Black Art Matters

About five years ago, I stumbled onto some Afrofuturist art in a market in northern Uganda. I was moving through a maze of kitenge stalls when I came to a makeshift gallery that a young artist had set up in a forgotten corner of the market. One of his pieces was of a dramatic skyline, with arched spires climbing into the sky, draped in tropical vegetation. In the foreground, people in stylized, angular kitenge clothes were walking through a bustling public square. I asked him what it was and he said, “It’s the Kampala of the future.”

In contrast to a lot of antiseptic and tech-centric futurism, his mix of sci-fi architecture, verdant ecology, traditional culture, and civic harmony suggested that the ideal future would incorporate a healthy dose of the past. It reminded me of an aphorism from the other side of the African continent, embodied in the adinkra symbol, Sankofa, which depicts a bird with its head turned backward, retrieving an egg. The Sankofa symbol and word convey the idea that in moving forward, it is important to bring along what is essential from the past.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how Chadwick Boseman embodied this wisdom. He died of cancer on August 28th, at the age of 43, having spent a significant portion of his relatively short career acting through numerous surgeries and bouts of chemotherapy. In that time, he gave beautiful portrayals of Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. His incredible run of biographical performances humanized historical greatness so audiences could better recognize its presence in their own lives.

But embodying and representing greatness in a Black body has never been without risk in this country, even in film. Both Hollywood and the dominant institutions of American society have often stripped particularity from Black experience and expression, portrayed individual triumph as some kind of collective racial redemption, and centered whiteness against all logic. The lives of the men Boseman played spoke to those challenges.

On the other hand, the part for which he is best known subverted those historical realities by imagining a world free from the white gaze. As the Black Panther, Boseman was the charismatic and magnanimous ruler-protector of Wakanda, a hyper-advanced east African nation that had never been touched by colonial depredations. That fictional world was brought to life by a cast and crew from all over the African diaspora. The result was incredible: a work of speculative fiction where Black experience, expression, genius, beauty, and power were unbounded by racism. Visually, it was a lot like that young Ugandan artist’s “Kampala of the future.”

But even with that utopian quality, it was not escapist. Its director, Ryan Coogler, is from Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Coogler’s breakout film was Fruitvale Station, which told the story of how Oscar Grant was killed by a police officer while lying on the ground in Oakland. Accordingly, Black Panther is shot through with historical perspective and righteous indignation. In the closing minutes of the movie, Boseman’s character offers to heal his defeated nemesis, but admits that he would have to spend the rest of his life in prison. The uncommonly complex “super-villain,” played by Michael B. Jordan, responds that he would rather be buried in the ocean, “with [his] ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” For perspective: this was a Disney movie concluding with a reference to the Middle Passage and an implicit critique of the carceral state.

Of course, Black artists have been launching trenchant critiques of racial injustice for hundreds of years. The fact that Boseman and his co-workers did it through a major Hollywood production does not make their work superior to art at the margins of white supremacist societies. That art laid the foundation for this movie. But if the medium is the message, Boseman’s work was a pathbreaking achievement because of the space in which it unleashed such an uncompromising Black artistic vision.

The message/medium of the superhero genre also has a special resonance. When Black Panther was released in theaters, I was taking a class titled “Martin, Malcolm, and Masculinity.” The Monday after the movie opened, our professor walked into class, said “Wakanda forever,” then launched into a discussion of whether Boseman and Jordan’s characters adequately symbolized King and X’s philosophies. It was an interesting class but what stuck with me most was his description of the movie’s effect on his young son. His boy could not believe that he was watching a superhero who looked like him. When I was growing up, I could coast for days off of the excitement of seeing one of my favorite superheroes come to life on the big screen. But I was also accustomed to seeing my complexion heroically represented on the screen. I didn’t know then and I still don’t know now what it is to live life with what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double-consciousness.” So I can only imagine the depth of feeling for Black children who–after sitting through the aggressive homogeneity of Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, and Chris Pine–finally saw Chadwick Boseman save the world.

The next weekend, when I went to see Black Panther, sure enough there was a little boy in front of me in line, probably six or seven years old, already wearing his own Black Panther costume. He was vibrating with excitement. But he wasn’t alone. Standing beside him, his mother wore an ornate dress and head wrap made of kitenge. I looked around the lobby and saw many of the Black audience members dressed in a manner that showed this was not just any other matinee movie in Dorchester. Federico Garcia Lorca called art “water drawn from the well of the people, given back to them in a cup of beauty, that in drinking, they may come to know themselves.” The sense of anticipation in the movie theater dramatized a shameful truth: for hundreds of years now, Black people have offered far more beauty, genius, and generosity of spirit than has ever been returned to them. In this movie, and in Boseman’s on-screen presence, it seemed as though some of that beauty was finally being returned.

His death is a staggering loss. Especially when so many Black people in the U.S. and around the world are demanding that their societies return at least the bare minimum of what they are owed. But it would not make sense to see his death only in terms of loss. Boseman’s art, moving from Black history to Afrofuturism, embodies the Sankofa sensibility: the past serves as an invaluable tool to shape the future. Consider the countless testimonials and memorials to him. Many are from children whose imaginations are fired by the memory of his proudly Black superhero, King of the greatest nation on Earth. Chadwick Boseman is now part of a beautiful artistic past. It will shape a better future.


Ian Ramsey-North is a second-year student at BC Law. Reach him at ramseyno@bc.edu.

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