind.  This is a powerful theme in Black Panther amplified by the film’s deft revision of Erik (N’Jadaka’s) origin story.  Many African Americans are carrying deep, often unconscious trauma around abandonment.  It is rooted in the multi-generational impact of the brutal capture and enslavement of our ancestors.  And it is exacerbated by the ways that patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy tear our families and communities apart every day.  I felt my heart sink as I watched the brief depiction of stolen Africans forced upon the ship while Wakanda lay hidden from Western view. I was reminded of a moment in comedian Eddie Griffin’s stand up special, Voodoo Child, when he spoke to how African Americans felt abandoned by Africans who never came to rescue them.  “Not even a n***** in a canoe…”  I will never forget the long applause and cheers that rose to meet his words. I thought of him and the crowd’s reaction that night as I watched Erik on the screen, full of anger and grief.  The ones that were left behind.  And if the screenings I saw in Atlanta and Detroit are any indication, the crowds’ reaction to Erik (including his incredibly moving final speech) reveal we are still feeling some kind of way.   Perhaps it’s time to check in.

Who are we leaving behind?  On another level, Erik’s story is also a metaphor for how so much of our work tends to exclude people with whom we are uncomfortable.  Whether it’s working class folk who won’t rock with college level language or trans youth challenging our notions of identity and gender, too many of our organizations are leaving our folk behind.  Some of this is due to limited resources as Black organizing infrastructure had been in decline and under attack (due mostly to lack of investment, state violence and aggressive displacement of Black communities) since the early 70s.  Despite the small trend upward since 2015, our mass organizing infrastructure has never ever been close to scale.  Yet, we must still ask ourselves, how might our own fear, anger, shame, anxiety about what this new group might reveal about us and our capacity keep us from getting our people?  When we say Black love, what does that mean to us as organizers?  And in our commitment to restorative justice, what should this love look like?

Reasserting Black brilliance.  Sigh. Again.  I know.  Some folk are still arguing about whether Africans built the pyramids.  Even though they are in Africa.  And everyone painted and sculpted on the walls are Africans.  Yeah, I know.  It gets old.  Still, the film opens up a little more space to once again affirm how Black people have always been at the center of innovation and technology – in every sense of the word.  It’s also an opportunity to love up on our organic “nerdery” – not as whiteness or separate from Blackness but as essentially Black.  (I see you and thank you, Afrofuturist fam for your consistent, loving work on this!)

Living in the imaginary world of Wakanda has opened up a conversation about how many millions of Shuris of all genders there are in the real world only waiting to be nurtured and developed.  What can we say to our families, to students to affirm their sense of worthiness and deservingness of quality, culturally relevant education?  What should we be demanding of these systems while we build our own?  And when people say the film centers western modernity and turns away from Africanity, they don’t understand that innovation and technology – especially technology in the service of the people and the planet – is a vital part of Black past, present and future.

Pride and Our Dreaming of Home.  There is no doubt that the film has sparked a heightened sense of Black pride and appreciation for our African heritage.   If you went to the movie where Black folk showed up in numbers, you know that there was as much of a show before the movie as the movie itself.   Folk showed up and out in some amazing African and African inspired outfits.  The clothes, the chants and other beautiful displays of being #BlackOutLoud are all proof (once again) of how Black identity is so much more than common oppression.   Black Twitter is lit about Wakanda.  My favorite, the often hilarious #InWakanda thread, is just one example of how social media is revealing Black imagining of community and even nation.   It’s an opportunity to get into the conversation in ways that build hope and deeper connection to work that brings us closer to what we are dreaming – even in the age of 45.  For example, we could develop accessible, online profiles on initiatives to build independent institutions (i.e., schools, banks, gardens, community safety initiatives, etc.) on an #OurWakanda or #CreatingOurWakanda platform.  The platform might even connect interested people to groups and/or activities where they live.

Black love as public policy.  And finally (I know this piece was long… I have so many feelings, lol!) Wakanda has become a metaphor for Black love as public policy.  Again, yes, we should gently guide folk away from the “one true king” model but there is a way this film is helping our folk articulate the love and safety we really want to feel in the world.   Black Panther portrayed Black women modeling the hard work of nation building and facilitative leadership.  We saw a place of plenty where residents had what they needed to thrive.  How might we re-imagine public policy work and make it less about defense against the bad stuff (though necessary) and more about generative initiatives that bring us closer to achieving the beautiful promise that draws us to Wakanda in the first place?  The work to expand sanctuary at the local level is an important example of what this could look like.  However, it’s also important to go beyond issue-based policy and take on the rules of power, decision making and governance.  People’s Assemblies, proportional representation, sortition and other democratic models can help our communities step up our power and our practice in governing together.

Big love and a Wakanda salute to all of you out there doing amazing, transformative work – in this moment and always.  #WakandaForever

Book Cover for Marvel's Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, from Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates


For more on Black Panther, check out the definitive comic book biography by Todd S Burroughs on Diasporic Africa Press


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Mailing List

Bridging Vision, Values and Strategy for transformative change.

Higher Ground Change Strategy All Rights Reserved © 2020