An unabashed celebration of blackness is on the big screen.
“Black Panther,” Marvel’s latest comic book movie installment, is a superhero hailing from the fictional African nation Wakanda. Black Chicagoans are dressing up in regalia to see the film this weekend. They’re renting out theaters, hosting events, donating tickets to children and marveling in total comic geekdom. It’s joyful to watch the preparation and hear the early buzz about revolutionary political themes running throughout the film. My narrow comic fascination skews toward Wonder Woman and Batman, but my husband and I purchased “Black Panther” tickets for Sunday. We’ve not picked out our outfits yet.
Beyond the entertainment, there’s a deeper cultural message, one that the prideful land of Wakanda trickles down to magical black Chicago. Wakanda has never been colonized. Its king holds a PhD in physics. Women, rocking natural hairstyles, are more than sidekicks. The African nation is the most technologically advanced country on the planet. Wakandan images of blackness belie the Hollywood depictions of African jungles and noble savagery.
Black Panther comic fan Kamasi Hill teaches history at Evanston Township High School. One day he posted on Facebook a bit of escapism by asking friends to declare their ideal Wakandan government job. Hundreds of responses ranged from Minister of Healing Arts to Chief Melanin Officer to Goddess of Strategic Communications to Minister of Liberatory Education to National Spiritual Guide and Old Skool DJ.
Hill’s delightful thread inspired so much creativity that it roused me. I thought similar radical imagination could be applied to Chicago. We understandably place value on what don’t want — racism, police brutality, failing schools, poverty. We rail against injustices, sometimes without defining replacements to those ills.
No milieu is a true utopia but what do we want our communities to look like? How can we boldly reimagine our neighborhoods? What does justice look, feel, taste or even smell like? Wakanda is fantasy but real. In Brooklyn, young people are participating in a Build Wakanda series in which they will work with engineers, urban planners and architects to build model cities of the future. Closer to home, we must spend time in our own world working toward an ideal.
“Black Chicago can get hope from Wakanda,” Hill said. “Ideas of imagination and actualizing ourselves as citizens who can come together and create better communities for black Chicagoans.”
The “Black Panther” movie represents Afrofuturism, a genre that’s part science fiction, futuristic looking while weaving in black history and culture. We see Afrofuturist expressions in literature and pop culture from the late author Octavia Butler and singer Janelle Monae. Some consider Sun Ra, the surreal jazz artist who spent decades in Chicago, the father of Afrofuturism. Chicago is at the forefront of the movement with a collection of black cultural guardians like artists Krista Franklin, Eve Ewing, Nick Cave and Ytasha Womack.
“One of the main things I focus on in my talks is the imagination is a tool of resilience,” said Womack, filmmaker and author of “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.”
“I encourage people to think about the future but also to feel empowered to create one and play a role in that future, whether new technology or telling stories or preserving work.”
When I contemplate a better community, a better Chicago, I envision transit lines that crisscross the city like Paris. A murder-free city. School lunches cooked with vegetables plucked from urban gardens. Empty lots transformed into tranquil sanctuaries. A new tech industry replenishing areas with shuttered manufacturing hubs. Housing affordable for people of any income and all races dispersed throughout the city. Books and art galore. Spiritual sustenance amid dancing, living and loving in our sweet home Chicago.