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Black Panther: It takes a false myth of millions to hold you back

(Disney/Marvel Studios)

[Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Black Panther.]

I write about myth mostly as a positive, creative force, and I believe that when we relate to myth in a certain way it can be indeed be a force for good.  But myth is a human creation and like most human creations it is not inherently good or bad but can be used for both. And the truth is that there is undoubtedly a dark side to myth. Here I should clarify what I mean by “myth” since the word is used in multiple ways. I mean “myth” in the following two ways:

  1. A narrative story. The Black Panther movie and comics are an example.
  2. A subjective idea (true or false) that does not require a story to carry it. While it may not have a plot, this type of myth is still, in a way, a “story.”

Both types A and B have an extraordinarily destructive power, particularly when coupled with humanity’s darker impulses. So potentially destructive is it that if one wanted to wage war against a people one could do so without firing a single shot, through the strategic propagation of harmful myths. Myths can turn people against each other or even prod them toward self-destruction. Yet the study of false, destructive myths too must be a part of mythology just as much as the study of positive, redemptive ones.

Sometimes destructive myths can become the dominant myths of a society, and if they become systemically ingrained enough, they can continue causing harm over time even without conscious intent. Thus can you benefit from dominant myths without even intending to, through no intrinsic wrongdoing of your own, and thus can you even be complicit to fundamentally unjust systems without realizing it. We are going beyond simplistic concepts of good and bad here. Despite whatever impression the title of this article gave you, it is not going to be about how “white people are bad” or how people of color are victims who aren’t responsible for their actions. To acknowledge that the problems of racism, or any other -ism, are complex and not black-and-white is not to negate the simultaneous truth that these problems do exist and they won’t go away simply by saying that we should put them behind us. In this way, the myth of post-racial America is in itself a destructive myth that is doing our society grave damage.

As potentially destructive as certain myths and systems of myths can be, the source of the poison can also be the antidote. And so it is that myth can be a very effective counter to myth. Let us call these counter myths. The Black Panther phenomenon (and it is truly a phenomenon, as evidenced by its box office gross) is an example of a counter myth. But if I propose that it is a counter myth I have to explain what it is countering.

The false myth of a post-racial America

From the cover of ‘The Myth of Post-Racial America’ by H. Roy Kaplan (R&L Education)

There is still a startling inability in the U.S. for our society as a whole to have a healthy and constructive dialogue about race in a way that is honest yet promotes healing at the same time. I find it mind-boggling when people insist we live in a post-racial society because my lifetime experience contradicts this claim. And I haven’t even experienced the worst of it – far, far from it.

Despite this false myth of post-racial equality, those of us who may experience (to different degrees) the negative consequences of racism or any other “ism” know these problems still exist because we experience them directly. I am therefore not interested, at least not in this article, in trying to persuade anyone who doesn’t believe the God of Racism is real. I know He is real because He speaks to me everyday.  

As an Asian American I grew up with intense shame and self-loathing about my ethnicity, a pathology I am still healing. There were many factors behind this, but without a doubt one of the most influential was the media which I consumed voraciously without realizing for many years that it was watering the seeds of a self-hate germinating in my psyche. I almost never saw myself represented on the page or the screen, and in the rare instance that I did it was usually something like this. Majoring in Media Studies in college, and specializing in representations of race in the media, was part of my attempt to understand and come to terms with this love/hate relationship.

For those who doubt the power of media to construct reality, as someone who nearly entered a doctorate program in media theory, I can assure you that the media in our present age is so powerful and pervasive that not only does its approximate reality, for many intents and purposes it pretty much is reality. Those who grew up with dominant myths as their own myths cannot possibly know what it is like to not be represented or to be sparsely represented in ways that create a sense of inferiority. Since only an in-depth analysis can do justice to these claims, and since that is not the focus of my article, open-minded readers who aren’t fully convinced but are willing to learn more should read the indispensable Brainwashed: The Myth of Black Inferiority by former advertising executive Tom Burrell. Or, for a more general overlook of all kinds of racism in popular culture, try Racism in American Popular Media. (There are lots of other good books out there if you look.)

It’s true that it is ultimately up to each person to develop his own self-esteem, and one should not have to look to the media for self-validation, but try telling that to a young, impressionable child glued to his smartphone. How can you not look to the media when it has become an inseparable component of virtually everything we do? 

