By: Takeia R. Johnson
Imagine a world in which women are valued as leaders, fighters, lovers, and intellectuals. What would families and households look like? Universities and professional schools? Computer engineering labs and start-up incubators? Professional sports arenas, television networks, and movie studios? Revolutions? Imagine that world valuing women of color.
Examining our social world through a Black feminist lens has the potential to make the imaginary real. The film Black Panther shows us how because it represents a cultural moment in which Black people across America and the diaspora see ourselves reflected, valued, and confident in our blackness. Wakandan society is not hindered by racism and sexism. Children grow up with an egalitarian notion of freedom, for all. They are free from the generations-long consequences of settler-colonialism, slavery, and racial violence that Black Americans continue to fight against.
Black women and girls in Wakanda don’t carry centuries of trauma from sexual violence passed down through generations in the particularly horrific way that Black American women do. Rather, in the film’s opening scene, we see Nakia rescuing Nigerian Black women and girls from slavery. The women of Wakanda – Nakia, Okoye, Shuri, and Ramonda – play crucial roles as co-leads and supporting characters in the film. They are not props, meant only to amplify T’Challa and Killmonger’s shine. Rather, these women control their own narratives and influence the direction of Wakanda’s future. They are emblems of Afro-feminist futures.
Patricia Hill Collins explains Black feminist thought as knowledge situated in the unique experiences of Black women. While it is unique to Black women, it is not exclusive to us. Black feminist thought is transnational, providing analysis and responses that are informed by the different experiences and knowledges that emerge from differences in age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, region, and a host of other factors. It merges intellectual work with activism. Black feminist thought is an epistomological process of reclamation, reinterpretation, and construction of knowledge such that Black women engage in self-definition in opposition to controlling images. Controlling images are stereotypes used to justify intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, and sexuality. They provide ideological excuses for Black women to be labeled “Other” and to be denied womanhood in a way that morally and legally justifies control over Black women’s bodies and life chances. Black Panther shows Black women producing knowledge, using that knowledge in action, and defining themselves in ways that reflect the beauty in that knowledge and activism.
Queen Mother Ramonda, Princess Shuri, and Nakia honor Wakanda’s culture and traditions while mourning T’Challa’s presumed death and anticipating Wakanda’s future. Their lives are complicated and often contradictory. When they escape into the mountains to avoid Killmonger’s inevitable vengeance, their purpose is not solely self-preservation. They plan to regroup with the help of the Jabari clan and reclaim Wakanda’s identity as a peaceful world leader. While Killmonger selfishly sought the throne in order to punish T’Challa and to arm Black people to violently overtake Western colonizers and oppressors, Nakia also sought to uplift Black people suffering around the world. However, she did not want to go war to do so. These women dismantled the notion of Black women as mammies, matriarchs, jezebels, welfare queens, and bulldaggers (see “World of Wakanda” featuring a lesbian relationship between two members of the Dora Milaje).
Nakia is a spy and revolutionary whose goal is to share Wakanda’s knowledge and resources with oppressed Black people around the world. She seeks justice. Rather than succumbing to Wakandan’s righteous apprehension of settler colonialism should the world learn of Wakanda’s advanced technology and natural resources, Nakia chooses to engage, albeit on a smaller scale because she is a single spy taking on the world. Nakia is unlike any femme character we’ve seen in a superhero movie. Her role is not secondary to T’Challa and she is not beguiled by his position as King, his looks, or his skill. The film’s creators did not rely on stereotypes to shape one-dimensional female characters.
Okoye and the Dora Milaje are gorgeous and confident with their shaved heads and warriors’ uniforms. The “Adored Ones” make up the King’s guard, protecting the throne and all of Wakanda. As an all-female/femme military group whose strategies rely on uniformity and collaboration, these warriors represent the act of self-definition that is central to Black feminism. One of the most affirming moments of the film happens when Okoye turns the “silly” wig she wore as a disguise to fit into Western standards of beauty into a weapon. While there is no doubt that all Wakandan women are proud to be Black and African, we see this pride most poignantly in this scene with Okoye. Their self-definition is an act of resistance. Not only is Okoye a stunning warrior, she is also the General of the Dora Milaje and Advisor to the King. Without her leadership and input, T’Challa—both as King and as Black Panther—would have been injured in the very first scene and would have faced a much tougher battle when he returned home to finish the Challenge against Killmonger to be King.
Princess Shuri is the 16-yeear-old Head of the Wakandan Design Group. Nate Moore, the film’s producer, explained that Shuri is the smartest person in the world, “smarter than Tony Stark.” She invents devices and creates technology that literally save the country from destruction. T’Challa would not be successful without his baby sister, Princess Shuri.
The same is true for Queen Mother Ramonda. While Black women around the world are told that our natural hair is “unprofessional,” “nappy,” and unkempt, every time Queen Mother appeared on screen, her hair was more enchanting than the last. Her locks are long and white with age and wisdom. She demands respect in her stature as well as in her experience and authority as a member of the Wakandan council. While controlling images of Black American women name us “welfare queen” and bad mothers, Queen Mother Ramonda shows us a Black mother who raised Princess Shuri, a technological genius who knows how to lovingly annoy her big brother, and King T’Challa, a diplomat, warrior, and just leader.
Black Panther centers the women of Wakanda in the narrative and story in way that exemplifies Black feminist thought in practice. The women of Wakanda remind the world of what Black Women can do when we lead. They show our lives in fictional Wakanda in a way that resonates with our own truths. Collectively, Nakia, Okoye and the Dora Milaje, Princess Shuri and Queen Mother Ramonda reject the controlling images ascribed to Black women. There are no pious, pure, and obedient Mammies, no Sapphires whose femininity is objectified and suppressed and whose mothering is judged as bad and as a failure to the whole of the Black community. At no point in the film are we forced to observe the controlling image of the sexually deviant Jezebel or the Welfare Queen. Rather, we see the women of Wakanda as a collective of Black women who, as bell hooks describes, have moved from the margins to the center. They are simultaneously mothers, leaders, warriors, lovers, knowledge-makers, traditionalists, futurists, intellectual, creative, and emotional. They are whole.