Why Black Panther Matters {by Yabome Gilpin-Jackson}

Black Panther

By Yabome Gilpin-Jackson | Instagram

At age 7 in Grade 2, my son came home from chapel day at his private Christian school and said, “Mummy, I don’t want to be African anymore!”

I stopped and turned to face him.

I felt panic lodge itself in my chest and my heart respond by pumping and flooding blood to my ears.

I blinked – hoping that resetting my vision would rewind and reset the moment.

“Africans are poor,” he continued, and went on to say some more things I will not reprint.

The backstory when I found it out? There had been a presentation and video for a fundraiser to help “poor kids in Africa” in chapel.

In kindergarten at age 5, my daughter came home from school fussing about needing to choose and bring a picture of her favorite princess for a project. She ran through her choices.

“Cinderella, because she worked hard and overcame hard stuff.”

“Ariel … well, because I just like her”

“Pocahontas … because she’s brown and I don’t really like Tiana … well I liked her for my birthday cake, but I don’t really like the story … or I could choose the new British princess because she’s pretty.

I piped up … “Well, if you are going with a real princess instead of a fairy tale one, how about a modern-day African princess? Here, let’s look up Princess of Lesotho, or Princess of Swaziland.”

“What?!!! There are really black princesses? African Princesses???”

These stories are not about my children’s preferences. They are not about difference or diversity or even fundamentally about my daughter choosing a brown-skinned or dark-skinned princess over a lighter-skinned one. These stories are about representations of identity and why I wrote my short story collection – Identities. To me, that’s what Black Panther is about and that’s why it’s a milestone movie. Let me explain.

We, humanity, are storytelling beings. We live in and through the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which are informed by the stories around us that send us identity signals. Subsequently, we make identity conclusions and live by them.

The majority of the identity signals in the stories about what it means to be a Black African in the world are simplistic, narrow and negative. Just pay attention to the stories about “Africa” and “Africans” that you can recall now and see what’s there…Right – that’s what I mean. Those identity signals you are recalling are the same ones that my daughter and sons receive when they see images of themselves reflected only as poor, dirty, helpless, orphaned, children.

They get these images and the message it sends to them often out of context, with little dignity or compassion and with the same, singular, simplistic storyline – African children and Africans in general are poor and helpless on that “dark continent.”

Of course, I am not saying socio-economic issues faced in countries on the continent are not real or that help isn’t necessary. However, the stories that are told about why and how ‘those people’ come to need help can become complicit reinforcements of the complex systems that created the poverty and adversities in the first place, and can hurt rather than help the changes needed.

In our subsequent exchange, my son told me the identity conclusion the presentation left him with – it is better to be white than black/African, so that you won’t be poor and he doesn’t think he ever wants to go to Africa. Of course, my husband and I did our parental bit to dislodge his narrative from his brain – we reminded him we were from Sierra Leone in West Africa, had lived and grew up there and will for sure take him back. We described and showed him ways in which “Africans” are in fact not helpless but amazingly resourceful, generous and innovative in the face of the challenges we face. We showed him maps and pinpointed the exact country and community his school had fundraised for and how small it was in the vastness of Africa.

Wakanda in Black Panther may be a fictional country in Africa, but the parallel of the beauty and richness of the African continent is real. Wakanda’s vibranium may as well be the tantalum that powers our information tech hardware found in abundance in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its environs; or the Blood Diamonds of Sierra Leone; or Oil in Nigeria or any of the other vast natural resources that continue to quietly and often illegally leave the richest continent in natural resources.

Africa’s resources fuel the world’s economies while “Africa” remains depicted as “uncivilized, at war, and poor and helpless.” This, of course was the exact plight the fictional Wakandans were concerned would occur – it is in fact the reality of what Africa and Africans have faced since her “discovery.”

Superheroines and superheroes have a place in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, because they stretch our imagination and inspire us to reach for more than what we are now. This – reaching beyond our current comfort zones – has always been the way humanity grows and thrives. Our Supers are simply projections of ourselves – the best parts of us – and for the villain Supers – representations of the worst parts of us. Supers are in effect simply role models – or our role icons that we place on pedestals to reach for. When a culture only projects one people group as Supers, it also says this is the ultimate image we must all aspire to.

Black Panther’s T’Challa and all those powerfully intelligent, strong, relevant and relatable black African women in it, gives my daughter and sons images of super icons they can reach for. My daughter had the opposite issue to her princess selection challenges after watching Black Panther on preview day. She liked and could relate to so many of the black women in it, she kept changing her choice of favorite.

Perhaps the moments in the movie that depict most clearly what I am saying here are the closing scenes. At the end of the movie when T’Challa unveils his plan for the Wakandan Outreach Centre to Shuri, a Wakandan ship lands in the basketball court behind them to underscore the point. After marvelling at it, one of the boys walks over to T’Challa and says: “Hey … this yours? Who are you?”

