Why you should care
Because even fictional utopias carry prescient lessons.
Just in case you are not among the bajillions who’ve already seen the movie and helped it smash just about every blockbuster record: There is so much to love about Black Panther.
At the top of my list is the fictional country of Wakanda, a gorgeous, golden paradise in Africa. A man is the king, but he, like the society he governs, is dominated by women. Everyone is beautiful, but individual in his or her beauty. Wakanda was never discovered or despoiled by colonizers, and as a result, its citizens are so safe, prosperous and free that the word “colonizer” appears only as an affectionate jab — at the movie’s token white guy.
If we are not a nation of immigrants and immigrant ideals, then what is it that unites us?
Alas, even the most thrilling movies wear off. When this one did, I crashed hard. I came to the realization, no less devastating for being so very obvious, that Wakanda is but a fantasy. A dream. It literally cannot exist in our world. It is outside history, in another dimension, beyond our ken. A place where people of color are safe, prosperous and free — that is a myth.
Correct me if I am wrong, please. And then help me get a visa.
But utopian fantasies need not be pure escapism, I tell myself. Utopias can also function like mirrors, helping us to understand who we are and what we would like to be. They can give us something to aspire to in our Real and Terribly Flawed World.
In the 1800s, thousands of Black Americans left for West Africa and Haiti, in pursuit of their own Wakandas. They wanted to breathe the air of citizenship too, and in Haiti, the world’s first Black republic, it seemed freely available. The émigrés found support from both white abolitionists, who despaired at their prospects in the United States, and slaveholders, who wanted to free Blacks to move as far away from their plantations as possible. Even the human-rights hero Frederick Douglass was for a time a proponent of emigration.
But Douglass changed his mind in 1862, when the Union took up emancipation as an explicit goal, according to historian Eric Herschthal. Rejecting the idea that “white and colored people cannot live together in peace and happiness in the same country,” Douglass chose to invest his hopes for Black freedom in the United States instead.
More than 150 years later, in our Real and Terribly Flawed Present, it is fair to ask whether the investment has paid off.
Of late, the United States has reversed its stance on the huddled masses who yearn to breathe free: It no longer wants them. It’s preparing to expel some 250,000 refugees who came here on Temporary Protected Status, some as early as 2001, after cataclysmic earthquakes in El Salvador and Haiti. Republican lawmakers are still using the fate of a whopping 1.8 million Dreamers, who arrived here illegally as children, as pawns in a sadistic political game. Broader changes in immigration policy, like moving from family-based migration to skill-based migration, are not just implicitly racist. They amount to a rejection of the idea that we are a nation of immigrants.
This notion is false and frightening. False, because except for Native Americans, all of us descend from outsiders. Our forebears were slaves and strivers, Puritans and escaped prisoners. We remain attached to the idea that someone with no name, a suitcase and $8 in his pocket can find success in America if he works hard enough. And rightly so. Even if it doesn’t really seem true anymore.
Here’s what scares me: If we are not a nation of immigrants and immigrant ideals, then what is it that unites us? It’s not taxes; not even our president will prove he pays them. It’s not fear that our kids will get shot in biology class; some of us think those kids are actors. We might have in common our dislike of Congress — a Reuters poll this week pegged its approval rating at 19 percent — but we seem unable to vote them out. The self-proclaimed pussy-grabber in the Oval Office, who once led the charge against five Black teenagers wrongly accused of rape and now wants to arm schoolteachers, certainly is not uniting us.
I’m starting to feel depressed again. Good thing Black Panther is set to be in theaters for a good long while; it’s time for another visit to Wakanda.