It’s been four years and a few weeks since Marvel’s Black Panther leveled the pop-sphere with a $1.344 billion USD box office and a legion of new and reinvigorated fans. Before his big screen debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War — an appearance that all who saw it could not stop talking about — he was a C- or D-list comic book character in Marvel Comics’ overstuffed roster.
He had a few memorable runs spearheaded by Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin, but was mostly used to add some kind of tension, or be a foil for the established white heroes. But what Marvel does so extremely well is to take characters who aren’t the most popular in the books and turn them into demigods on the big screen — hell, they’ve done a (mostly) great job on the small screen: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. We won’t speak of the Fist thing for… reasons. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is probably the single most impressive cinematic narrative feat in the history of film. These films are now part of our pop and social cultural firmament. Which leads back to Black Panther.
Panther, like the original Candyman (1992) has transcended its literary roots (yes, comics are literature), has transcended entertainment to become part of African American folk life. The evidence of this transcendence is, in the case of Candyman, you’d be hard pressed to find many American Black folks who will say his name five times in the mirror. Many of these people have never seen the original film, read Clive Barker’s story (yes, like the Black Panther, Candyman was created by a white guy), or even seen the 2021 reimagining. They just know that to say his name five times in the mirror invites doom. Black Panther’s evidence is, of course, the Wakanda Forever salute.
Right arm over the left, folded against the chest, reminiscent of images found in Egyptian hieroglyphics and statuary, and with a full-throated “Wakanda Forever” said for maximum emphasis. Long after the film faded from theaters, Black Folks used this to great each other. For a minute it felt like it was going to replace the Black man head nod. Four years since the release of the film, people are still addressing each other in this way.
The question I have is why?
What does “Wakanda Forever” do for Black folks? What purpose does it serve? What are we really saying when we say, “Wakanda Forever?”
It is important to note that when discussing Black Panther and its lasting impact, we almost always default to speaking about the lands of Wakanda, the Black Panther’s fictional African home and kingdom he rules over. What is it about a fictional homeland of an isolationist African people who did nothing to intercede in the Transatlantic Slave Trade that gives so many Black folks… comfort? Solace? Or, is it more aspirational?
Please don’t take the following comparison as anything more than a comparison to illustrate a cultural phenomenon. ‘Wakanda Forever.’
“Wakanda Forever” may have a similar function as the Hebrew “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim” — “Next year in Jerusalem.” This phrase is sung at the conclusion of the Ne’ila service during Yom Kippur, at the end of the Passover Seder. It is a phrase said throughout the Jewish Diaspora that, from the outside looking in, seems to have two purposes: to indicate the Diaspora’s return to their ancestral homeland, and to link the Diaspora under a common, cultural umbrella, so no one is forgotten. If this is a wrong reading, please reach out to correct. Using L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim as a parallel, maybe “Wakanda Forever” is a signal to remind us that we spring from a common origin point, that those of the African Diaspora are one people and that, one day, we will be able to also return to our ancestral homeland.
And, yes, this could be problematic on multiple fronts. Wakanda is fictional and the idea that a place that sprung from the minds of Jewish comic’s pros Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, is worthy of perpetuity flattens the continent of Africa, narrows it into fantasy. Or, the salute and the accompanying words can be seen as a collective cultural mythopoesis of aspiration. The nation of Wakanda was untouched by the slave trade or apartheid or any other race-based oppression — why they allowed it to happen to non-Wakandans is a story worth telling. And it is a supreme act of freedom-making, as a Global African person, to envision an existence untouched by white supremacy. It is the ultimate in world building. In the words of Jamaican dub poet, Mutabaruka: “Slavery is not African history. Slavery interrupted African history.”
It is quite possible that “Wakanda Forever” reminds Global Africans that their history (and their futures) can and will transcend racist oppression. In the mundane world, maybe it points the way towards a utopic, Pan-African homeland that we can strive to build. Or maybe, just maybe, it is a cultural grounding action that lets other Global Africans know and understand that they’re seen, heard, and have more support than they ever realized — a kind of shorthand for, “I got you. We got us.”
Whatever it is, when we say “Wakanda Forever,” we’re asserting something so undeniably, unassailably Black that it acts as a battery, giving us the energy to engage with a world that routinely shuts us down and out.
Thank you, Ryan Coogler, for making 2018 one of the Blackest years on record. We cannot wait for the next one.