As I alluded earlier, the problem with the dominant myths of a culture is that if they historically endure long enough it doesn’t even matter anymore whether the majority of a nation’s people in the present are actually well-intended people who share the hope for an equal society. Like the roots of sickness spreading throughout the town of Hawkins in Stranger Things 2, the decay is largely invisible unless you’re being suffocated by it. Moreover, the roots have taken root, so to speak, within the psyches of historically oppressed groups of people such that there is no longer a need to spray them with fire hoses or sic attack dogs on them even if you do hate them. You can just sit back as the old destructive myths lay mimetics eggs which hatch into new myths descended from the parent myths. Then you can watch as people slowly kill themselves from within.

What I am saying is that if you tell people repeatedly enough, long enough, that they are stupid, ugly, dirty, criminal, or uncivilized (or any other adjectives of inferiority), eventually you won’t have to tell them anymore. They will tell it to themselves: I’ll never get into a good college. I’ll never find a good job. I’ll never be paid a living wage. I’ll never get a fair opportunity in this society. Once they start telling themselves these offspring myths you could very well provide them with an equal society (which we are not) and they would still just sabotage themselves. And then everything bad that happens becomes a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy as self-loathing leads to failures across various life areas which in turn further cement the low self-image. On and on it goes towards self-implosion.

Now consider that the media, as powerful as it is, is not the only source of destructive myths being projected into young minds. People also get this from their schools, their churches, their communities. Raise your hand if you’re a person of color who was raised in a Christian family and all you ever saw in church were images of Jesus as a light-skinned white man. Thinks the young child of color sitting in church: If God created man in his own image and God is white, where does that leave me?

The reclaiming of identity and pride through counter myths

From the cover to ‘Black Athena’ by Martin Bernal (Vintage Books)

If destructive myths, dominant or otherwise, come from humanity’s baser impulses to harm, exploit and dominate, then what I call counter myths come from the instinct to survive. Rooted in instinct, the spreading of counter mythologies is not always a consciously intended process. What matters is that they succeed in their purpose: to lift people out of misery and give them hope.

Before I discuss Black Panther as a counter myth, I want to provide some examples of counter mythologies from American history to help elucidate this idea of counter myths. Two prominent examples of counter mythologies are liberation theology and Afrocentrism (and I want to stress that I mean zero offense to religious people by using the word “myth” which, to me, does not indicate true or false but simply story. A true story is still a story and is therefore just as much a myth, by my definition, as an untrue story.)

Liberation theology, in a nutshell, is the harnessing of Christian theology to address the plight of oppressed peoples. It gained ground in the mid-20th century in a largely Latin American context and from there grew offshoots geared towards other specific needs such as black liberation theology and feminist theology. And so, in black liberation theology, the biblical tale of Exodus has been used as a metaphor to inspire black people to endure their suffering with courage so that they could live to see the Promised Land. And, in feminist theology, the idea of God having a male gender, literally or figuratively, is rejected or reversed.

Afrocentrism is another example of a counter-myth in which history is rewritten from a perspective focusing on the cultural achievements of African peoples. Though he did not realize it at the time, Senegalese anthropologist and historian Cheikh Anta Diop effectively became the godfather of Afrocentrism when he published The African Origin of Civilization, one of the most canonical texts of Afrocentrist ideology. I want to linger a bit on Afrocentrism here because it ties in very closely to the Black Panther mythos.   

Afrocentrism has been much maligned by academic critics (both white and black) yet it has undoubtedly offered a lot of hope to struggling black communities and individuals. As often the case when it comes to complex issues, I find myself somewhere between the pro and con sides. My problem with much of the criticism towards it is that it tends to lump all Afrocentric ideas together when there is actually a considerable range of thought. You have the exhaustively researched and brilliantly argued work of Cheikh Anta Diop at one end, and some pretty far-out stuff on the other end. An example of the latter is Greatness is in Our DNA, by Rufus Jimerson, which holds that Egyptian DNA merged with alien DNA in ancient times which allowed for the intrinsic greatness of Egyptian civilization (a catalyzing event similar in scale to the arrival of the vibranium meteor in Wakanda). As a person of color (albeit not black), I find much to value in Afrocentric thought even if I do not agree with all of it, and it is unfair to characterize it, as some critics do, as the wishful fantasizing of a suffering people.

