I have seen Black Panther three times now. (It may be four by the time you read this, who can tell?) The first time was at the world premiere. I liked it, really liked it, but wasn't blown away. My expectations were through the roof, even though I didn't really know what to expect. So the dawning of reality tempered my reaction. The second time was opening night, and I could take in the movie as a movie with clear eyes: what works, what doesn't. And I liked it a little more.
The third time I took my 13-year-old son. And, for the first time, I wept. What got me was the moment — this isn't really a spoiler, as you've all seen it in the trailers, even if you haven't seen the flick yet — when General Okoye (Danai Gurira) pilots the Royal Shuttle through the camouflage force field and says, with a warm smile, "We are home."
Home. All the tears.
Home is a concept that many of us take for granted. It's one of the first things we learn as children: me, my parent(s), home. This is the place I go back to, where all my stuff is. When you're homesick, you long for the place you grew up.
But home is also where you are from, and for a great many African-Americans, that's a very elusive idea. Because we just don't know. The slave trade wiped away names, erased identities, reinforced cultural amnesia with the not-at-all-careful application of pain.
I once went on a job interview and the editor-in-chief of the publication opened the interview with a single question: "Where are you from?" I paused, a bit, then replied, "New York. The Bronx." "No," this would-be employer asked, "where are your people from?"
My father was born in Haiti. My mother's parents were born in Barbados and Trinidad. But their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents … the answer to that question is "Africa." A continent, not a country — nothing specific, just a big, arm-wavy "over there." I could drill down and do DNA tests and maybe narrow it down to a region — but not an actual place. Not a town where there are markers of a long family lineage.
My wife is Irish-Scottish. There's a town in Massachusetts named after her family, a land grant from the king of England back in the 1600s — they sold off the last of it to put my late mother-in-law through college. There's a tartan pattern that's been associated with her matrilineal line for centuries. If you ask a Mexican, an Italian, a Chinese person, a Norwegian, an Indian where their people are from, there's a very good chance that they could point to a place on a map and say "there." And if you went "there," you'd find people who remember.
Even Native Americans, who were hunted almost to extinction, swindled out of their birthrights, can show you vast swaths of the United States and say, "This all used to be ours, until it was taken from us."
Legacy. Heritage. Identity. Home.
What Black Panther does, among a ton of other things, is offer the illusion of home for a people who don't have one. The fantasy of a paradise that has existed for centuries, keeping its history alive, waiting to welcome you back.
Every black parent encounters that moment where they have to answer questions like "What does my name mean? Where am I from? What was slavery?" And we answer them, because it's our job, and because they need to know. Because the real world won't wait for them to be ready. Forewarned is forearmed. Nature abhors a vacuum, as does a developing mind, so better we fill in the blanks with kindness and honesty than let the world do it with neither.
But we also wish, for a second, that they could still just believe in the pleasant fictions that ease the burdens of reality. While they can, let them believe in dragons and wizards and the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Let them believe in magic.
Let them believe in Wakanda.