I am fortunate. I am fortunate to be in South Africa at the moment and that Black Panther was released only nine days ago before I left the U.S.
I saw it in Michigan on Thursday, February 15 and I saw again in Port Elizabeth SA ten days later; I saw it today. Both viewings were sold out and there were some great similarities between each viewing – the laughter, the appreciation for “colonizer” jokes, and the excitement for whenever the Dora Milaje hopped on screen to fight!
In the US, I celebrated, watched through the eyes of a hopeful African-American, sitting alongside many Black people who enjoyed it just as I did. It was a community event! As the film paced on perfectly, I thought of my journey to South Africa. Would I have the same joy similar to that of T’Challa when he proclaimed “This never gets old.” as he passed through the cloaking shield? Would I be welcomed? Would I smile as he smiled and would others smile back at me like Shuri, Okoye, his mother Ramonda as he walked off the Vibranium Bugatti Spaceship? I walked out smiling ear to ear, proud of what I just witness and joyful for what was to come for me, so sure of what this journey would mean to me.
Like with many aspects of life, things are not as simple as they might seem and my journey has been much more complex. There have been joyful moments and celebrations while here, but there have also been moments of pain and heartbreak.
In Port Elizabeth, I waited in a long line, decided to buy the ticket on my phone while waiting, and luckily, I purchased the last ticket. As soon as I received the confirmation email, the manager walked over to the cashiers and put up a “sold-out sign” over the Black Panther poster. I found my seat as the opening played. I was more excited to see it here than in the states for a variety of reasons, the most important being that this film seemed to mirror part of my story – born in the United States and traveling to Africa for the first time in my life.
As I sat there, I watched as an American, no more African than before. No less an outsider looking in, looking for a sense of belonging. Here, I watched through the eyes of Killmonger, with pain in my heart and frustration in my bones. Aching to know why Black People, and many people of color, suffer so much more than the rest of the world. Aching to find a solution, a way to deal with the rage and pain all the same.
As I watched Black Panther the second time, memories flashed through my eyes. “There’s about two billion people out there that could use your help.” (Semi-direct quote). Here in Port Elizabeth, I had the opportunity to visit a nearby “unofficial” settlement, Missionvale, a township community with more than 130,000 people unemployed, living in small homes, and experiencing a much harder life than I will ever know. All the while, “tourists (myself included)” ride through in a Mercedes Benz chartered bus and walk through a small community center taking photos of and selfies with “poor black children.” Infuriated by this, I lingered toward the back of the group silently. I was fortunate to steal a smile from a group of young children in green and orange school uniforms, who played with unending joy despite their circumstances. Three students double dutched, a small group of boys played their version of rugby, and I listened to two young girls read to each other on a bench, trading a printed book back and forth with short sentences on it. “Mom likes our house.” “Dad likes our house.”
I took no photos. I had not earned the right to plunder their community for my own gain. I wished not to steal anything more than the memories that were made by being present.
In that moment I saw my own community, which revealed to me a much deeper pain than I ever thought possible. One of the fellow conference goers, pulled me back and whispered, “Is this the liberation of South Africa?” It broke my heart. All I could think about was how little I’ve done to serve my own home, Detroit. “Is this the liberation of Detroit?” What can be done? What can I do? What can I give? How can I support what is already happening for the good of local people? How can we ensure that the people who suffer most still see themselves as valuable, as significant, as worthy of the beautiful humanity they already possess, when life has told them they are none of those things and less than human. How can I hold a mirror so they see themselves as whole people, as capable, as having something to offer, as having hope. In the small children, I saw hope, the innocence of having not be broken by the world. In the adults, I saw Kilmonger, hurting, angry, uncertain of how to change things for themselves, but willing to try anything.