“Praise the Ancestors”
This post contains spoilers for Black Panther.
With those words uttered in solemn reverence, the most sacred of all Wakanda’s rituals begins. After being crowned King (or Queen), or deemed otherwise worthy to bear the title of Black Panther, he (or she) is fed the juices of the heart-shaped herb, and then they are completely buried underneath the Earth.
This particular aspect of the ritual is fascinating: as shown in the film, it doesn’t matter where or with what material they are buried. The most important part is to make sure they are wholly covered, even for just a few inches. They are shut off from the existing world and transported into a new place, their senses completely removed from the world around them, their very souls sent into a space of no-time and no-space, all at once with all-time and all-space. And standing before them, as far as the eye can see, are all their ancestors, greeting them in love and in history.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Yep, here it is: my entry in the Black Panther Thinkpiece Expanded Universe. It’s been a few weeks since Ryan Coogler’s masterpiece was released, and even still the questions it poses have continued to build. It has set the world on fire.
There’s so much to talk about: the movie’s boldly political stance against American imperialism, its groundbreaking casting and representation, its tightly-written plot, jaw-dropping visuals, and stunning action. All of this combined to turn this film into more than just the latest box office smash: Black Panther is something resembling a true Cultural Moment.
The true star of the film is its setting. Wakanda is an unimaginably advanced utopia, equal parts tradition and futurism, ritual and rebellion, past and future swirling around each other.
Of course, Wakanda is fictional, so far as we know. It doesn’t exist in the real world, and therefore it will always be disconnected from the material reality of real-world history. It is precisely this history that drives the very identity of Wakanda itself: it is a nation untouched by centuries of colonialism. It’s the eternal question of what “might have been”, had history not so brutally intervened.
There are even real-world analogs for it: Mansa Musa’s 14th-century Mali empire, which famously nearly collapsed the economies of entire nations due to their overwhelming wealth. However, as centuries passed, that history has been lost to time. The image of Africa, as Jelani Cobb argues in the New Yorker , as something lesser and without merit is just as much a fictionalized image applied to history as anything from Marvel Studios. Wakanda is no more imaginary than any of the crude stereotypes Westerners often apply to their mental image of “Africa”.
This kind of ignorance is nothing new, of course. It was the model for centuries of Eurocentric cultural dominance in the West. It wasn’t just Africa they demonized: in a quest for absolute, sheer power, the Americas were also destroyed under the same boot. In a way, this is the ancestry of America itself: a nation presumably built as a land of freedom, justice, and equality, but one who really only continues the same colonialist, Eurocentric hegemony of its predecessors. Like father, like son.
Which brings me back to ancestors. Black Panther is full of them. Ancestors are the incarnations of history itself. They are connections to pasts we can only imagine, bearers of wisdom and lessons. Without an understanding of ancestry, we lose innumerable links to our pasts and future, and without those links we cannot understand ourselves.
In America, we discourage that ancestral connection that most world cultures treasure. To be American is to be your own, individualistic, separated and cut off from history. Move halfway across the country and start something new, and then your children will move further away when it’s their time to leave. That’s the text of the “dream” we keep insisting makes us exceptional.
This same American context lends us the ability to disconnect our present selves with the questions of history at large, as a nation. The second half of the 21st century brought rapid changes into the postwar era. Cultural norms were forged that we suddenly accepted as Eternal, Natural, and Correct, despite all of history’s evidence to the contrary. Everything we define as quintessentially American: nuclear families with 2.3 children, suburban living, teenage rebellion, crazy college years, white-collar office jobs. The institutions of cars and television and highways and the Internet, shaping the world into something radically different than anything our ancestors could have ever imagined.
We imagine the Present as something wholly separated from the Past, but every moment of now is built on what came before, and will be the foundation for what will come next.
Wakanda’s sacred ritual, ultimately then, is simple: in order to gain the powers and leadership to bring their people into the future, the new Black Panther must first confront their ancestors and therefore history itself. Whether they died only recently or centuries ago. They must face the sins and the blessings of all of history, and take that burden forward.
The film’s culminating conflict between estranged cousins T’challa and Erik Killmonger is also borne of ancestry. It is an echo through time of the exact conflict their fathers had decades ago. N’jobu wanted Wakanda to stop hiding and enter the wider world. To correct the injustices of history. His brother T’chaka disagreed. And in that apartment in Oakland, it ended in the same tragedy. Like fathers, like sons.
And of course, ancestry is the crux of Killmonger’s haunting final words, certain to ring through T’challa’s ears (and everyone in the audience’s ears), for the rest of his life: “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.”
The contrasts between them are deepened here: these ancestors are not even shared in his connection to T’challa, but of his other side, his mother’s family. Barely mentioned in the film, yet a fundamental part of who he is nonetheless. Killmonger is a child of two wildly different, simultaneous realities: glory and nobility on one hand, and unimaginable suffering on the other.
My own ancestry bears these scars, too. I have ancestors who were slaves, ancestors who were slave owners, ancestors who once freed amassed whole plantations to themselves. That history is embedded in me in ways I can’t begin to understand, and is something I have only recently begun to interface with, after researching some of my own family history.
As I watched the movie, I felt the conflict between T’challa and Killmonger reverberate within myself. The film masterfully layers the kind of complex, knotty emotions that come from contemplating history. The sheer joy of connection to culture and history, and the unimaginable pain of it being taken away. The pride of your ancestors being noble heroes and leaders, and the shame of seeing their mistakes brought to bear.
How can anyone become a good leader, or indeed as T’chaka insists, a good man, knowing they have the power to make the world better and still refusing to? How can anyone sleep at night knowing their safety and comfort rests on the backs of many millennia of suffering?
But you don’t need to have that kind of personal connection to understand Black Panther, or the way ancestry affects our lives today. Everyone in this world has ancestors, whether or not we know them. Some of these ancestors were heroes. Some were monsters. Some led lives of privilege and wealth, some led lives of suffering. They loved, they laughed, they cried, they died. They were human, and their stories are written in everything that makes us ourselves.
At the end of the film, T’challa is left with a decision to make: continue the isolationist policies of his father and ancestors, or burn everything down to remake it anew, like Erik and his own father. But the correct answer comes from Nakia. The answer is not to destroy the past, nor to hide away in it forever. But to take the lessons of history and use them to build a brighter future.
What we learn from our ancestors can be wise or destructive. And our ambitions into the future can be revolutionary or horrific. We must act in the present, then, with deep compassion and love.
And it’s not just ancestors we need to listen to. Just as Black Panther was over and the credits rolled, I turned my phone back on (I promise, I was just checking to see how many post-credits scenes there were!). The first thing I saw on social media was an avalanche of posts, of young black boys and girls, proudly declaring themselves to be the Black Panther, or one the Dora Milaje. All the turbulent emotion that had been building for the whole film spilled over, and I wept in my seat thinking of them. Weeks later, as I type this, I still get teary-eyed.
For the first time in these young lives, they saw an onscreen representation of themselves, and they felt empowered. These kids will grow up with heroes that look and act like them, and they will create more in turn, and they will carve new legacies into a world that has marginalized them.
We are not simply bound to old traditions. But we should not simply discard them, either. Like T’challa and Nakia, and Wakanda itself, we must find a way to embrace both, and in so doing build a foundation to make this world brighter and better. So that some day, decades or centuries into the future, we can be the wise ancestors of some generation dealing with whatever the future brings. Tradition and futurism, ritual and rebellion, past and future swirling around each other.
Praise the ancestors. Praise the future.