What Wakandans know about dying that will change the way we live

What Wakandans know about dying that will change the way we live

Spoiler warning: the following post contains massive spoilers for Black Panther, as well as Coco and 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 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
Pixar’s Coco told the story of a family trauma that could only be laid to rest when a young boy’s love of music lead him to accidentally cross over to the land of the dead.
Disney’s Mohana showed us the strength a young woman continues to draw from her relationship with her grandmother after her death.
Vulnerability Wins

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.

Nonwhite Narratives
Just in case you hadn’t noticed, all three of these more vulnerable approaches to death come from nonwhite worldviews. This is part of the reason why representation of all human cultures in mass media is so important; because we become better and stronger as a whole species when everyone’s voices are heard and everyone’s stories are told. 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’m working on more posts around this theme and would love your support as I continue my work.

Emotional Labor

Writing songs, speeches, and essays, researching and synthesizing information, and organizing and performing at protests are all emotional labor. Please consider making a contribution to my work.


Hat Tips


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.

We Shall Not Be Moved

We Shall Not Be Moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved

Just like a tree that’s standing in the waters

We shall not be moved

I did not write “We Shall Not Be Moved.” It’s been around since at least the mid-1800’s. While the copyright was granted to two white male gospel composers in the early 1900’s, the standard line is that “nobody knows” exactly how long it has been around. To my ear, “nobody knows” sounds an awful lot like, “this song was written by an enslaved person, but in America we don’t talk about slavery unless there’s no way to avoid it, so we’re just gonna leave it mysterious.”

Barring the discovery of new original documents or the invention of time travel, the name of the original composer is lost to us; but we do know that the lyrics are inspired by Jeremiah 17:8:

They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

When I think of the composer, I imagine a black woman sustaining her spirit in the face of the sadistic and dehumanizing conditions of slavery by drawing on the certainty of her immanent human value; just like a tree whose taproot draws on pure, nourishing water from deep beneath the earth. Her voice spread that nourishment to anyone who could hear her. The magic she spun has sustained generations.

While I will never know the horrors she faced, I have often turned to music to save my own soul when faced with dehumanization and objectification, both as a young girl and as an adult woman. I honor the memory of this ancestral songwriter and express gratitude for the gift she gave us in the spirit of human survivorship and commitment to overcoming all forms of oppression.


On August 13, a white supremacist group held a rally at Westlake Park. A group of local activists staged a a huge counterprotest that started at Denny Park. Our plan was to march to Westlake and confront the white supremacists.

We found ourselves in a standoff with Seattle Police Department at the corner of 2nd and Pine. The police did not want us to get to Westlake and began firing off flash bang grenades and pepper spraying people. They threatened to arrest us all if we didn’t clear the intersection.

Instead of obeying, several hundred of us took a knee and began singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” I was completely terrified. It’s not easy to disobey a direct order from a phalanx of heavily armed riot cops, but the act of singing with my fellow activists made the situation not only tolerable, but uplifting.


Over the next few days, with the protest still buzzing in my mind, I began to improvise with the main theme of the song. After several revisions and reflecting on our national moment, I crafted an adaptation of “We Shall Not Be Moved” that I’m very proud of. Here is an early rendition.

I’m proud to be recording my adaptation of “We Shall Not Be Moved” with producer Maurice Jones Jr. of Very Juicy Entertainment. I can’t wait to share the finished version with you.

If you think this is cool and you want to help, your support would be very much appreciated.

The story of “We Outnumber Him! Resist!” and what comes next

After the election of 2016, American morale was in tatters. Many of us felt helpless, which can easily lead to despair and disengagement; and a despairing, disengaged populace is what authoritarians like best.

To keep our own morale up, Noah and I organized some friends. Together we purchased a three-hour advertising flight over New York City on Inauguration Day. The plane towed a banner that read, “We Outnumber Him! Resist!” (A tagline crafted by my brilliant friend Baratunde Thurston.)

People loved it. Photos went viral. Videos were shared around the world. It helped set the tone for a weekend (and year) full of protest against Trump and the forces that put him in office.

This image, posted by Adria Quiñones, was retweeted tens of thousands of times. and inspired Dylan Meconis‘ artwork, which we’ve put on tee shirts, bags, and covfefe mugs. (Use discount code UNITEDWEWIN2018 in January for 10% off your entire purchase.)

After Gothamist was the first major site to run photos, I contacted them and gave them this statement:

We chose this message because Americans are currently debating whether we should focus on the economic concerns of whites who feel marginalized by economic and social changes that favor diversity or the ongoing struggle against systemic discrimination faced by women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, and others. This is a false choice and is keeping us distracted and divided while Trump and his fellow global elites consolidate their power. We need to realize that a nation that values some people above others – be that whites above people of color, men above women, or rich above working class – can never be truly free. It is only when every human being is represented and cherished equally in policy, economics, and social dynamics that we will have achieved the “more perfect union” our Constitution aspires to. “We outnumber him!” is a battle cry for that more perfect union.

A year later, that message is as important as ever. We’ve launched a Patreon for Resistance Air so that we can continue to use aerial advertising and other paid media to make our protest message heard. The goal of this project – and indeed of all my projects – is to engage and inspire anti-Trump white folks and then expose them to intersectional thinking. Ideally, a whole new wave of white people will become as excited about dismantling systemic white supremacy as they are about removing the orange menace from power.

As for what’s next…

Have a great Women’s March, New York! With love from Tae and friends, from sea to shining sea!

Emotional Labor

Writing songs, speeches, and essays, researching and synthesizing information, and organizing and performing at protests are all emotional labor. Please consider making a contribution to my work.



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