22/02/2018 01:22 SAST

'Black Panther' Reminds Us Why Pan-African Unity Is Still Important

A scene from the movie "Black Panther"

Warning: This piece contains spoilers.

I wish I could have recorded the murmur that went through the theater when “Black Panther” referenced the stolen art from the Edo people of Benin City, Nigeria.

It was opening weekend, and I was watching the movie in the West African country Benin, just a few hours from where the bronze art was made. Grumbles punctuated by tooth-sucking ― that ubiquitous signal that a wrong has been committed and needs to be rectified ― rippled through the theater.

The wrong in this case was centuries-old theft hidden in plain sight for anyone with enough money to see the items at the British Museum in London, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, and various collections in the U.S. But this time, the tooth-sucking was more than indignant ― it was triumphant.

I wondered if a black American audience would have registered the moment in the same way. Maybe they, like I, would have simply wondered if Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) would make a successful getaway in the scene. But here in Cotonou, Benin’s cultural capital, all eyes were on the art and ears still rang because the sound of their nation’s name (though referring to the ancient Benin kingdom, not the country) had just been uttered in an American film that was grossing millions.

The entire movie went like this: me noticing moments that there would have been finger snaps and intermittent calls of “Yaaas!” if I had been viewing the film with other black Americans, and moments when I sat unaffected as people around me alternately sucked teeth and squealed. Even so, for all the differences in our “Black Panther” reactions, Africans and people in the diaspora are connected in more ways than we usually acknowledge. Without recognizing our essential bond, black people across the globe remain unnecessarily fragmented.

I reveled in imagining the type of unity that makes Africa less foreign to black Americans.

A lack of connection to history fragments the diaspora. [flipped this!] It means a perpetual sense of being overlooked. I remember my shock when I found my hometown, Orangeburg, South Carolina, the subject of a New York Times article on the 2016 election. Orangeburg is home to two historically black universities and the site of the 1968 Orangeburg massacre, where police killed three unarmed students and injured 27 more for trying to bowl at a segregated bowling alley. The city had only garnered attention because residents in a traditionally mainstream Democratic county were considering voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary. The article ran on Feb. 11, 2016, almost 48 years to the day of the massacre, which happened on Feb. 8, 1968. The Times covered the massacre two years later, in 1970, for an article that discusses it primarily in relation to the Kent State shooting and another student protest in Jackson, Mississippi. However, few outside of visitors to the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center in Orangeburg, which was named in honor of the slain young men, know who they are. 

Being kept in the periphery of history lessons is common among communities in the diaspora and in Africa. Benin is one of those small countries that rarely receive international attention. The history of the Kingdom of Dahomey, which fought French invaders but was eventually defeated, is fairly accessible. What people know less about are the numerous small nations, like the Bariba in the north of Benin, who were also subsumed in the defeat, and who suddenly found their lives upended by a foreign presence without ever engaging in direct struggle. Elderly residents in a Bariba village in northern Benin recalled the trauma of sudden French occupation in a 2014 documentary called “Sous l’arbre a Palabres.” Their history is largely unacknowledged by the world, and even sometimes among themselves, as the film captures.

When Killmonger meets his death, he says that he would rather join his enslaved ancestors who jumped ship in the Atlantic Ocean rather than spend their lives in chains. The poignancy of the statement encompasses the assault on black freedom, which includes mass incarceration. But when I spoke to my friend, Pretty Adjanohoun, a 28-year-old from Benin who also saw the movie, I found that the mass incarceration reference was lost on her. Instead, she homed in on the film’s depiction of “the Africa of the future,” her term for the movie’s Afrofuturism genre.

It made her think of Africa as beautiful and lush, she said. As someone who has never left Benin, who is used to the red clay and monochromatic cement architecture of its cities, the landscapes of the movie, which recall northern Ethiopia, were pure fantasy. Africa is indeed lush and majestic but she, like so many Africans, cannot easily travel the continent due to expensive intercontinental flights and visa requirements. Though more countries are scrapping visa requirements, flights are still often cost prohibitive.

Pretending that we aren’t connected is to sign on to the psychological crux of white supremacy, which is largely the source of our fragmentation.

I, too, loved envisioning an Africa of the future, but it was less about landscapes; I already know that kind of beauty exists in Africa. Instead, I reveled in imagining the type of unity that makes Africa less foreign to black Americans. A future where it would be less common to believe that one’s ties to Africa are so old that they are irrelevant, or where acknowledging African ancestry doesn’t negate being American. In the dark theater, I also allowed myself to imagine that African people knew that, despite colonization ― which actively spread the notion that their customs and beliefs should be abandoned ― they are intrinsically worthy, on their own terms, and not just for how European they can be.

But I am not imagining sameness. West Africa alone is made of people from at least three dozen distinct ethnic groups and people of the diaspora have created their own customs and traditions for centuries. Contrived homogeny doesn’t serve us. But pretending that we aren’t connected is to sign on to the psychological crux of white supremacy, which is largely the source of our fragmentation.

At the end of the movie, I did my customary callouts for performers I love as their names appeared on the screen. No one paid attention or registered my shouts. After all, I wasn’t in Brooklyn. I was in Benin. We had all seen the same movie but had taken away completely different things. And that was OK, because I still felt surrounded by family.

Joy Notoma is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn and Benin Republic. She covers race, politics, religion and the intersection of black American and African cultures. Follow her on Twitter @joy_notoma.

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