On the other hand, I agree with some of the criticisms of Afrocentrism, namely those of African American Studies scholar Gerald Early. Chief among Early’s arguments is that even as Afrocentrism seeks to give black people a sense of pride and identity, it is still beholden to the very Eurocentric model and values it seeks to usurp – meaning that if Eurocentrism has established dominance through a certain claim to superiority as the source of all civilization, then Afrocentrism seeks to rewrite that by claiming the roots of Europe’s cultural achievements were stolen from Africa. Africa is therefore the true source of civilization and by extension the truly superior continent.

The problem with such a narrative is that it creates nothing new. It would be as if I, feeling emasculated by media representations of Asian men, chose to overcompensate for it with excessive machismo. Or as if a woman, feeling dehumanized by the heterosexual male gaze, chose to boost her self-esteem by getting breast implants. Not fully liberating, to say the least. (Though in fairness I should point out that not all Afrocentric writers use cultural superiority as their focal point. – again, the range that I mentioned earlier.)

From liberation theology to liberation mythology

From the cover of ‘Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel Comics)

The Black Panther mythos, though not intentionally, has some Afrocentric threads running through it. Vibranium originating in Wakanda can be seen as symbolizing the Afrocentric idea that all civilized culture originates out of Africa. But the Black Panther mythos has evolved into something that is potentially more progressive than other counter mythologies such as Afrocentrism or even liberation theology.  It does so by meeting what I would consider to be the four prerequisites of a good counter myth:

  1. It does not seek to lift people up through an imagined superiority. This has been one of the pitfalls of Afrocentric works that seek to heal the black psyche on the basis of superiority, which is the problem with the very destructive myths it has sought to counter.
  2. It does not seek to pass myth off as objective truth. This isn’t to say that certain Eurocentric versions of history are any less mythical than Afrocentrist history. But replacing one myth with another, gratifying as it may be, doesn’t make the replacement myth any more true, objectively, than the dominant myth was. Besides, myth doesn’t need to be literal truth to be powerful.    
  3. It does not seek to lift people by material means but by spiritual means. There’s nothing wrong with wealth when used properly; it just doesn’t work as a foundation for true self-esteem. In this the Black Panther Party (no intentional connection with Black Panther, the character) had the right idea in rejecting American capitalism’s obsession with accumulation and focusing on community betterment. Though as I elaborate below, Black Panther itself doesn’t meet this prerequisite perfectly and partly reflects the capitalist industry and ethos from which the movie emerged.
  4. It does not promote violence as an attractive option, not even as a response to oppression. In this the misnamed New Black Panther Party has the wrong idea as does the fictitious Killmonger who, despite being the most sympathetic villain in the MCU, is nevertheless still a villain for resorting to violence as the answer. (Self-defense as a response to immediate physical threat, as the original Black Panther party believed in, is a different matter.)

An added note about condition #2. I greatly respect both liberation theology and Afrocentrism, but any counter myth that requires a literal belief in something presents certain problems if you don’t share those literal beliefs. I’m not saying that Afrocentric history or Christian theology isn’t literal truth; I’m only saying that no one can know for sure that they are literal truth since both history and theology are humanities, and as such they are largely about interpretation. Since everyone agrees Black Panther is fiction (or, as one angry radical tweeted at me, “T’CHALLA ISN’T F**KING REAL”) we can avoid ideological arguments about what’s real and what isn’t and just focus on gleaning the symbolic wisdom contained within. (And if you can’t embrace the Black Panther mythos because it was started by a couple white guys from New York, by all means create your own counter-myths. Create myths that counter the counter-myths.)   

Aside from its uncontested status as fiction, Black Panther offers another piece of wisdom for politically or emotionally oppressed peoples wishing to discover a greater sense of self-worth.

It comes down to one evocatively symbolic moment, when T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye’s ship arrives in the heart of Wakanda’s capital whose magnificent splendor is disguised by a holographic illusion, an illusion that leads the rest of the world to see Wakanda as an insignificant third world country. One could interpret it this way: in seeking your value and self-worth, do not do so based on the standards of someone else’s gaze. Know your worth unconditionally. This is the trap that many well-intended counter myths fall into. Even Black Panther, ironically, partly falls into this trap by flaunting images of glamour, wealth, and power.