Black children of African descent living off the continent need this. They need these moments of relatable role models, real and iconic, that they can look up to and hear stories from, so that they too can believe in their ability to reach higher. I am not just saying this theoretically. I lived my formative years in Sierra Leone and understand that the core identity I subconsciously developed by seeing and living among a myriad role models there–in spite of a legacy of colonial education that had me read about lots of non-Black role models–is not as easily accessible to my children as it was for me.

Coincidentally, I attended “A Conversation with Michelle Obama” on her visit to Vancouver, BC the same day as watching Black Panther [what icing on my global African identity cake!]. Michelle Obama’s description of the work her family had done to mentor children on the margins in ways that they can touch, feel and connect to while in the White House made these same points.

In the outtake, T’Challa shares his plan at the UN General Assembly to share Wakanda’s technology with the world and he aptly uses an African proverb often attributed to Nigeria: “In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.”

So, I say, in a racially divided world, building bridges is our only option. The hour for self-preservation is over. It is time for meaningful reparations, forgiveness, healing, and progress. Let us widen our lenses to truly build open space for the original peoples of these Americas and all us immigrant communities and forced arrivals–Black and White–all made in God’s image – to thrive. Ensuring equal representations of all our peoples is the least of the ways we can do that. Thank you, Marvel.

About Yabome:

Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson considers herself to be a dreamer, doer and storyteller, committed to imagining and leading the futures we want. She is an award-winning scholar, consultant, writer and curator of African identity and leadership stories. She was born in Germany, grew up in Sierra Leone, and completed her studies in Canada and the USA. Yabome was named International African Woman of the Year by UK-based Women4Africa and also won the Emerging Organization Development Practitioner by the US-based Organization Development Network. Yabome, who is married and the mother of 3 children, has also published several journal articles and book chapters and continues to research, write and speak – most recently at Princeton University – on the importance of holding global mindsets and honouring diversity and social inclusion in our locally global world.

Follow Yabome on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, or at her website, www.sldconsulting.org

Buy her book, Identities: A Short Story Collection here.

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How is God calling you to enter the race conversation? 

This month we’re discussing racism, privilege and bridge building. If you’d like to guest post on this topic, please email me at scrapingraisins(dot)gmail(dot)com. Yes, this is awkward and fraught with the potential for missteps, blunders and embarrassing moments, but it’s necessary. Join me?

I’ll go first.

(Consider joining the Facebook group Be the Bridge to Racial Unity to learn more about how God is moving in this sphere.)

If you are a writer, consider using the hashtag #WOCwithpens to showcase the writing of our black and brown sisters of faith every Wednesday specifically, but anytime as well! You can find the explanation for the hashtag here.

If you’re a white person who’s new to all of this, I compiled some resources to start you on your journey (because I’m not much farther ahead):

70+ Race Resources for White People

80+ MORE Race Resources for White people

Black Panther’s T’Challa and all those powerfully intelligent, strong, relevant and relatable black African women in it, gives my daughter and sons images of super icons they can reach for.

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*image from ETonline

Love Like a Fool {A Review of Redeeming Ruth}

As a mother, I admit I was nervous to read a book about losing a child. In fact, I confess I skipped ahead to find out what happened to Ruth just so I wouldn’t be anxious the entire book. My mama heart didn’t have the capacity to wait two hundred pages for the details of a tragic death. But in a way, knowing from page one about Ruth’s death helped launch me into this story about a family from Maine who became accidental parents to a disabled girl from Uganda. I had so many questions.

Meadow Rue Merrill, a professional journalist, expertly guides the reader into this compelling tale of love through dynamic dialogue and word wizardry in Redeeming Ruth.

As a memoir, Meadow’s thoughts, feelings and reactions to adopting an African girl with special needs are both authentic and believable. Although this story is not commonplace, it was extremely accessible and did not feel like she was placing her family on a pedestal, like so many Christian memoirs can feel. Instead, Meadow shares with humility how they first met Ruth, questioned whether they had what it took to adopt her, and then revealed all the emotional and physical roadblocks they encountered along the way. This book does not read like a story about a family with super-human strength, but a family that could just as easily be yours or mine. It was a story about a simple family who learned that love could sustain them even through hardship and loss.

If you love memoir, are interested in adoption or Africa, or work with children with special needs, then you will find this story particularly compelling. Meadow dispels many myths about international adoption as she chronicles the sticky details of adopting Ruth from Uganda. I personally loved the vibrant descriptions of people and places in Africa since I spent six months in Uganda during college. Her words helped me to see the buses, feel the dust on my toes and greet my amazing friends there once again.

I also appreciated learning about the hurdles and small victories involved in caring for a child with special needs. Having this window into their world reminded me to offer support to friends and family I have who may be caring for children with additional needs.

If you love a good story where God appears in miraculous ways, then you will find yourself engrossed in this true tale of selfless love. If you—like me—are a mother who is afraid to read a book about losing a child, this will remind you to hug your children tighter and savor every moment you have with them. And though the story is gut-wrenching, their grief is equally weighted with hope.

