THERE WAS AN IDEA… Seeing Your Culture As An Outsider and BLACK PANTHER

Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot, lately. Not so much the recent past, but the more distant past. My grandparents are very old now, and I regret not sitting down with them to really dig into what life was like for them in Hong Kong when they were children, and what their experiences were like. I regret not asking for certain recipes, and I lament not being able to connect with them in their native language, which may not be useful anyway because time has meddled with both their hearing and sight.

Like lots of Asian-American kids who are from the United States but are seen as “perpetual foreigners,” I am curious about my heritage but I also feel like I’m an outsider looking in. I have history books and articles but I can only approach them with a scholar’s eye, rather than as someone whose ancestry is part of that collective experience. Sometimes, asking about the past causes pain and discomfort in my family, and so I’ve avoided it. Lately, my curiosity has bloomed into an intermittent, full-on desire to understand my roots, which certainly go beyond the United States.

I saw Black Panther during one of these times of desire for connection. I loved Black Panther, but what resonated more and more with me months after watching it was Erik’s story. 

Erik “Killmonger” Stevens’ first scene in Black Panther is in a museum. He’s surrounded by artifacts of his African and Wakandan history, admiring and contemplating them. Ryan Coogler’s statement with this scene is clear: This is a story about a man who finds the status quo unacceptable, and so he decides to create revolutionary change. Black Panther, as we see during course of the movie, isn’t just about T’Challa. It’s about Erik, too.

Erik is at the museum to steal a Wakandan artifact, but before he does, he reveals to the white, British curator that her expertise is rooted in a whitewashed, colonialist veneer. Her confidence in her knowledge crumbles a bit as soon as he tells her the real origins of her precious artifacts.

“How do you think your ancestors got their hands on these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?”

What struck me first about Erik in this scene is his brashness and the subversion of this woman’s expectations. He calls out a fake, manufactured history for what it is; a colonialist fantasy. The second thing that stuck me is that he’s doing so as an obvious product of America and of African-American culture. He doesn’t want the curator to see him as anything other then himself. Her assumptions are her problem, not his.

“Nah. I’m just feeling it.”

Then, I realized that as he’s looking at African artifacts and telling her about the one he’s about to take, that he’s bridging his American existence and his Wakandan ancestry in real-time, understanding the past and how it has led to the present. It’s not something I’ve ever been able to do while looking at Chinese artifacts. I know Black Panther and Erik aren’t real. But how great would that be, to so innately understand that your roots are out there and tangible? That all you had to do was smash that case and wrap your hands around something your own ancestors used. I’d only be wrapping my hands around something mysterious and without context – to me, ancient Chinese pottery is just pottery, and the part of me that recognizes that limitation feels sad and lonely that my awareness is so limited.

Erik was able to finally see Wakanda, and I wondered whether it lived up to his dreams, and I wondered whether he could have just stopped a moment to take in the sights and sounds, walk down its streets, and enjoy being in a place that was not “his” but maybe with some effort on both sides, could still accept him anyway. That wasn’t the movie we were there to see, but I still would have liked to have seen it. I imagine that for Erik, growing up American was both a benefit and a burden. He was built and shaped by America, for better or worse. A genius boy who was given little chance to be anything but angry, provided the tools for destruction by a country that would also imprison him, kill him, or discriminate against him, Erik had every real reason for outrage. It’s just that his plan to foment revolution and turn the oppressed into the oppressors showed that colonialism is a trap. To the end, he fought for what he thought was right, but it cost him the chance to belong. 

For a lot of Chinese-Americans, belonging is an elusive feeling. Sometimes I feel like I exist between realities. One where I am completely American, but I’m not always treated or seen as such. The other where I am seen as not American at all, but am expected to be subservient to white American sensibilities, as some sort of contract for being in my own country. One day, I’d like to walk down the streets my family once used and occupy the same space they once did, just for a moment of knowing where we all came from. Then I’ll come back home, happy to have made that connection and maybe I’ll feel more kinship with my heritage. Until then, I’ll just buy another ticket to see Black Panther, read some more books, and look up plane trips for a very long, overdue journey East.