Relationships with the Dead
Most Americans are used to thinking about the afterlife as a binary. People who obey whatever requirements their religious leaders tell them are necessary for entry get a one-way ticket to neverending bliss. Those who disobey get banished to outer darness, to live in unrelenting shame for all eternity. This configuration of the afterlife gives religious leaders a great deal of power to dictate what is acceptable behavior for the living, which comes in handy if you’re trying to control and subjugate large groups of people. For us, the Wakandan belief system, or cosmology as we’ll call it from here on in, is a completely different way of thinking about the afterlife. While many Americans believe that we can talk to our loved ones after they die, very few will admit they’ve ever heard anything back. When you come from that worldview, the relationships that Wakandans have with their ancestors might seem like just another plot device in a movie about superheroes, but Rev. Yolanda Pierce, Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity tells us that there’s more to the story:
In African worldviews, the ancestors have a functional role in present life and must be honored long after their deaths. The veneration of the ancestors in African cosmology rejects a hard wall of separation between the living and the dead.
The ongoing relationship with the ancestors grounds Wakandan leadership and informs their decision-making with a sense of interpersonal responsibility and historical context. In such a cosmology, there is no need for the reward-and-punishment narrative. The anti-hero Eric (“Killmonger”) gets to spend time with his father when he is crowned king, despite the fact that his behavior has been out of alignment with the Wakandan norm of harmony and balance. Despite his terrible mistake in leaving the boy Eric behind, T’Challah’s father, King T’Chaka stands among his venerated ancestors. There is no externally imposed punishment for either of them, they must simply continue to exist with the consequences of their actions.
Wakanda isn’t the only ancestor-venerating society we’ve seen on big screens lately
In each of these stories, the hero’s defining choices are vulnerable ones. T’Challah must take on his challengers without the benefit of powers conferred upon him by the heart-shaped flower. He must take greivous wounds and be buried as if he is dead in order to walk on the ancestral plane and meet with his father. At the film’s end, he must make the choice to reveal the truth of Wakanda’s resources and technology to the world; knowing that he will face a world in which the pattern of white colonialism and resource theft has been the dominant narrative for centuries. In Coco, Miguel refuses to take a blessing from his known ancestors that would allow him to return to the land of the living because it carries the condition that he never play music again. He would rather risk having to remain forever in the land of the dead than give up music, and so he strikes out on an uncertain path to find his musician grandfather and get an unconditional blessing. Moana honored the call of the ancestors in her blood, despite her people’s fear of what lay beyond the reef. She drew strength from her grandmother and continued on her quest, even after she lost help from Maui. At the end, she walked straight up to a fire breathing monster and met her with compassion in order to restore the proper balance of nature and save her island, her people, and the entire South Pacific.
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The depiction of the Wakandan ancestral plane that started off this post was drawn by Redditor tinylojo.
To learn more about the how “Black Panther” is reflective of African cosmology, check out this article by Rev. Yolanda Pierce.
The depiction of Mohana with her grandmother’s ray spirit was drawn by DeviantArt user SolidBubble.