Wakanda Forever. On any given day, I’m sure to hear this phrase from one of my kids. Last week I went shopping for my three-year-old’s birthday and I bought him another Black Panther figurine. During Christmas, our Elf on the Shelf appeared one morning, arms across his chest, wearing a Black Panther mask. The year the movie came out, I had a Black Panther-themed birthday party. When the world shut down from the pandemic, my son insisted on wearing a Black Panther mask to protect him from the virus.
I can’t even count how many times we’ve watched this movie. We recite the lines with the movie. We rewind and rewatch the scene of T’Challa being crowned the Black Panther so many times. Last Halloween, my husband dressed up as Black Panther. Our family loves Black Panther. This morning my daughter Maya said to me, “I can’t believe Black Panther is gone. That movie means so much to our family.”
The news of Chadwick Boseman’s death came as a shock. Every death is a tragedy, but it’s exceptionally heartbreaking when it’s a young person, and when that young person is a superhero in every sense of the word. We soon learned with the news of his passing that he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. Black Panther came out two years later. Chadwick Boseman went through numerous bouts of chemotherapy and surgeries between 2016 and 2020 and he still played a superhero in one of the highest grossing films of all time. He did numerous press appearances throughout the world and appeared on every red carpet. According to his family’s announcement of his passing, playing the role of Black Panther was considered the honor of his career. I can’t imagine the pain he may have been in and the resilience and mental fortitude it took to bring Black Panther to fruition.
Black Panther was released in early 2018. At this time, we were one year into one of the darkest regimes in U.S. history. We had seen hasty implementations of draconian travel and Muslim bans. I work with international students in higher education and shed more tears with my students and colleagues in one year than I have in my entire career because of what this president did to their lives. Families were split apart. Mothers couldn’t watch their children graduate simply because they were from the wrong country. Children couldn’t go home to spend time with a dying father because they may never be allowed back in the United States. Places of employment were raided and mothers of babies were put in deportation. Children were put in cages, separated from families.
On my own campus, a student from India was told, “Go back to your country or I’ll kill you.” During our Homecoming celebrations I found multiple posters recruiting for a white supremacy organization. My husband, who is from Nigeria, was also told by a co-worker to go back to his own country. Xenophobia had become our new reality.
Every time I saw someone in a MAGA hat I wondered what they thought of me. I wondered if they even saw me and my family as people. I wondered if they wanted to kill us. The release of Black Panther felt like a shining light in a dull gray sky, a beacon of hope for people of color. In a time when none of us felt like we belonged in this country, Black Panther came to save us from ourselves when this life was all we knew. We needed a hero, and Chadwick Boseman brought Black Panther to life.
Our own president referred to countries in Africa as “shithole countries” and expressed disgust in so many immigrants from these countries. My husband is one of those immigrants. He’s from Nigeria, and it’s not a “shithole country.” It’s a country with rich cultures and traditions. Immigrants from Nigeria, like my husband, make this country the great country that it is.
In Black Panther’s fictional country “Wakanda,” we see the beauty of Africa. Wakanda is a country rich in natural resources and beauty where T’Challa’s family reigns. T’Challa proudly proclaims “Wakanda Forever” when he wins the crown of king, because he is proud of the country he comes from. He’s proud of his ancestors, his family, his culture, his way of life. For once, Africa was on the screen as a place of beauty instead of poverty and suffering. Africans in Africa were the saviors of their own destiny instead of a white missionary or other white savior tropes.
African-inspired costumes, hairstyles, makeup and jewelry were used to pay homage to various African countries. Inspiration came from Nigeria, Kenya, and other countries across the continent. The movie, in many ways, was a tribute of love to African roots and ancestry.
Across the world, people went to screenings of Black Panther dressed in traditional attire. My husband wore traditional Nigerian clothing on one of the occasions we went to the movie. I even posted a picture of him on Instagram doing the “Wakanda Forever” pose that day. This movie made people like my husband feel seen — and celebrated. In a time when just being Black feels like a crime in this country, this movie made so many people feel like so much more.
The movie was more than just a moment in history, but more like a movement. A movement of celebrating your true self. A movement of allowing Black people to be celebrated rather than feared. Hollywood has an ugly history of leaving out people of color, and especially Black people. This movie featured a mostly Black cast and mostly Black crew and it stood tall against any other movie in history, breaking numerous records. But the crowning glory belonged to Chadwick Boseman, the superhero. The Black Panther.
During press tours, Chadwick Boseman spoke at length about how meaningful this film was for children. Children seeing themselves represented on screen as a superhero is powerful beyond measure. For a Black child to see a Black superhero on the big screen can inspire hope. He also mentioned how important it is for white children to see a Black superhero. For a white child to look up to a Black superhero is so important too. Black people can be the super hero. They can be the main characters.
All three of my children love Black Panther. They all have a different affinity towards him. A special connection. They have several Black Panther toys and gravitate towards him more than any other superhero. They see themselves in him. Black Panther showed a superhero who was not just strong and tough but intelligent, innovative, powerful, and respected. These are qualities that, unfortunately, are not frequently assigned to people of color on screen but Chadwick Boseman brought this alive.
When my daughter Esha was younger, she commented to me one day that she didn’t want to be Black; she wanted to be white instead. It broke my heart to hear my beautiful daughter say something like this so matter of factly. But when Black Panther came out, she marveled at the beautiful women in Wakanda and their beautiful clothing and hair styles. My husband and I told her that she too is African, and this is part of her background and culture.
Yes, we know Wakanda is fictional, but it still represents so many countries in Africa. Wakanda allowed our children to feel pride in their African background. It allowed them to take ownership in this part of themselves. Children of immigrants are constantly negotiating their existence, and go through periods where they just want to fit in and hide any part of what makes them different. Black Panther made a space for these children to feel proud of their stories and their heritages. Our children feel a great sense of ownership when they watch Black Panther. It’s more than just a superhero story; it’s a story of loving where you come from and who you are.
There was a palpable sadness in our home when we got the news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing. It’s especially heartbreaking to lose such a symbol of hope in such a painful moment in history between the uncertainty of the pandemic and at a time when Black lives don’t matter to too many people.
He gave us so much through this powerful role. He played a superhero in Black Panther, but he lived as a superhero in real life through his advocacy for civil rights. This role, and this movie, meant so much to him that he battled through physical illness. I think Chadwick had the foresight to know this movie would end up being even bigger than itself and that it would bring hope during a hopeless time.
Hopefully the film changes the old fashioned standards of Hollywood. May we see more Black superheroes and more Black leading roles. I hope my daughter Esha will continue to see more Black women on screen celebrated as beautiful. My hope as a mother is that all three of my children will forever be changed by Black Panther and that they will see their dreams as boundless as the skies. I hope they will keep the spirit of the Black Panther alive throughout their lives.
As people of color, we all have an obligation to tell our stories and live our truth. Thank you, Chadwick Boseman, for showing us your ultimate resilience and perseverance through this role. Thank you for showing the world that we all belong and we are here to stay and not just survive, but truly thrive. Thank you for honoring the countries we come from.
When I heard that he lived with his diagnosis for four years, it truly humbled me. For four years Chadwick Boseman brought powerful roles like Black Panther to the screen to show us the world we are capable of creating. He put aside physical pain and illness to show the world that Black lives indeed truly matter.
Wakanda forever. Rest in Power, King T’Challa.