Reading Redeeming Ruth was a gift. I felt honored to be invited into such a beautiful journey of surprising joy in the midst of struggle and sadness.  It was a welcome reminder of how one little life can impact so many.

Meadow challenges her readers at the end of Redeeming Ruth:

“Love like a fool, without considering what such love will cost. You won’t have to look far to find someone who is hurting, someone without a voice, someone waiting to know that they are loved” (p. 204).

You can buy Redeeming Ruth here.

**Includes Amazon affiliate links

Day 15: White in Uganda {31 Days of #WOKE}

White in Uganda: What I learned about "whiteness" through living six months in Uganda.
by Leslie Verner

Uganda hoisted a mirror in front of my face, reflecting my whiteness back to me. In the six months I was there, from July to December of 2000, I began seeing and knowing myself–and all the hidden baggage my race represented.

I rode three different taxis home from work in the congested city of Kampala, Uganda, to our village on the outskirts of the city. At first, my host mother accompanied me, but I eventually mustered the courage to do it alone. Clambering out of the taxi van, I walked the final fourth of a mile home down the dusty orange road guarded by banana trees with huge waxy leaves. The children were already waiting for me.

Muzungu, muzungu! Give me money!” They stroked my arms, remarking on my “feathers,” and each one grabbed a finger to escort me the final way home.

Our home was the nicest in the village. Though it didn’t have running water, we had electricity, four solid brick walls around the yard and a large metal gate to protect us from “robbers.” My host mom indicated that they were putting themselves in greater danger because thieves would assume they were housing a rich foreigner.

Though Kampala had many expats, I wasn’t interested in meeting them. I was one of 21 interns dispersed around the globe in a variety of developing countries with the Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program at Wheaton College. The purpose wasn’t to be helpful, travel or even make a huge impact (though we hoped that would happen, too), but simply to observe, listen and learn about the culture. Because of this, we were discouraged from spending too much time with other expats.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed in my tiny room before dinner, I flipped through the guide book I had brought along and reviewed the history. Besides the undercurrent of fear (Uganda had come out of a bloody civil war just a few years before), I was curious about the assumptions others made about me because I was white. Though I was a student, they assumed I was rich. How else could I afford to fly here? But in working at the all-Ugandan organization, I also sensed a hesitation to allow me to do useful work.

I paused after rereading that Uganda had been a protectorate of the British government from 1894 to 1962. My only context for colonization was reading and watching the film Out of Africa, a book published in 1937, but taking place in the early 1900’s about a woman from Denmark moving to east Africa to start a coffee plantation. The film glamorized life as a white woman living in colonial Africa.

But as a white woman in Uganda, I sensed that I was not trusted. It had only been 38 years since the country had been liberated from the rule of whites. Though I was not British and had nothing to do with the history of imperialism in Africa, I was still snagged in the web.

Along with a feeling of distrust, I also noticed a hardly veiled acceptance of white supremacy. Attending a graduation ceremony, I was asked to stand as I was the “honored guest.” At a Christian meeting at the university that was attended by several hundred students, I was asked to give an impromptu speech. At church services, I was ushered to the front for VIP seating. At a ceremony celebrating the development of a local non-profit that I attended in a village several hours away, the news camera stayed fixed on me even though I had nothing to do with any of it.

To be white was to be noticed, honored and lauded.

An article written 14 years after I lived in Uganda, “Shell and Bolton’s Discriminatory Advert in Uganda Highlights the Problems of Race in Africa talks about an overtly racist advertisement asking specifically for white applicants. In it, the author suggests that “privileging of people based on their skin color has permeated all aspects of African societies.”

And in a Lonely Planet forum, a traveler asked the question: “What is the attitude of the locals towards whites, especially in rural areas? Is there any kind of resentment or xenophobia?” One answer was as follows: “If you are Asian (especially Indian, but they throw all Asians in the same bag), it is pretty racist, but you’ll be fine. If you are Caucasian, they’ll love ya.” Also on this forum was a discussion about certain clubs and restaurants that were only for white expats, not for Ugandans.

Although I often resented the stereotypes my African friends had about muzungus, being in Uganda was the first time I noticed my own whiteness and the effect it had on the people around me. Unlike most Americans, my African family ate at different times of day, exchanged elaborate greetings in passing, viewed time and relationships differently and completed ordinary tasks in ways that often seemed bizarre to me.

A white shape snipped from the page of white culture and pasted onto a canvas splashed with exotic colors and textures, I finally saw my own race.

To be white was to be suspected. To be white was to be feared. And yet to be white was to be envied.

I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw in the mirror.

***

Tomorrow I’ll be writing about being white in China, so be sure to come back and join in the story-telling.

Have you ever lived abroad? What did you learn about your home culture through that experience?

If colonialism is still an undercurrent in Uganda and other African countries, how much is segregation, Jim Crow and slavery still leaking into our thinking in the United States today?

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.