There have been a lot of hashtags celebrating the black excellence of all things Wakandan, complete with the cutest Twitter icons of different characters – seriously, Killmonger shouldn't look adorable enough to reach in and pinch his widdle cheeks. But among the various ways to say #WakandaForever, it was Kayla Marie Sutton (Marketing Director of Black Girl Nerds) who created something that really spoke to me.
Inspired by her son, the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe represented everything black fans had been saying since they first saw T'Challa turn toward the screen at that conference in Vienna... followed by him beating the crap out of Bucky — sorry, Buck, but he totally wiped the floor with you. Future visitors of Wakanda told stories of sheer joy over seeing a big budget superhero movie with a cast comprised of mostly black actors and actresses. I don't think I've ever hearted so many tweets before.
But then I wondered, what does Black Panther mean to me? I mean really, truly mean? A chance to see a superhero story that embraces African culture? An opportunity to see black women flowing together in perfect formation? Naw, it was clearly about Shuri and wondering if I could adopt her as my baby sis. I'm kidding. Kinda.
After mulling it over, I realized what the answer was: Black Panther proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that diversity is marketable.
Because those box office records don't lie. Neither do the endcaps in department stores and a certain Build-A-Bear I am most definitely going to add to my collection. That's an important message to take home as a black, queer woman who is forever on #TeamRepresentation.
It's even more important when you're a writer trying to get their work out there.
There's something to be said about the kind of story you assume you're allowed to tell. A friend once told me that you write what you know, and thinking on that, there's a few things I knew as a black girl writer. When it came to the genres I liked, white was front and center. Even if a story said a character was black or brown, people would assume white was the default – hi Rue, from The Hunger Games, how are you? This assumption was so strong that POC characters would be, and still are, whitewashed, with so many justifications that it's not a question of it it'll keep happening, but when. No one wanted to take a chance on diversity, so it was best that I stayed in my "sassy best friend side character you won't remember me by the end of the story" lane.
Superpowers and big adventures were for white characters. I got the one-liners. Or slavery and servitude, yeah, that's always good for award season. And when you see that repeatedly you start to think that maybe, just maybe, that's the way things are supposed to be.
When daring to ask for a smidgen of diversity, one of two things would happen: 1) I'd be told to stop putting my agenda into things, or 2) I'd be reminded of existing diverse characters, because diversity clearly stops at Blade or Spawn. So not only was I discouraged from creating it, I was discouraged from asking for it. The "not asking for it" part didn't bother me as much as I speak on diversity all day every day, but creating it? Not gonna lie, that was a daunting thought. Many people talk about the importance of representation, but sometimes, those people go quiet when things get real. I've witnessed the backlash for black actors and actresses, some of which were harassed so much that they left social media. And I get it, "Don't listen to the trolls," and the tried and true, "Don't read the comments," but I can't deny the discouragement when someone like you is being dismissed for being someone like you. It's different if it's an honest critique on the work, of course, but I don't think, "Burn the Black Stormtrooper," is legit.
"If you want more diversity, go create it yourself," they say, but... did they really want us to? Because when we do, we get people who are so desperate to see us fail that they post fake injuries over a black movie premiere. We're not trying to fight anybody on our way to Wakanda, okay?
But Black Panther has persevered through all that. Here this movie is, black as it wanna be, and it's executed beautifully. We don't have one or, gasp, two black characters – we have an entire army of women. Each character has a different personality, and their attitudes change depending on the situation. Shuri, for example, is relentless in teasing T'Challa, but she knows when it's time to get serious. Even Okoye, the hardened general, offers a smile when the battle is over. The cast is completely fleshed out, not forgettable caricatures or side pieces there to support the main, white cast.
Black women come together. Black men show emotion. No one is a token. Everybody wins.
More importantly, African culture is treated with love and respect. I remember learning about Africa through stories of slavery and movies that depicted us in shackles and chains. This is all true history, of course, but I can only imagine the impact of a kid seeing a brightly colored African culture full of time-honored traditions and wealth.
The writer in me has become re-energized, inspired to tell stories with characters who resemble me because I now know that a story like that is something that's worth telling in the genres I love. That's what Black Panther means to me, and what I'll take from it from here on out.