As the Black Panther has become an increasingly more prominent character, especially now that the movie has been released I’ve been thinking. Thinking about why this character has been so important to me personally, to the community of black writers, nerds, actresses, and podcasters that I interact with, and ultimately to many in the African diaspora. My conclusion is that T’Challa matters because of the world he connects us to, what he embodies as a character, and the questions that his existence forces us to ponder.
The fictional nation of Wakanda connects us to the idea of what Africa nations could have become without intervention from the West. The African continent has been plagued by the legacy of the triangle slave trade and colonialism. Those two events and their continuing legacy have hampered the development of African nations, forced Western beliefs and ideology upon them without their consent. The descendants of slavery endured a concerted effort to eliminate any continuing connection to their heritage, with names, languages, and religious and cultural beliefs forcibly stripped from them. In the Marvel Universe, where the fictional Wakanda exists there is no need to ponder what would Africans and Africa could have become, the answer explodes off the page. The Wakandans follow their own traditions, they pray to their own deity, they revel in their own culture and heritage. It’s not utopia, there are issues, prejudices, and problems, but it’s truly a different world from the one we come from.
T’Challa as a character embodies something unique as a superhero. While he has his responsibilities as a head of state, chief priest, and protector of Wakanda, he doesn’t soar above the people, he lives among them. Christopher Priest, legendary comic book writer, started his initial arc on Black Panther with T’Challa coming to America to solve the murder of an African America girl who been part of a program sponsored by Wakanda. It’s not a world ending event, or a threat to his country, but enrages him enough to endanger his throne to get to the truth. Similarly in Reginald Hudlin’s Black Panther Volume 1, T’Challa finds himself in a conversation with a young boy who he had just saved. After listening to the boy exalt him as the sacred god of his clan, T’Challa removes his mask and explains that he is just a man and that “there is no feat that I achieve that you are not capable of.” Ultimately T’Challa is just as human as the people around them and doesn’t need to be raised above him.
Black Panther has been important for me personally not just as a positive depiction of a man of African descent, but as a means of exploring the question of who could I have been if slavery had not occurred. When I sought the origins of my family, there were no answers that could be provided. Our story started in bondage in Virginia and any hope of reclaiming any of our culture or heritage prior to slavery was irretrievable. The African continent is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world, which meant I belonged to anyone, and to no one. Wakanda had a place, right next to my adinkra tattoos, and Chancellor Williams’s “Destruction of Black Civilization” as parts of my identity as an African American, and for a time it was enough. When DNA testing became available I had mine tested because Wakanda had been enough for me as a boy, but as a husband and father I needed more. Now I know that my family hails from Angola, Sierra Leone, and Guinea Bissau, I’ve been learning what I can about each and I hope to visit all three countries. Wakanda isn’t where my family’s story started, but it gave me the desire to find where it did.
The Black Panther movie deserves all the accolades that it’s receiving, but T’Challa is larger than any film. Thanks to the talent of his writers like Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Roxanne Gay, and his creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, T’Challa exemplifies the heroic ideal for the African Diaspora in a way that is incomparable to any other character. He is a portal to a fictional Africa that defies the stereotypes that are associated with black inferiority that automatically represents inferiority. In his eulogy for Malcom X Ossie Davis referred to Malcom X as “our own shinning black prince.” T’Challa isn’t real, but that doesn’t make him any less regal.