(Disney/Marvel Studios)

Such images can certainly feel empowering and I understand this. Pursuing wealth and power is as much a right for poor people and people of color as it is for anyone. But there are limitations to this path as a form of self-empowerment for it relies on other people’s standards, just as Afrocentrism has relied on the Eurocentric model of innate superiority. The one thing better than a counter myth in which a black king dazzles the world with his wealth, power, and physical prowess would be a counter myth where a black King dazzles the world with his courage, humanity and humility (which, come to think of it, has actually happened).

Certainly, anyone – person of color or otherwise – who wants to adopt Black Panther as a totem of self-empowerment should. Just remember that while money and power may provide artificial boosts to self-esteem, it takes true nobility to cultivate an authentic self and to celebrate that authentic self whether others recognize its value of not. This is the symbolism of T’Challa’s ship breaking through illusion to the beauty underneath which is always there even though people can’t see it. No matter how anyone sees you from the outside, on the inside you are Wakanda, shining and resplendent.  And the true reason that Wakanda is such a highly advanced civilization, as I will argue below, is not its wealth and technology but something else…

Wakanda’s real precious resource isn’t vibranium

(Disney/Marvel Studios)

I have tried to take note of just about every criticism made against Black Panther. I find many of them, (such as this critique by Christopher Lebron) to be quite valid. Those sensitive to potentially exploitive imagery have complained of black characters wielding spears, for instance, or the obligatory white character who helps out. To address all the criticisms with the depth they deserve is far beyond the scope of this article. I will only say that at this point in history I don’t believe that a perfect modern myth that avoids all the problems of representation is likely to happen – indeed, I think the fact that Black Panther even got made, and is as good as it is, approaches something close to miraculous. If we want more, if we want better even, we must celebrate it and channel the momentum into a veritable movement.      

I’ll address just one point of criticism more closely because it leads into the final point I wish to make. White Americans don’t get offended at depictions of “traditional” or ancient Europeans carrying swords and shields because there is enough variety in depictions of people with European ancestry. Do white Americans get offended by Game of Thrones? The reason people of color sometimes get offended at “traditional” or “ethnicized” depictions of themselves is the limited range of representation. Notwithstanding the progress of recent years, it used to be that Asian Americans, for example, never saw ourselves on the screen at all, or when we did we were geishas and kung fu guys. It was as if that’s all we could be; we couldn’t just be normal Americans.

One day, when there is enough range of representation for people of color, then perhaps such ethnicized depictions will no longer offend. But for the time being, people of color are put in a unique double bind when it comes to films like Black Panther that present a vision of vibrant ethnic heritage. On one hand, to applaud such works, even when they’re genuinely good, is to be accused of being complicit to a neo-colonial gaze. On the other hand, to denounce such works is to make do with the status quo in which, despite progress, we still largely remain in the background as taxi drivers, liquor store owners, sidekicks, gangstas, or happy indigenous natives.

To denounce anything that smacks of “ethnic” or “traditional” presents another problem for the American person of color. She gets cut off from any sense of connection to a mythical, ancestral past that belongs to her as part of her birthright. At the same time she does not truly feel at home in contemporary American society either. It is difficult for white Americans to know what either of these things feels like because for the most part they are not subject to either (consider that most works of the fantasy genre, like that of Tolkien or Martin, tend to be oriented around European-influenced motifs). To be subject to both at the same time is a profound psychological and spiritual marooning. A third kind of alienation is thrown in for good measure when society denies that this is even a problem.

Black Panther manages to bypass this dilemma by pulling off an epic feat. It depicts people of color in a traditional, highly ethnicized context. But it also presents a spiritual rationale for such a depiction and why people of color should not shy away from exploring their ethnic and cultural roots. The rationale is the psychic healing that becomes possible when marginalized or oppressed groups – people of color or otherwise – are allowed to look to a mythical, ancestral past as a source of strength, inspiration and wisdom.

Three qualities about Wakanda, both in the film and in the comics, point the way towards mining a mythical, ancestral past for self-esteem without falling into some of the traps of self-ethnicization or self-orientalism.

  1. Wakanda exists in the present day.
  2. It is the most technologically advanced civilization in the world.
  3. It preserves a strong connection to its past and ancestral heritage.

Let’s consider these qualities in tandem. Being so scientifically advanced, Wakanda is anything but the “savage” or “backward” nation that has historically been a pretext for real-life Western colonialism. Yet the pulse of Wakanda’s ancestors beats strong in the hearts of its people, exemplified by the proverb, “Praise to the ancestors,” and by the communal ritualization of life events both celebratory and mournful in nature. This kind of communal ritualization ensures that you never feel alone no matter what you’re going through; the community has your back. Contrast to the modern American predicament in which so many people do feel alone in private struggles that crush their souls. It is this ability to carry the communal wisdom and traditions of the past forward into the future that makes Wakanda a truly advanced civilization even more so than its wealth and technology. 

