April 7: “Wakanda Forever” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Critics have long puzzled over the final chapters of Mark Twain’s classic meditation on race in America, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The teenage Huck’s flight from his abusive father and journey down the Mississippi river together with the escaping slave Jim are skillfully drawn, and familiar tropes in American literature. But the end of the book descends into a sort of farce, with the reappearance of Huck’s friend, Tom Sawyer, who is an admirer of high adventure tales, like The Three Musketeers. When Jim is ‘captured’ by the somewhat bumbling local authorities, and locked into a barn for safekeeping while they attempt to communicate with his owner, Tom insists on an elaborate, Rube Goldberg plot to break him out, even though it would be extremely simple for either of the boys to release him at any time. Jim goes along with all the romantic flourishes of this process without comment, with an apparently implicit trust in Tom’s determination to complete this adventure with what he calls ‘style’. In the end it is revealed that Tom has known from the moment of his first appearance that Jim’s owner recently died, bequeathing his freedom in her will. Everyone has a good laugh, and Huck meditates on ‘lighting out for the territories’ as his next move.
Some commentators think that Twain was simply tired of the story, and eager to bring the book to publication, and so finished it with a ‘romp’ that would appeal to his readers’ sense of humor. Personally, I found the final section boring and juvenile, and Tom’s adolescent presence irritating after the emotional development that had unfolded in Huck. But I have now begun to wonder if these chapters are not actually Twain’s most subtle and brilliant critique of racism as a social force beyond the brute reality of slavery. Through the course of their journey down the river, Jim and Huck have encountered challenges and dangers, and have arrived at a personal relationship of mutuality, respect, and care. Huck’s ideas about slaves and people of color have also changed from this experience. When Tom appears, having undergone no such transformation, the contrast is startling. So is the insouciance of his insistence on playing out his adolescent fantasies of heroism without regard to the reality of Jim’s situation, or Jim’s preferences in the matter. Jim’s ‘slavery’ is at that point a fiction, and Tom knows it, but he chooses to gratify his own pleasure in the play-acting, rather than respect Jim’s autonomy and dignity. The black character’s life, safety, and freedom serve as a stage for the realization of the white characters’ impulses, a contrast made all the more stark by the fact that Jim is an adult and a father, while Tom and Huck are still boys, and yet the power of law and society is all in their hands. Jim is expected to be grateful for their “help,” on whatever terms they choose to offer it. Twain centers the experience of the white characters, and does not attempt to enter into Jim’s consciousness; to most white readers, this choice is invisible, and inevitable. But if I am correct in what I now suspect, it is Twain’s demonstration that Jim’s subjugation lies not in his formal legal status as a slave, which can and would change, but in the way his color makes him an object to reflect the dominant culture, rather than a subject with his own awareness and agenda. Tom’s performance of heroism is the opposite of anything that really serves Jim’s interest. Let those who have eyes, see, and those who have ears, understand.
Which brings us to the hidden nation of Wakanda. This invented land, located somewhere imprecise on the continent of Africa, is the homeland of the comic book superhero Black Panther, also known as King T’challa, ruler of the tribes of Wakanda. It is a country composed of both past and future, where the meteorite substance vibranium enables marvelous scientific and technical advances. At the same time, because it was never invaded or colonized by European powers, Wakanda’s heritage of tradition has not suffered violent disruption, so that many old ways and customs continue to be practiced. Women lead armies and scientific research, but kingship is determined by hand to hand combat between rivals at the edge of a waterfall. A secret herb gives the victorious king almost superhuman perceptions and strength, while the Black Panther costume adds its special capabilities to his general imperviousness against attack. It is his hereditary task to protect Wakanda and its citizens from discovery or exploitation by world powers. The land is naturally beautiful and abundant; the urban center is vibrant, peaceful, and prosperous. It is a utopian community, unscarred by the traumas of slavery or the wars of empire. It is safe and intact after centuries, in part because the opinions of white people are irrelevant to its functioning.
Comic books, with their superhero characters, have been read by establishment critics as subversive at least since the early 1950s. The narrative adventure comic magazine, as opposed to compendia of humorous individual cartoon strips, originated in 1938, with the publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman. It was only sixteen years later that the psychiatrist Frederick Wertham published a book, Seduction of the Innocent, which expressed alarm about the imagery of violence, criminality, sexuality, political dissent, and perversion which he claimed were illustrated and advocated in comic books. (Sounds transgressive to me, if you remember our discussion from last week.) Not surprisingly, teenagers were consuming these publications eagerly, and Wertham’s claims inspired congressional hearings into the comic book industry. This resulted in the creation of the self-censorsing Comics Code Association, among whose standards was that criminals must always be punished in the story arc. Many darker ‘true crime’ and ‘horror story’ comics ceased publication at that point, leaving the adventures of superheroes as the dominant form of new graphic narratives.
It was not until the social and racial upheavals of the sixties were well underway that Marvel Comics writer Jack Kirby recognized that while many of their readers were black, none of the heroes was. The character Black Panther premiered as a one-off in 1966, and joined the regular cast of the Avengers in 68. It would not be until 1977, eleven years after his introduction, that the Panther would feature in his own episode, but by then the backstory of Wakanda’s existence was well established. One of the existential conflicts that continually drives T’Challa is whether his secret homeland has a responsibility to share its wisdom or its power with the rest of the world, or if it must remain hidden in order to preserve its uniquely peaceful, prosperous, and black, way of life.
In one way, Wakanda is itself the product of white-centered consciousness, assuming that any essentially black experience or reality must be mysterious and inaccessible to the default of white awareness. The dominant culture looks at Wakanda and sees either nothing, because the nation is successfully disguised, or else something withheld and unfathomable, a colorful combination of magic and the exotic, defined by its otherness, and a power to be extracted and exploited. That is what the colonial gaze always sees.
