post originally written around March 2018
I was about ten years old. For weeks, I had been building up the nerve to cross over into the adult side of the public library. My mom was over there searching for a book. I still remember the slow walk across the taupe tiled floor. I cast a furtive glance over at the librarians at the circulation desk. My small hand touched the cool door frame. No one yelled “stop” or “adults only.” I took a deep breath and I pushed against the glass door.
The silence. Even know, I remember the silence that pressed against my ears. I shot a glance at the librarian behind the desk. He didn’t stop me. I took in my new, unfamiliar surroundings. Wooden and metal bookshelves taller than me. Taller than anything in the kids section. The 70s style furniture. A room awash in shades of brown. One section, to the right of where I stood, reminded me of a living room as two men sat reading the paper. To the left of me were large, long tables. I stepped further into this new space wanting to run away, flee back to the kids section but then I saw my mom. The sight of her made me feel better so I went to her.
She was still looking for her book and slightly in a huff because I had ventured over to the adults side. She told me to keep myself busy but not to touch anything. I didn’t roam far from her instead I scanned the shelves looking at different titles. Bored out of my mind.
Then I came to these plastic bins. There were so many. They were full of laminated white card stock. As I flipped through them, I saw new titles. I pulled out a card stock to see the image of a movie poster. I grinned.
I hungrily flipped through them trying to find something, anything that looked interesting. I had almost given up hope until I came to “S.” Star Wars: A New Hope
When my mom found me again, she mentioned that it was part of a trilogy so there were three movies total. She helped me find them. I pulled the card stock and walked with my mom to check out Star Wars.
I went home and watched all three in one sitting.
By the time I was 12 years old, my mother was dropping me off at the mall to see movies by myself. Between 10 and 12, my momma went with me. Something to keep her rambunctious youngest child busy following church when my entire family wanted to eat Sunday dinner and then nap. Every Sunday, like clockwork, we went to the movies. By the time I was 12, she deemed me old enough to be dropped off. She gave some change to use the payphone to call home when I was ready.
When I would get home, I would take the movie tickets and put them in a red velvet earring box that I kept for the occasion. I’d place my movie stubs in there and clap it shut.
Cut to nine years later, I was returning home for the last time to sort through my childhood belongings. The house filled me with sadness. My mom had died a year earlier and now I had one chance to grab what I could from my room before my dad threw it all away. That velvet box still sat on my dresser. I opened it to find it stuffed with movie stubs ready to explode out. I marveled at all the movies I saw as a kid. The low prices of movies. But also my mom.
She sparked the creativity inside of me and stoked the flames throughout my childhood.
Why should you care? Context. It gives invaluable context to what I will say next.
From an early age, I drank up movies. I greedily absorbed them. And in them, I learned the art of storytelling. What it means to tell a story. What worked, what didn’t, and how that mediocre story could have been improved with changes. Some read books. I watched movies.
Within that, I absorbed the Hollywood image. The white leading man or woman. Seldom did I see myself or anyone I know portrayed on screen in any substantive, meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed Color Purple, Harlem Nights, and Waiting to Exhale but I experienced those movies between childhood up to my early 20s. There are things, jokes, and situations you don’t fully grasp because of your age.
Then came Black Panther.
In a crowded, family-owned Mediterranean restaurant, I wanted George, my fellow cinephile and white male friend, to shut the fuck up. We had just come from seeing Black Panther. I sat in the small maroon-colored booth bedecked in my long orange and green African print skirt paired with black power earrings and a black shirt with white words emblazoned on my chest:
-Harriet Tubman, 1849
He jabbered on about the elements of the movie and the performance of the actors. I heard snatches of it. My ears momentarily perked up at the mention of T’Challa or Okoye but I had retreated inward. Processing and reflecting on what I had experienced. Not watched. Experienced. It wasn’t the cinematic experience of seeing Star Wars as a kid or even the first Avengers movie. This was something else.
In Okoye, I saw my sister. Her determined stance and stern face but also the compassion that belied it. Interestingly, my sister is a soldier with over 10 years in the U.S. Army. My sister has seen war. My sister graduated in 2000 and promptly enlisted in the army. Then September 11, 2001 happened. I sat in my 11th grade English Lit class taking a test when my A.P. History teacher, Mr. Ervin burst into the room.
“Turn on the tv, now,” he barked at my teacher. We chuckled amongst ourselves thinking what craziness is Mr. Ervin doing. My teacher turned on the TV to the channel Mr. Ervin specified. We sat watching. The plums of smoke emanating from one of the towers.
Then the second plane hit. Silence.
Somewhere, right at that moment, my sister was on a plane.
It was two days before we heard from her. She was OK. Her unit had landed at their layover in Ireland when they heard the news. Soon after, my sister was deployed to Afghanistan and then Iraq. She missed my 2003 high school graduation because of it. When I was a freshman in college, I remember her crying on the phone because all she wanted to come home. The bubbly (still mean) sister changed. Still my sister but different. She had seen some shit. That’s what I saw in Okoye.
In the playfulness of T’Challa and Shuri, I saw my brother. I think of summer time. Summertime is when we had our fun. At 16, with his first paycheck from Burger King, my brother bought himself a SuperSoaker and two smaller ones for my sister and I. We had a water gun fight in the house.
I remember the inflection of his voice when he calls me “nerd” or, his personal favorite, “beanface.” A few months ago, I saw my big brother and sister. In those moments, where it was was the three of us (no kids underfoot or spouses), I relished in being their little sister. I missed it.
That is why I needed George to shut up. I wanted to luxuriate in the magic, the glory of being seen. To distinctly see the people I know, love, and respect reflected on screen. Not only that, black people thriving and not suffering (for the most part). I didn’t know how much I needed to see that.
It’s that image that drew black audiences to see it multiple times. I kept saying I wanted to see Black Panther a second time. I blamed my failure to do so on the fact I was busy. Friends, that’s not it.
I wanted (and still do) to hold on to that feeling for as long as I can because I know, once I see it a second time, my inner cinephile will come bursting forth. Over 20 years in the making, I can spot a good story. I can spot the holes. I can see the cracks in the foundation.
I want to admire the house for as long as I can before I notice that it may not be as perfect as I think it is or hope it to be.
As a people (speaking to my black folks), we’re still striving to be included at the table, in the conversation. That for one person to succeed is a success for us all. But all too often, we can overlook the cracks. The problem spots. Only the brave speak out on it early. Sometime after seeing Black Panther, I listened to an episode of #StillProcessing, a culture podcast. The two hosts raised the issue of critiquing black art. When will we get to that point where we [meaning black people] critique our work? Not to tear it down but to learn from it and as a result improve upon it.
I nodded along because in their conversation I realized the aforementioned point. I staved off watching the movie because I knew I would have a more critical, less emotional eye on it. And if I did find the cracks, what the fuck was I suppose to do with them?
Critique a commercially-successful move with such meaning to the black community. Deal with the potential blowback. The misygnoir that would (inevitably) rear its ugly head. Yet have black people who will slide in my mentions or DMs to say they privately agree with me. Have my words twisted and weaponized used by white people to say “see this black person didn’t like it.”
Or, more personally, say to my family, I liked it but...and prepare for the clowning I would get. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m overthinking it but reality tells me I’m not.
Black Panther gave us a glimpse of a world where black people are prospering and thriving. It imagined a different way of life. It gave hope.
Who am I to undermine that?
At least, I mean, for now.