(Disney/Marvel Studios)

Partly by virtue of being such a young nation, and partly due to its own history and diversity, America lacks a strong sense of connection to a shared ancestral heritage. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does require a bit more work on the part of those who do wish to feel connected to their ancient roots. It requires even more work – as well as tenacity and courage – on the part of people of color who may feel ambivalent about cultivating such a connection. Obstacles abound, often simply due to a lack of information about one’s ancestral roots which is the case for many African Americans. In such instances, mythology can fill the role of missing history quite nicely as evidenced by the popularity of Afrocentrism. This is why Black Panther is indeed a triumph and a game-changer as people have said (though, for my money, so was Netflix’s Luke Cage). And it is also why it has struck such a chord in people that they are flocking to see it again and again.   

In lieu of missing history or history that does not include you, here is something else the Black Panther mythology can teach. Wakandans have no need to maintain strong links with their ancestors simply out of a need for self-esteem. Being the most advanced nation on the planet is strong enough basis for rock solid self-esteem. So why do Wakandans keep themselves wrapped in the fabric of their ancestors?

One word: wisdom. It is this wisdom that is Wakanda’s true precious resource, even more than vibranium. And it is this kind of wisdom that can lead to a true, lasting self-esteem.

No matter your race or background, you have ancestors. These ancestors faced more constant challenges to their survival than you and I can imagine. Yet not only were they able to survive they were able to produce profoundly rich cultures, and they were able to maintain this over the course of many generations. You can’t do this and not amass an immense body of wisdom in the process. But because wisdom is abstract with no tangible form, ancient peoples gave it form through their traditions, their customs, their rituals and their mythologies.

One of the primary themes in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was the willful severing of connections with the past. In some situations this can be wise. In some situations, it is not. Knowing which situation is which – this too is wisdom. It is a wisdom that T’challa blooms into when he realizes that he must step away from a generations-long isolationist tendency. But in doing so he does not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Even as he rises above their flaws he keeps the genuine wisdom of his ancestors close to his heart, and it is this wisdom that makes him the hero, while it is the lack of this wisdom that makes Killmonger the tragic villain. Not coincidentally, Killmonger, as a young American, through no inherent fault of his own is deprived of an upbringing rooted in a traditional, ancestral wisdom which Wakandans can take for granted. While critic Christopher Lebron argued that the film devalues African Americans in this way (he does have a point), I saw it as being symbolic of how many young American people of color are forced to look to other sources of guidance such as, in Killmonger’s case, the streets. Sometimes, if they are lucky, the guidance is good. Sometimes, if they are not lucky, it is not. Whatever guidance Killmonger received growing up in the streets might have helped him survive, but it did not teach him that violence can only beget more violence in the end.  

When you live in a society in which the dominant mythology of millions makes you feel oppressed and unrepresented, then it is up to you to either find or create counter-myths that help you see your own value and worth – so long as these counter myths meet the four conditions I outlined above (equality, relativism, non-materialism, and non-violence). The main premise of this article has been that positive counter myths like Black Panther, despite being imperfect, can partially serve this role of being a source of guidance for young people. 

This is my hope for those who were deeply inspired by Black Panther, perhaps in ways they weren’t able to fully articulate. Although I began this article by drawing from the experience of American people of color, I end by returning to the domain of the universal. Ultimately, this article is not about whether you are white, black, male, female, gay or straight. Whoever you are, if you feel oppressed, there is a reason for it. If you struggle with feelings of shame, fear, or rage and they can be traced in some way to an aspect of your identity, there is a reason for it. Let the Wakandan tradition of ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb and going on a hallucinatory vision quest symbolize your personal journey into an ancestral past. Look to something that you could call your “ancestors,” even if you can only imagine who they were, for they survived the worst and came out wiser and they can show you the way. If you don’t know what your cultural heritage is and therefore feel like you’re on a journey without a map, let your imagination and whatever myths attract you serve as your guides. The journey may be long and difficult, but stay the course and one day, there on the other side of illusion, you will find your own personal Wakanda.

Praise to the ancestors.  

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites. Connect on Google+