‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ – Thanksgiving Day as Lament

by John Ellis

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens and closes beautifully. As tributes to Chadwick Boseman, the highly anticipated sequel to Marvel’s 2018 smash hit plays all the right notes with its beginning and ending scenes, creating moving bookends for an excellent movie. Even the Marvel title card is a touching sendup of the talented Boseman. But this isn’t a film review, at least not in the traditional sense. While watching the movie, and what has propelled me to write, I was struck by and convicted about how white people have much we can learn from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

During the funeral scene for King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), I was struck by the richness of African culture. Alive, embodied, and layered, the expressions of grief and loss on the screen were beautiful and touching. They also stirred a slight jealousy in my soul. You see, my “cultural” heritage of whiteness is a largely disembodied, meager veneer of community. It lacks touchstones to the past (and to the future), and almost exclusively celebrates an individualistic pathway through life. The notion of “pull yourself up by your own bootstrap” and the so-called “self-made man” are products of self-centered whiteness. This affects our funerals, too. By and large, the funerals of my people are barren and flat compared to the fullness of funerals within Black communities, and other communities of Color. For white people, death is to be sanitized and swept away as cleanly and quickly as possible. Death’s intrusion into our world is a reminder of how meaningless our culture is and how shallow and unfulfilling our expressive individualism is. Better to ignore death as best we can and not draw attention to it.

Backing up a bit, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever leans heavily on African cultural expressions and a philosophy/vision called Afrofuturism. Recognizing the great losses African communities suffered at the hands of European colonizers and slave traders, Afrofuturism imagines a future of Black cultural richness. It imagines a world led by communities centered in the rich cultural expressions of Africa. Heritages that were sinfully ravaged and suppressed by greedy, exploitative white people (and that continues to this day). Wakanda represents a glorious age that was stolen from Africans and not allowed to come to fruition. This is one of the reasons why the Black Panther movies/world resonates so strongly with Black people in this country. It’s a world in which Blackness is explored, venerated, and recognized as a culture that contains so much depth and maturity of Image Bearing that it could (and should) lead the world. Of course, that’s not what has happened in world history.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever introduces audiences to another reimagining of an ancient culture that was also decimated by white greed and avarice. The underwater city of Taloken is inspired by and honors the great Mesoamerican cultures that thrived prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

Most white people know very little about our own history much less the history of people groups that we’ve unlawfully invaded and destroyed. Whatever we do know about Mesoamerica can be reduced to tropes about the Incas and the Aztecs. While our understanding, as a general rule, of those two empires are anemic at best (and largely bigoted), most white people in America are completely unaware that thousands of years ago cities larger, richer, and more complex than their counterparts in Europe dotted the regions we know as South America, Central America, and Mexico.

Because I want to keep this article relatively short, I’m going to forego an extended unpacking of the Mesoamerican people groups (as well as people groups in what we now call North America). I will encourage this: read about the Olmec civilization and the Toltec civilization, two impressive kingdoms among many that populated and cultivated Mesoamerica.

One of the insidious ways in which our racist historical ignorance manifests itself is in the twin yet competing notions of the noble, friendly savage and the violent, bloodthirsty savage. Both are lies that reduce nuanced, once-thriving communities with wonderfully rich heritages to racist symbols used to justify why it’s okay that we’re here – as in, white people in America. This week, of all weeks, contains a day that provides many of us white people the opportunity to steer into our racism while we pat ourselves on the back for our so-called gratefulness.

I highly doubt that a single reader of this article has seen a school Thanksgiving pageant that’s not an inaccurate and racist portrayal of the events. Most of us (likely all of us) have been fed the deceit of a friendly Squanto and friendlier Pilgrims giving thanks for how the noble savage generously welcomed the white people onto these shores by teaching them how to be self-sufficient. There is nothing of substance in that version that is correct.

Tisquantum (which has been shortened to Squanto for some reason) was part of the Patuxet community that itself was part of the Wampanoag alliance. Pulling out even further, the Wampanoag were combined with the Massachusett and Nauset people groups to make a formidable confederation that dominated the region. Of course, this was before the Pilgrims landed.

About five years before the Pilgrims mistakenly and clumsily/stupidly landed at Plymouth Rock with a ship full of beer and little actual provisions, the population of the Wampanoag people had been drastically reduced. While the exact disease or virus is unknown, the Wampanoag’s story mimics the story of almost all the people groups in the so-called New World after coming into contact with the dirty, disease-ridden Europeans – they died off in large numbers, succumbing to smallpox, influenza, and a host of other diseases and viruses exported by white people to a land that they had never been invited to. The fate of Squanto’s village Patuxet was no different. It had been complete annihilated. Having been kidnapped as a young boy and trafficked to England, Squanto escaped the fate of his family and friends. But his understanding of the English language as well as his changed habits and customs caused Massasoit to distrust the newly returned native (for good reason, as I’ll reveal shortly). Held as a prisoner, Squanto was only given access to the Pilgrims by Massasoit because the prisoner could speak English well. Even then, it was only allowed because Samoset, a trusted ally of Massasoit, knew enough English to keep the scheming Squanto honest – to a point.

Prior to the “friendly” interactions with the Wampanoags, the Pilgrims first encounters with the natives had been violent. Starving to death, the Pilgrims raided fields, houses, and even dug up Indian graves in search of food.[1] This, of course, and justifiably, prompted the Indian’s ire. The first interaction between the two groups was one of arrows and bullets and not of words. However, Massasoit had a bigger problem than the Pilgrims.

