Since I saw Black Panther (twice), I have been ruminating on Killmonger’s final words “Nah, bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” When I heard this quote for the first time, I was nearly sobbing. It gave me a great sadness to think of my ancestors who clearly did not jump into the ocean, or else I wouldn’t be here. It brought to mind the great weight of slavery that those of us still bear, generations later.
And yet…the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. Killmonger’s ancestors didn’t jump into the ocean, or else he wouldn’t be alive. Most African-Americans are here because our ancestors didn’t or couldn’t jump into the ocean, and those who did weren’t any braver than our actual ancestors who bore the brunt of slavery. We can’t possibly know what our ancestors did upon enslavement, how they may have fought, or tried to run away from their captors. We do know they survived, and that we are a testament to their ability to make their way through a horror that we can only imagine.
There is much to unpack in the movie Black Panther and the many emotions it evokes in those who feel an attachment to Africa or are just happy to finally have a movie that features mostly black/African characters in a positive light. Africans who can call white characters “colonizers” and who have built a society mostly untouched by European values around beauty and culture.
By chance, I also happened to read the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, right after seeing Black Panther. The book evoked a whole new set of emotions in me, as I was pulled into the stories of two families of Africa, divided by an ocean, and ultimately reunited in the present day. I felt that I could finally grasp some of the rationale behind the slave trade for the Africans who were involved – and that understanding was deepened by a recent visit to the African-American Heritage Museum (AAHM) at the Smithsonian. While the colleagues I was with went for an overview of the museum, I spend most of the two hours I had there on the first level, engrossed in the stories of the European and African sides of the slave trade. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn – how race became defined, and slavery justified, then turned into a lifelong sentence not only for the initial person enslaved, but for their offspring.
And then a seminal moment in American history – Gettysburg. Where so many died over this “peculiar institution.” President Lincoln’s short, yet influential address is often the first thought that comes to mind, and I was reminded of the following words from the address:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I also couldn’t help but think of the individuals who fought on these fields, and lost their lives, some to save the union, others to maintain a system of chattel slavery that supported an agricultural economy that was destined to fail.
The occasion for my visit to the AAHM and Gettysburg was my son’s 8th grade spring break trip to Washington, D.C. I didn’t expect it to have such an impact on my own journey of discovery. After our visit to the battlefield, we went to a nearby historic tavern, that had been a stop on the underground railroad. The students were entertained by a very talented actor, impersonating President Lincoln. I was particularly impressed with his very clear statement that the cause of the civil war was slavery – with no equivocation. Being at a battlefield where so many had died for this cause, dining at a stop on the underground railroad, and hearing such a clear statement on the cause of the war left me deep in thought.
Particularly over the past year, I feel that I have gained a more spiritual connection to my African ancestors, those who were enslaved in the American south (Louisiana, Virginia and Georgia, best I can tell), my own parents and the trials they must have experienced being born during the Depression era. There are so many stories…including my own, that tell of a world that is much more complicated and dangerous than what I want for my sons.
So I dive deep into the history, trying to find some answers to the hate that I see on display. The brutal beatings and murders that still happen in the America of the 21st century. We dream of a Wakanda where we can be safe, but even Wakanda isn’t safe. Internal strife can divide us, as it did in the America of the 1860s. Of course, it all comes down to power, but slavery and racism is a deep, bitter poison that is still infecting the bodies politic of both sides of the Atlantic today. It is the casual institutional racism that leads to the burnout of an academic. It is the brutal system of incarceration that preys on brown bodies, attempting to maintain the racial hierarchy that fueled industry and the growth of this country for centuries.
I cannot forget Gettysburg – so many dead. The will to keep this country united. The desire of so many abolitionists to fight for the rights of my ancestors. The blood of both white and black bodies that cry out from the soil, asking if their deaths were in vain. Those of us who are still in the fight carry a heavy burden. I dream of Wakanda, but I know that I live in the country that is still bearing a burden that cannot be cast down until we truly come to grips with what we fought for and continue to fight for – what so many continue to lose their lives for. And I must find a way to go on, for my sons, and for those future generations who deserve so much more…and with so many retiring, it will be with new voices in these halls after this November where change must continue…