Today, I walked to the front desk of my doctor’s office to sign in, and the woman behind the glass barely glanced up at me before she went back to what she was doing.
I cleared my throat, signed in, then stood a beat longer. “Ma’am?”
Slowly, she pulled back the glass. I noticed the glint of her ring.
“I love that!” I said.
She gave me a pinched smile. “It’s called citrine,” she replied, putting together my paperwork. She tilted her head my direction and said it again, really slowly, “Citrine,” like a kindergarten teacher.
“I’ve . . . never heard of that,” I said, although I probably had. “I love different rings. Mine is a sapphire.”
My effort at conversation fell flat. A few minutes later on, she called me back to the desk. “You forgot to fill out this bottom part. We can’t accept your Medicaid without it.”
I don’t have Medicaid. There’s nothing wrong with Medicaid, but I have Blue Cross Blue Shield.
I’m not sure she ever looked me in my eyes.
The Scene Opens
Tonight, my husband and I sat in a packed movie theater and watched Black Panther.
We have been waiting for this movie for months. We’re both avid Marvel fans and we love superheroes—though we don’t always agree on their merits. Spiderman is the best. Period.
But as the opening scenes of the latest Marvel film flooded the screen in front of us, it wasn’t just the flashy spandex suits or Stan Lee cameo we waited for. No, in Black Panther, we were waiting for something even more. The vibrant colors, the heavy drum beats, the crowded market scenes, the beautiful bouquet of chestnut, ebony, mahogany, and caramel skin—we were waiting to experience a new culture.
What we saw instead was Oakland, California. Some black boys playing basketball with a makeshift hoop. A shady deal going on in an upper room. Two black men talking in hushed tones. The familiar tenor of a hustle.
But five minutes into the movie, it revealed that there’s more to this scene than meets the eye. This isn’t just a familiar picture. It’s connected to the beauty of Wakanda.
And maybe we are too.
The Conflict Rises
As the movie unfolds, we realize that the antagonist, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) is a lot like you and me. Born in America, the truncated history of our Western-bought ancestors is the story that shapes him. We’re presented with two clear pictures.
On one side is Wakanda, a fictitious nation untouched by colonization and Western thinking, a nation full of glittering advancement, achievement, and promise. On the other is an American black man, an all-too-real character touched by a history of systemic racism and white supremacy in a nation full of glittering advancement, achievement, and promise—that has come at a steep price.
At the risk of giving away too much, I’ll say that two disparate worldviews find themselves at odds throughout the film. Should Wakanda, a prosperous African nation, intervene in the suffering of the oppressed minorities throughout the world? Or should it stay out of conflicts and maintain the isolationist mindset that has kept it so glorious all of these years?
As the movie played, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ben Shapiro’s recent quip about a New York Times article that said, “part of the emotional and visual appeal of Blank Panther lies in the fact that Wakanda has never been colonized.” I read his tone as one of incredible smugness as he replied, “Wakanda does not exist.”
Yeah. Duh, Ben. And that’s the point.
The narrative of a little black boy who grows up in the projects in Oakland and finds out that he could be the king of a prosperous African nation does not exist.
But the narrative of a little black girl who grows up in the suburbs in Houston and wishes that she could be a shame-free princess in a majority-black context full of pride and promise?
In Native Son—the novel by Richard Wright—the main character, Bigger Thomas, is undoubtedly the victim of a white supremacist society, his transgressions mounting to the height of the cards that have been stacked against him. In Black Panther, Erik Killmonger is a victim too, even as he’s taken charge of his own destiny. Ultimately, the Wakanda native’s diaspora has made him incompatible with life back home. He’s too wounded, too angry, too poisoned by the mindset of the war that America wages overseas, and the war within his own heart.
The Real Deal
I couldn’t bring myself to loathe the antagonist or his radical ways, because I saw his pain. I saw how his history had been ripped from his fingers, how he watched black people all over the globe yearning for a kingdom like Wakanda, how he hated that they seemed to be keeping the glory all to themselves.
It reminded me so much of the racial climate of this country, and so much of too many fruitless conversations I’ve had with fellow Christians, where I’ve tried to explain what it’s like to yearn to stand before them without explaining myself, without apologizing, without averting my eyes in unearned shame during a history lesson about slavery or the Jim Crow South.
“I guess white people will never be able to do enough for you,” someone responded to one of my tweets.
But I wasn’t looking for white people to do a thing, and neither was Erik. He wanted the tools to take charge of his own destiny. He wanted a savior to come in the form of his homeland.
The True Hope
Of course Wakanda doesn’t exist.
Neither does a version of my story that doesn’t involve colonization, the slave trade, and a family history not far away from the beginning scenes of Black Panther.
But I still stand proud. Whether it’s in the pews of my church or across from a prejudiced administrator at the doctor’s office. Maybe I’m not Wakandan royalty (still holding out hope), with rights to a wealthy land that has always known my worth.
But I am the citizen of a glittering kingdom that sometimes feels as fictional as Wakanda itself (Philippians 3:20). My blood-bought bloodline is more royal than a little girl could ever dream (2 Corinthians 6:18). And the world that hated my ancestors so violently, and sometimes still hates me? It’s not my home (Hebrews 13:14). Like Erik, my earthly hurt is incompatible with my kingdom paradise, but Christ is more than sufficient to bear my burdens (Psalm 68:19).
In the end, the Wakandans become emissaries of their glorious nation, setting up outposts all over the hurting world. The emissaries of my heavenly nation come from every tribe, tongue, and people group (Revelation 7:9). My burdens aren’t too big for them (Galatians 6:9)—as overwhelming as they may seem. And I am victorious in spite of whatever burdens I may possess, because I know who my king is (Romans 8:31–39).
It might be obnoxious to squeeze a Sunday school lesson into Black Panther, but when it comes to the hurt in our history, we become like our ancestors of old, looking over Jordan and waiting for the chariot to carry us to a place where everyone knows exactly who we are.
Go see Black Panther.
Have conversations about breathtaking black warrior women who aren’t aggressively sexualized or angry. Talk about the power of black fatherhood, and the impact that maternal strength can have on a son. Discuss Everett K. Ross and how he’s not a white savior, but a white ally.
The movie opens ten thousand avenues for pertinent discussion—I will be thinking about it for much longer than I’ll think about the rude administrator who served me today.
As a little girl, I would have loved to be able to say, “Do you know who I am?” and find myself flanked by a couple of “Grace Jone looking sisters with spears.”
But I know that I am an image-bearer of an almighty king, regardless of this earthly home. Regardless of the fact that that woman couldn’t even look me in the eye.
Cover image Marvel Studios.