Some of my earliest memories, ever in life, weren’t just moments with grandmother before she died when I was six, nor me carrying a monkey at my dad’s company picnic, but they were knowing that along with Martin Luther King there were men named Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey.
I attended the New Concept Development Center on the South Side of Chicago from ages two-and-a-half until I started kindergarten right before my fifth birthday. The memories of this preschool were steeped in post-Black Power, post-Black Arts Movement ideology that would opt to teach “A is Africa” rather than “A is for Apple.” It was black folks who came together, forming the Institute of Positive Education, a community-based approach to teaching black kids. Kwanzaa, in turn, wasn’t just the pinnacle of celebration in the calendar year, but it was life-principles that were inculcated in our everyday lessons.
I grew up in a household that prominently featured the famous Frederick Douglass quote –“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both”–hanging on the wall in my dining room. My parents bought a big wall map with a mounting that hung on the opposite wall as well. Even though it was a Mercator map with the USSR taking up a large chunk, there was still emphasis put on the map so that I knew where the continent of Africa was located.
There were no pictures of white Jesus, John F. Kennedy nor Martin Luther King in our house, but rather pictures of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and a prominent picture of my mother working on the campaign of the late great Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, both in a photo together. Bookshelves were crammed with books by Haki Madhubuti, Jawanza Kunjufu and Frances Cress Welsing. Book titles such as How the Irish Became White and Before the Mayflower sat in prominence. A red Wesbter’s dictionary with smudge marks on the binding edge next to the desktop was a well-used book. My mother made sure she purchased one that had not erased the word “nigger” from it lest we forget.
This was a household that favored W.E.B. DuBois over Booker T. Washington, not because of elitist musings around the “talented tenth” but because DuBois found a way to incorporate pan-Africanist thought into his ideology in his later years.
My childhood was spent at churches with black members. My elementary school was full of black teachers. (Even the one white first grade teacher I had, we all secretly knew she didn’t handle the education of black boys well. Later, even my seventh grade teacher at another school admitted to me, at the age of 12, that she pulled her son out that school because she didn’t know how to handle black boys. This same teacher threatened to flunk me due to absences when my parents had to have me out of school due to regular childhood sickness plus a bevy of absent days racked up when my grandmother died.) The grocery store my mother shopped at was frequented by black folks. I saw black folks walking on the sidewalks of Stony Island and Cottage Grove. My pediatrician was a black woman who rented an office in Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue. My two pediatric dentists were black.
In some way, the South Side of Chicago was my Wakanda.
Ever so often, the thought experiment of What if Black America Were a Country? pops up into the forefront of conversation. The Atlantic in 2015 took on the challenge and somewhat projected what it could look like. That question was seared into the minds of many after watching parts of Baltimore burn in a post-Ferguson world when it seemed like America was ready to split into two. It was after leaving the theater from watching “Black Panther” and for much more altruistic reasons, I couldn’t help but ask that question again.
While the representation question gets answered to the utmost in this movie—white actors only serve to further the plot and character development of the predominantly black cast of mostly brown-to-dark skinned actors—I hope that a movie such as this can spur the imaginations of black youth to imagine what’s next. Specifically, to imagine a world free from the burdens of white supremacy being the sole fulcrum by which any and every action is dictated.
For those of us who are in the African diaspora of the Western hemisphere, approximately 140 million in the Americas and Caribbean, our entire lives are architected by the constraints and rules of Western philosophical thought. From the moment our ancestors were dragged across the Atlantic ocean, our thoughts and processes have been forged in the furnace European ideology and theology that created race in order to subordinate the existence of those who’s immediate ancestry was from the Africa. As result, much like Killmonger’s character, many of us can only a see and imagine a world that needs liberation. Meanwhile, for the nation of Wakanda, they already living marvelously in their freedom.
If anyone wants to know what liberation looks like, look toward Wakanda. And here in the United States, as black Americans, many of us already have a glimpse of what Wakanda, a nation on a hill, looks like. I grew up with it. It wasn’t some distant country isolated from the rest of the world. It was tangible. It was evident in the cultural institutions I participated in years before #BlackBoyJoy #BlackGirlMagic and even #BlackLivesMatter were hashtags for a black digital world searching for meaning in a hostile American landscape.
My white first grade teacher was a “colonizer” of my childhood. My mother retells the story that when American slavery was first introduced in a Black History Month unit, that at home I told her that the slaves should have escaped to the United States. To which my mother had to tell a disappointed six year old black boy that slavery happened here. My teacher functioned as an interloper in my mostly black world. An true anomaly.
Eventually, I grew up. The South Side-colored glasses of Wakandan innocence faded and I learned how deeply interwoven the tentacles of white supremacy and racism furrowed into the conscience of this country. Still, as a young child, that which Wakanda stands for—unbought and unbossed—was a reality if but for a short time.
My hope, because I do have hope for tomorrow, is that as elders and those with whom wisdom grows with, begin to reach back and ask our youth the very simple, yet foundational question: what does liberation look like? Let that be the words that dictate how to shape a future that’s worth living for.