The Time Traveler: Hugh Ellis

Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer last weekend, will forever be known as the actor who brought the Black Panther, King T’Challa of Wakanda, to life.

I used to want to be the Black Panther. Wait a minute. Hear me out.

I read the comics as a kid in the 80s and 90s, long before Black Panther was mainstream ‘cool’ and African Sci-Fi was the flavor of the month. As it was for many others, the story of the shadowy justice-fighter and the secret country of Wakanda lit up my humdrum existence.

It may seem strange that I – a white Southern African kid, son and grandson of apartheid beneficiaries – identified with the Black Panther. I have more in common with the befuddled CIA operative Agent Ross at best, or the corrupt Afrikaner arms dealer Ulysses Klaue at worst.

(Kalue himself is a remarkable performance in the movie given that the actor Andy Serkis is not himself an Afrikaner, but I digress.)

Being a refugee in the 80s and a returnee in the 90s, something about the Black Panther story spoke to me, something about the person perceived as weak and rootless actually being the strong and powerful one.

Something about the country of Wakanda being dismissed as a small, poor nation, but actually being a technological powerhouse, sending secret agents to intervene on behalf of the powerless around the world. The stuff of dreams for a 13-year-old kid regularly told to ‘go back to where you come from’. And perhaps for many a Namibian who gets asked where his country is and how to pronounce it by a clueless Westerner.

That clip during the credits of the movie, where King T’Challa, at the United Nations, is asked by some naïve Western diplomat, ‘what can a nation of farmers achieve?’ and he smiles knowingly, understanding that Wakanda is the most technologically advanced civilization known to humankind, I felt that.

Now, there’s another reason why the Black Panther film and comics proved so popular, and it has nothing to do with me. It simply about the way King T’Challa looks.

To many white people, a black superhero (from an African country, albeit a fictitious one) may be no big deal, but think, who else fits into that category?

Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman – all white folks, at least in those characters’ main incarnations.

The last one being a fine example of white privilege and arrogance – can you please invest more of your vast fortune in Gotham’s infrastructure and job-creation and less in street justice and vigilantism?

Come to think of it, can you think of many black blockbuster movie heroes at all?
Okay, there are Will Smith and Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, but who else? There are Tyler Perry’s patriarchal rom-coms, if you want to subject yourself to that… But think though just how many Hollywood gangsters, pimps, murder victims and troubled youths have been black over many, many years…

Representation matters. It matters that young kids see people who look like them as the ‘good guys.’

I certainly wouldn’t want to derail a movement for better representation. I was ‘dragged’ on Twitter when I commented negatively on some aspects of the Black Panther film last year, and I probably deserved much of it.

It turns out I can’t be the Black Panther. In fact, I wouldn’t want to be. Except in one way.

Remember the final few scenes in the movie when T’Challa buys out several derelict apartment blocks in a run-down African-American neighborhood and transforms them into a technology center teaching computer know-how and engineering to marginalized children?

In this century, it is ever more important that communities of color are not left out in the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, where the rapid advance of informatics and biotechnology threatens to create one class of literal superhumans and another of left-behind shop-floor workers.

It’s ever more important that those of use with privilege and money invest our loot into uplifting those marginalized by apartheid, colonialism, sexism, and other oppressions. That, for once in our recent history, we ‘lift others as we rise’.

That’s bare minimum for a decent human, and certainly not something you should expect praise or even recognition for, but it’s also your real-life superhero mission, if you choose to accept it.

I’m grateful for the cast of Black Panther, and other creatives of color, for working hard against the odds to teach these, and many other, life lessons.

Rest in power, King Chadwick.

More a timelord than a black panther, Dr. Hugh is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Follow Hugh Ellis’s blog on http://ellishugh.wordpress.com