So as I try to look beyond that dominating-centered perspective, I wonder — if those of us who are white can expand our collective imagination enough to recognize what Tom Sawyer’s foolery about heroism looks like to Jim’s deadly earnest concern for his own real freedom, can we also begin to imagine the significance of a hidden homeland of justice and power to the lives of our black neighbors? I wonder whether the story of Wakanda does not suggest that there is something inalienable at the core of personal and collective black identity; something that neither slavery nor colonialism in all of its forms was able to destroy; something unviolated in spite of the centuries of violation and violence; a source of power, identity, memory, and continuity; and of vision for the future. The European colonists often purported to view themselves as white saviors, bringing ‘advancement’ to people they considered ‘backwards’ by replicating their own home cultures in distant lands, without reference to what the people already living there thought or wanted – much as Tom played out his heroic fantasies without consulting Jim.
Hannah Beachler, production designer for the movie Black Panther, made the Records Hall the central architecture of her visuals for Wakanda’s capitol, the Golden City. When she was asked by an interviewer, Why select such a dry-seeming building as a centerpiece? She replied, “Because the residents of Wakanda know everything about their past”—a privilege that real-world African Americans don’t have—“and that will never go away again in this city. I felt that way because I never knew my history. I didn’t know my ancestry, I didn’t know how far back it went …That was truly the most important thing to me. I don’t have that, but I could give it to others here in this fantastical world.” “This never gets old,” says T’Challa as his spaceship makes the transition from holographic African plains to the hidden metropolis of Golden City.
In the end, of course, Wakanda is, in an important way, not mine. It may have begun as a proposal by white authors inventing a black hero, but in today’s world it seems to have found new resonance in the imagination of black artists, athletes, and young people, as well as movie-goers. The comic book series continues, now written by Ta Nehisi Coates, the best-selling author and journalist, celebrating the on-goingly subversive nature of that genre. I hope Wakanda flourishes, giving roots and wings to the imagination of a black community and a black heritage that claims a rightful place in both American and global culture. I hope that that community identifies and celebrates both the real heroes of its past, and the fantasy heroes of its gladest futures and its most dreadful fears.
Now you may or may not personally be a fan of comic books, or superhero movies, or science fiction fantasy, but the question confronts us as a religious tradition: is the work of recognizing and dismantling racism and reimaging racial identity a religious task? Can you be a Unitarian Universalist with integrity, while setting this particular demand aside? Our Methodist friends recently illustrated what it looks like when this question is posed concerning the full recognition and inclusion of GLBTQ members on a global basis, and it wasn’t pretty. So, do we really want to stir this particular pot? Or, on the other hand, do we actually have a choice? Is there some place of neutrality, in between extending the status quo, or consciously and deliberately resisting the effects of white supremacy?
Many Unitarian Universalist leaders of color are asking us to make the rejection of such supremacy a stated principle of our faith; to affirm that spiritual wholeness is not possible for us as individuals or as a community, if we are prepared to countenance racism in return for the privileges that some of us enjoy, or the comfort of being left alone about this issue. These leaders of color are initiating a process of discussion about adding an eighth principle to the UUA bylaws – a principle that would commit us as a covenanted religious body to build a Beloved Community, and to dismantle the oppressions that reside in our culture and in our individual habits of thought. It would ask all of us to be accountable for this work; to challenge the structures of our institutions, as well as each other’s assumptions and behavior. Even the conversation about whether this new principle would be a good idea is, I suspect, going to make us all deeply uncomfortable.
Probably no one in this room consciously wants to preserve a social structure founded in racial supremacy – if we could snap our fingers and make that aspect of our inheritance disappear, we would do it. I would, for sure, even if I were persuaded that such a shift would come at a significant cost to me personally. Yet dismantling the structures of privilege requires more than good will; it depends on having the imagination to see the world through eyes other than your own. It cannot happen unless we have the capacity to ask creative questions; questions like, if there were a people of color who had never been subjected to colonialism or slavery, what kind of a world would they build? Would it be perfect? Unlikely, I think. Would it be different? It would have to be, surely. What kind of heroes would they inspire? What kind of leaders would they follow? What kind of threats would they most fear? One of the insidious ways in which privilege operates is to make it unnecessary to see any perspective but our own. Those of us who have inherited the privileges of whiteness do not have to ask ourselves or each other these kinds of questions; nothing in our situation makes us do so, and it is even perhaps disturbing to our sense of living in a fundamentally just world if we do. And yet it is a choice that we can make; an act of faith, believing that the world moves closer to that Beloved Community when we reach beyond the safe and familiar assumptions that constitute our cultural default.
The work of the holy – of justice in our communities, and transformation in ourselves – begins in the imagination; in the vision of worlds that do not exist, but might; in the wondering about how another person’s experience could be different from our own. That is how we become agents of creativity and change, by living out stories of possibilities that we imagine together. Thousands of years ago, the exiled children of Israel imagined returning to the city on a hill, Mount Zion, from which they had been deported into a strange and menacing land. That lost city became a symbol of power, identity, memory, and continuity, and a vision for their future. Hundreds of years ago, African people, kidnapped into a foreign continent, into slavery and Christianity, found that message in the Hebrew scriptures, and made Zion their own image of promised freedom and possibility for the future. Wakanda and its Golden City is one more in a long line of those envisioned places, that exist only in the hopes of the oppressed, to which we travel only by the power of imagination, which we build into reality by our choice to do the challenging work of dismantling privilege in the service of beloved community. To celebrate its beauty, and acknowledge its claim on us all, is the first step.