The rival people group the Narragansett had largely escaped whatever plague had severely stricken down the Wampanoags and their confederation. Massasoit needed a new ally. Contrary to what Hollywood and the NRA has told us for generations, until around the time of the Civil War in the mid-19th century, European guns were untrustworthy and inaccurate.[2] While wary of the Pilgrims’ guns, Massasoit was aware that his tall, strong warriors with their accurate bows and arrows had little to fear from the short, sickly white men’s guns that rarely hit anything. He needed able-body men – soldiers – not their guns. Hence the need to keep the Pilgrims alive, well-fed, and healthy. Massasoit persuaded the Pilgrims to help him fend off his rivals. In return, the Wampanoags would supply them with food and provisions. This is what led to the so-called Thanksgiving feast. Massasoit showed up to the feast with almost one-hundred warriors armed to the teeth who, upon arrival, immediately began demonstrating their physical and military superiority. In reply, the Pilgrim militia began firing their guns in the air. After their collective “smack talk” and showing off was finished, they all got drunk and plotted against the Narragansett. I doubt any of that was mentioned in your kid’s Thanksgiving pageant.

A postscript on Squanto is in order before moving to my larger point. Owing to his usefulness as a translator, Squanto was given more and more freedom. As a “reward” for his latitude, Massasoit found himself on the wrong end of the scheming Squanto.

At first, Squanto quietly began attempting to convince other Wampanoags that he was better equipped than Massasoit to deal with the Narragansett threat. He began spreading the rumor that the Pilgrims had barrels of the deadly plague that had devastated their communities and that he could convince the white men to use it on the Narragansett. When his entreaties to his fellow Indians went unheeded, Squanto set his sights on the Pilgrims.

After a meeting with Governor Bradford, Squanto sent an ally in his plotting back to the settlement to warn the Pilgrims that Massasoit had allied with the Narragansett and were on the way to destroy the white men. Squanto hoped that the Pilgrims would be provoked to attack Massasoit, catching the Wampanoags completely by surprise. After Massasoit was killed, Squanto would rush in and offer to broker a peace and lead the Wampanoags. What he failed to account for was Governor Bradford’s distrust of him. Bradford sent the wife of Hobamok, Massasoit’s ambassador living in the settlement, to find out the truth. Obviously, it was a lie and Massasoit demanded that Bradford turn over Squanto so that he could execute him. Bradford refused because Squanto was too valuable as a translator.

The conclusion of all this was likely foregone as soon as Massasoit enabled the Pilgrims to gain and maintain a toehold in the Wampanoag’s land. At first, Massasoit was able to repel, bloodlessly, to be clear, any white people who went beyond the borders stipulated by Massasoit in the treaty. White people who attempted to settle where they weren’t allowed were simply bundled up and shipped back – at first. Massasoit believed that he was trading a little land for allies in battles against his enemies. What he didn’t foresee was that his allies were going to keep crossing the Atlantic until their numbers were overwhelming. Massasoit may have bought his people a little time in the face of the Narragansett threat, but ultimately his “allies” proved to be the real threat to all Indians across the entire continent. They took what wasn’t theirs, using murder and rape if needed, broke treaty after treaty, and ultimately conquered a land that had been emptied of most of its inhabitants owing to the plagues that swept the Americas after the arrival of the first Europeans in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. If the indigenous people groups had been at full strength, the Europeans would’ve been beaten back into the Atlantic. European’s technological, organizational, and military superiority is a myth. The decimated population was simply no match for the bumbling scourge of white people that began pouring into lands that were already owned by other people.

The world has lost marvelous cultural expressions because of the greed and avarice of white Europeans. White culture is not a culture. Whiteness is not an identity (shouldn’t be an identity); it’s a made-up construct to justify sin. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a reminder of all this.

 This Thanksgiving, instead of giving thanks for our material possessions that can be traced directly back to the murdering, raping, and stealing by the white people who are our ancestors,[3] we – white people – should lament. We should lament the lives lost and destroyed, and the lives of people of Color who are still struggling under the heritage of burdens white people placed on their ancestors. We should lament that because of white people’s greed, heritages of beauty and knowledge were never past down and have been largely lost. We should lament that our cultural entitlement continues our heritage of oppression. Our material riches and position are not blessings from God. They are the spoils of sinful conquest. Colonization, settler-colonization, and slavery created our modern white world. And for that, we should lament.

During and after our lament, we should learn. We should seek out and listen to the stories of Black people, and other people of Color, and learn about their vibrant, soul-filling culture. We have much to learn about what it means to be a fully embodied Image Bearer living in God’s Creation. There are many ways to help promote healing for the sins of our forefathers but until we are willing to listen and learn, we will only continue the cycle of oppression we’ve inherited from our forefathers. Those who caused the sickness can’t prescribe the cure.

[1] Later, Squanto helped the Pilgrims negotiate a settlement with the Massachuset and Nauset for having raided their graves and villages.

[2] Funny story: down in VA, Captain John Smith, after being captured, destroyed his guns because he didn’t want the Indians to find out that their arrows could travel farther than his bullets.

[3] And you can’t say, “but my family didn’t come here until the 20th century.” Setting aside the atrocities committed by white people against people of Color in the 20th century (and 21st century), as a white person, you have inherited a place of privilege in a wealthy land that is the product of sin – murders, rapes, and stealing.

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