Spoiler warning: this blog post assumes that the reader is familiar with the Marvel Universe movie Black Panther, as well as Disney’s Coco and Pixar’s Moana.
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 darkness, to live in unrelenting shame for all eternity. (This configuration of the afterlife gives religious leaders a great deal of power to control the behavior for the living.)
In Wakanda, the beloved dead are in ongoing relationship with their decendants through the impact they have had on our lives. In the early scenes of the movie, Prince T’Challah returns home after his father’s death. After the ritual combat that precedes his becoming king, he is buried by the tribe’s elders and has a vision of his father and other ancestors on a spiritual plane called Djalia.
For Americans who aren’t aware of African viewpoints – or cosmologies, as we’ll call them from here on in – the Wakandan approach to relationships with the beloved dead 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 in Djalia with his father, 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, alone in the racist world outside Wakanda, 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
whiteness is an immortality project
Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that all of our behavior is motivated by the basic fear of death. Becker introduced the concept of the immortality project to describe any human effort to create a legacy that outlasts us – be that preservation of our biological offspring, development and promotion of a body of work, or dominance of one culture over another.
Humanity is now at a point where we have the technology and skills to support a decent standard of living for everyone – whether they come from West Virginia, Wakanda, or anywhere else. We just need to stop using our precious resources to raise armies and build the machinery of war. Unfortunately, our tendency to interpret everything through the lens of scarcity, tribalism, and competition is difficult to unlearn because our brains evolved when our only immortality project was getting sufficient calories from nuts, berries, and whatever we could hunt while avoiding saber-toothed tigers.
The white supremacist system of colonialism, slavery, and genocide its legacy of systemic oppression, resource hoarding, and ongoing tribalistic competition is also an immortality project. How else to you explain the ongoing white supremacist obsession with creating a “pure,” superhuman race? A white supremacist cosmology is built on the belief that if they just steal enough resources and deploy them with enough scientific competency, they can achieve an indefinite life expectancy.
Fat acceptance activist and health blogger Michelle Allison outlined the crucial connection between the body shaming that was constantly coming at her from the white supremacist corners of the internet with this concept of an immortality project:
It was so obvious that people constructed hierarchies of “better” and “worse” people (along lines of body weight, presumed lifestyle choices, and other health indices) as a way of convincing themselves that they wouldn’t ever do something as gauche as GET SICK AND DIE.
The immortality projects that fascinate me are the ones that create systems of inequality, and use the strategic oppression and marginalization of a group of people as the foundation upon which those who think of themselves as superior can stand and reach for eternity.
Human beings can (and should) continue to look for ways to save lives from ending prematurely and to expand everyone’s quality of life; but we will never find a way to preserve our bodies forever and we should stop trying.
One need look no further than the personality changes reported by donor heart recipients to get the sense that perhaps our full consciouness is inextricable from our embodiment. Anyone who aims to have their consciousness uploaded to the cloud before they die needs to be reminded that our bodies, not our brains, are the storehouses of our emotions and memories. When we accept this and sit with the discomfort it provokes, we can change our focus from infinite survival to compassion for one another’s suffering and cooperation to set the next generation up for success as we travel together towards the end of our lives.
In Black Panther, 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 chooses to reveal Wakanda’s resources and technology to the world; knowing that he will be exposing his country to the pattern of white colonialism and resource theft that has been the way of things for centuries.
In Coco, young Miguel wants to be a musician, even though his family forbids it. He runs away from home and steals a historic guitar, invoking a curse that sends him to the land of the dead, living body and all. He refuses to take a blessing from his 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 his soul’s highest expression, and so he strikes out on an uncertain path to find his one distant musician ancestor and get an unconditional blessing.
In Moana, a princess of the Pacific Islands must honor the call of the ancestors in her blood, despite her people’s fear of what lies beyond the coral reef that surrounds their island. She draws strength from her relationship with her grandmother and continues on her quest, even after she loses help from the trickster demigod Maui. At the end, she walks straight up to a fire breathing monster and meets her with compassion in order to restore the proper balance of nature and save her island, her people, and the entire South Pacific.
In contrast to the white supremacist ideal of the immortal ubermensch, these stories of character-defining vulnerability all come from nonwhite worldviews; from cultures that “reject the hard wall of separation between the living and the dead.” With their embrace of vulnerability and ongoing relationships with the beloved dead, these stories emphasize our obligation to be good to one another as defined by a healthy relationship with our own mortality. This is precisely why representation of all human cultures in mass media is so important; because we become better and stronger as a whole species when these kinds of stories are told.
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.
Passing the Hat
In previous posts, I’ve argued that toxic whiteness is rooted in perfectionism and fear of vulnerability, and that white supremacist authoritarianism is that perfectionistic narcissism writ large. I will continue to write around this theme.
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