5 min readCulture 16 September 2020
2018's Black Panther was, and continues to be, one of the mainstream Hollywood films most celebrated within the Black community, and for good reason. For so many Black Americans, this was not just a movie. It was a vision of something that, until the film's release, existed only in many of their dreams and imaginations—a vivid, exhilarating, jubilant celebration of Blackness and African traditions and motifs, with every aspect of the film's production (e.g. costuming, makeup, music, production design) helping to bring that vision to stunning life.
Black Panther centered Blackness while also decentering Whiteness like few Hollywood films before it, and it did so in ways so varied and numerous that an entire book, let alone a single article, cannot possibly do justice to them all. I would know, having recently edited such a book.
Black Panther centered Blackness while also decentering Whiteness like few Hollywood films before it, and it did so in ways so varied and numerous that an entire book, let alone a single article, cannot possibly do justice to them all.
In Why Wakanda Matters: What Black Panther Reveals About Psychology, Identity, and Communication, my co-contributors and I seek to unpack some of the many ways that the movie was nothing short of a revelation for Black people. Understanding these ways can also help us understand why the recent death of actor Chadwick Boseman has had such an impact on the Black community and why it feels so personal. Black Panther was not just a movie, you see, and Chadwick Boseman was not just an actor. Both were symbols—of things that never were but could have been, and of things that are not but perhaps someday could be.
Understanding Why Wakanda Matters So Much
Why Wakanda Matters explains how Black Panther reaches the very core of some of the deepest issues of Black identity, representation, identification, trauma, and healing. Several of the chapters discuss how the movie depicts a stark contrast between Black people living with the deep traumas of ongoing, systemic racism and oppression and a fictional vision of a Black society, Wakanda, that is untouched by this.
In a simplified form, we see this dichotomy reflected in the juxtaposition between Killmonger and T'Challa. If Killmonger represents the brutal legacies of slavery and colonialism, then Wakandan culture and society whisper possibilities of the pathways toward healing, in part through the reclaiming of innumerable birthrights that slavery and colonialism have taken away from Black people: connection to cultural roots and heritage, healthy self-identities, and even just the rudimentary fulfillment of basic needs like safety, nurturing, and opportunities for growth and advancement.
How Chadwick Boseman Became a Symbol of Wakanda
Notwithstanding the contributions of a superb cast, Chadwick Boseman was the most visible face of the Black Panther. For this and many other reasons, he came to symbolize for Black audiences the very same things that the movie as a whole symbolized. For one thing, he approached the role with a depth and commitment that belied the notion that it was "just a movie." He understood exactly what was at stake and that was why he fought as hard as he did to get it right. In fact, Chadwick Boseman lived up to the heroic characteristics of his character in more ways than one, even visiting children in the hospital who had cancer while fighting the same disease himself.
Black Panther was not just a movie, you see, and Chadwick Boseman was not just an actor. Both were symbols—of things that never were but could have been, and of things that are not but perhaps someday could be.
All the anecdotes and stories paint a portrait of a man who, while clearly a human being, in many ways really was like the heroes, both fictitious and historical, that he portrayed on the screen. Perhaps journalist Brian Josephs put it best when he tweeted, "Chadwick Boseman is a big reason why our kids don't have to wonder about what a Black superhero is."
Chadwick Boseman is a big reason why our kids don't have to wonder about what a Black superhero is.
— Brian Josephs (@Bklyn_Rock) August 29, 2020
Losing and Rediscovering the Hope He Inspired
Boseman's real-life reputation only further blurs the distinction between the actor and his most famous role as the Black Panther, making his passing all the more difficult to accept and process. It is why his death almost feels like the death of none other than the Black Panther himself, even though the character will of course live on. It is also why—despite the abstract, impersonal nature of a disease like cancer—his death felt so personal in ways that celebrity deaths don't always do.
In the midst of a horrendous year of injustice, brutality, and the underscoring of societal inequalities by the Covid-19 pandemic, the loss of Chadwick Boseman does not feel like an act of nature. It feels like a direct attack on the collective Black American psyche—as if seeing ourselves murdered on the streets by police and left to die from an out-of-control pandemic was not enough. We had to have an avatar and icon of our hope taken away on top of it.
All the anecdotes and stories paint a portrait of a man who, while clearly a human being, in many ways really was like the heroes, both fictitious and historical, that he portrayed on the screen.
Truthfully speaking, given what is currently occurring in this country—and frankly just about every time we turn on the news—there is not a lot for Black Americans to feel optimistic about. Losing Chadwick Boseman this year only further proves that point. However, the last thing that he would have wanted was for people to give in to feelings of despair and resignation.
Despite the odds that Black actors face in Hollywood and the frustrations he surely must have encountered, Chadwick Boseman stayed true to his values and persevered, rejecting roles when they went against his values even as they may have represented career opportunities. As a result, he was eventually able to help bring Black Panther to life, and in the process inspired and uplifted millions, Black and otherwise. In the same way, as long as there are people willing to fight and to do the long, difficult work that is needed, there is still hope. At a time when it is all too easy to forget that, let his life and work be a reminder of it.
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Help! My Friend Is a No Show
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I have a friend who doesn't reply to my messages about meeting for dinner, etc. Although, last week I ran into her at a local restaurant of mine, it has always been awkward to be friends with her. Should I continue our friendship or discontinue it? We've been friends for a total four years and nothing has changed. I don't feel as comfortable with her as my other close friends, and I don't think I'll ever be able to reach that comfort zone in pure friendship.
Dear Sadsies,I am sorry to hear you've been neglected by your friend. You may already have the answer to your question, since you're evaluating the non-existing bond between yourself and your friend. However, I'll gladly affirm to you that a friendship that isn't reciprocated is not a good friendship.
I have had a similar situation with a friend whom I'd grown up with but who was also consistently a very negative person, a true Debby Downer. One day, I just had enough of her criticism and vitriol. I stopped making excuses for her and dumped her. It was a great decision and I haven't looked back. With that in mind, it could be possible that something has changed in your friend's life, but it's insignificant if she isn't responding to you. It's time to dump her and spend your energy where it's appreciated. Don't dwell on this friend. History is not enough to create a lasting bond, it only means just that—you and your friend have history—so let her be history!
- The Armchair Psychologist