What ‘Black Panther’ means to a Black baby boomer

Chadwick Boseman is seen in the new movie, Black Panther

Perhaps I should begin by stating that I am a Black baby boomer. This fact informed not only how I experienced “Black Panther” but it also suggests that others will experience it differently. One’s generation, one’s race and ethnicity will inform the experience you have with this film. I also suspect that this movie will have greater resonance for people of African descent than for others.

I want to see “Black Panther” again. No, I need to see it again! A single viewing usually is enough for me with the typical superhero movie. However, this film not only disrupted my notion of the genre but also awakened some deep longings and an awareness of my personal trauma in regard to slavery, or as Dr. Joy DeGruy calls it: “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” I need to dig deeper into understanding what happened to me in that theater.

In her book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” DeGruy defines the syndrome as “a set of behaviors, beliefs and actions associated with, or related to multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans as a result of slavery…PTSS posits that centuries of slavery in the United States, followed by systemic and structural racism and oppression, including lynching, Jim Crow laws, and unwarranted mass incarceration, have resulted in multigenerational maladaptive behaviors, which originated as survival strategies." She writes, “the syndrome continues because children whose parents suffer from PTSS are often indoctrinated into the same behaviors, long after the behaviors have lost their contextual effectiveness.”

I used to think PTSS had nothing to do with me. While it is a provocative theory, my thought has been that I live outside of this particular paradigm. “Black Panther” triggered me to think about how much I have suffered and am affected by this trauma, regardless of how much I have denied it or reacted against it. The moments of exhilaration, sadness, wonderment and awe I felt seeing a world of Black people behaving freely and not needing to justify their existence alerted me to my own dysfunction. 

Since my viewing of the film, I have not been able to stop thinking about it. Not since Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 political drama “The Conformist” has a film so preoccupied my thinking. “The Conformist” spoke to my 20-year-old self’s struggles with identity, sexuality and a desperate desire to fit into a particular world. That world was new to me and one in which I felt outside of and alienated from a world of the late 60s and early 70s, a world of white, privileged people, elite colleges and other selective, rarified institutions of education and culture; of Mayflower descendants and symbols and representations of American exceptionalism. This was a world my family wanted me to fit into, to conform to because for them, it would mean I had escaped, had been liberated and emancipated from slavery and its legacy. That I/we were free at last… But I did not believe it. Unlike the title character of “The Conformist,” instead of conforming, I rebelled.
“Black Panther” reminded me of this. The movie began with all the usual tropes of the Marvel and superhero movies: betrayals, twists and turns, reveals, fights, humor, love and sorrow. Then in a purely visual moment, Wakanda — the imaginary country in Africa that's home of the Black Panther — is revealed. It is a beautiful, awe-inspiring Afro-futuristic vision of a technologically, eco-sensitive advanced civilization. Seeing it, I was filled with emotions. Here was a Black-attributed civilization, a culture unpolluted by chattel slavery and colonialism created using its own natural resources that had been protected from the theft and exploitation of the West. My eyes filled with tears. It was as if some unknown corner of my psyche had been unearthed. Sitting in the darkened theater with my Black extended family, I realized why I had rebelled all those years ago — I had been unconsciously dreaming of, longing for, Wakanda. In that moment, I felt a kind of nostalgia, a yearning for something that never was, that had never existed. There was a glimpse of what might have been, and I felt sadness.

“Black Panther” is rich in its suggestions of possibilities of the way the Black world could have been, how it might be still and how it perhaps needs to be. There is so much there to think about — justice, retribution, compassion, rejection of greed and of unfettered power, generosity, responsibility and duty. It is impossible to unpack it all. “Black Panther” speaks to not only my current notions of whom I consider myself to be but also to my various histories, real and dreamed, conscious and unconscious, worldly and otherworldly; my psyche, desires, hopes and of my trauma.

The experience I had at “Black Panther” was unexpected and I was not prepared for it. I went in thinking, “Ok, I’m going to see if it stands up to the hype.” I am happy to say, for me, it does. Wakanda — and a future world without PTSS — Forever!

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About the Authors & Contributors

Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd is the executive artistic director of Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater.