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Build Bridges, Not Barriers: Black Panther and the Enduring Chasm between Africans and African Americans

By Stephanie Shonekan, Art, Music, and Pop Culture Contributing Editor

“The wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers,” King T’Challa tells the United Nations at the end of Black Panther. This sentiment resonated with me throughout the film. I was not thinking of the different world powers coming together on an equal footing to help each other and share resources. This is improbable and untenable in a hierarchical world where we still consider some countries third world and some first world. In this light, T’Challa’s statement is simplistic and cheesy. But as I thought about the relevance of this statement for the chasm between Africans and African Americans, it grew in profundity. 

Like most black folks I know, I have seen Black Panther twice — once with a large group of African American friends and colleagues, and the second time with my Nigerian husband who is not really a moviegoer. The discussions after these two viewings were very different. With the first group, we celebrated seeing so many black people in one film. We marveled (no pun intended) at the fact that the screening we had attended was sold out in our predominantly white college town. And those beautiful, dark-skinned, “Grace Jones like” chicks on the screen were a triumph!

On the other hand, after my husband and I watched the film, our ensuing discussion was sobering. We wondered if as many white folks would go watch a film about “the real Black Panthers,” and we had a long talk about the depictions of African traditional religion, reverence for the ancestors (particularly on the African continent where the Abrahamic faiths have attempted to uproot this tradition), and the fact that we heard both Hausa and Yoruba spoken at different parts of the film. Mostly, we discussed the enduring chasm between Africans and African Americans, signified in the film by T’Challa, the Wakandan-born prince, and Erik Killmonger, a first generation American born of a Wakandan father and an African American mother, which is a very familiar real-life scenario.

As Nigerians who have lived in the United States now for almost twenty-five years and whose children were born and raised here as Americans, we have had many discussions about the nuances of our black identity and the fractures between groups of black folks. In these conversations, a recurring theme revolves around our susceptibility to the tactics deployed by Europeans to colonize and enslave us using a “divide and conquer” strategy. When T’Challa is asked why he would not use Wakanda’s vast resources to help the billions of black people around the globe who are suffering, he replies, these “people are not [their] own”—divide and conquer, alive and well.

When T’Challa embarks on a spiritual journey to his ancestral plane, he arrives in the savannah somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. Erik’s journey to his ancestral home takes him to an apartment in Oakland with a “Public Enemy” poster on his wall to signify that this is as far as his history takes him. While it is true that we are geographically and culturally divided because our varied histories have dispersed us across the world, if we were to trace back Erik’s ancestry to his father and grandfather, he may have arrived at that savannah too. Unfortunately, the reality of our collective imagination does not take him there.

In the weeks leading up to the release of the film, I noticed that several of my African family members and friends began to chatter about the film on social media. There was excitement and anticipation, but as the film opened, I began to see comments from Africans complaining about minute details: that the accents used in the film were not quite accurate; that there was too little or too much kente cloth on the screen; that outfits were not properly representative.  These comments left me irritated as I wondered which of the thousands of African accents would be acceptable.

But it was the comment from a friend who complained about the pictures he had seen of African Americans wearing dashikis to the screenings that gave me the most pause. Why should they dress like that when “they don’t know anything about African culture,” he asked. I gently pushed back, asking him if the scores of Nigerians I had heard using African American slang and other cultural artifacts knew anything of African American culture. He admitted there was a void there too.  He added that he knew many Africans in the US who had been ridiculed by African American classmates for simply being African. This resonated with me as I remembered an occasion when one of my children had experienced similar ridicule. The miseducation and non-education of each other is real, the divide wide. Klaue, the illicit arms dealer, is right when he warns Killmonger, who he refers to as just another “crazy American,” that the African Wakandans would never accept him. “You’d just be an outsider,” he warns.  Also, Erik’s father fears his son “may not be welcome” in Wakanda. “They will say you are lost.” These statements are tragic and difficult to digest but yet accurately evocative of a disfigured cultural history.

While I don’t think films like Black Panther can do the job of filling this void of education about each other, I would say that the film offers opportunities to expound on African and African American culture. For instance, when Nakia and T’Challa rescue the truckload of young women who have been kidnapped by militants, and we hear the militants speak Hausa, it is an opportunity for African Americans to learn more about the real story of the Chibok girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria in 2014. So that when the same thing happens again, as it did just last month when Boko Haram stormed a girls’ school, we are not only alert and aware, but also watchful to make sure that the world is paying attention.

Likewise, Africans should be curious about the reasons behind the ravaged urban spaces in post-Reagan America. When Erik’s dad explains his desperation to help the neighborhood gain social justice from unfair incarceration rates and over-policing (i.e. consequences of the War on Drugs), he is dropping knowledge that would help alleviate the ignorance that is often on display from Africans about race in America. In a recent conversation, a Nigerian friend who lives in the US said that we Nigerians don’t have to worry about police violence. I reminded him of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed Guinean immigrant, who had been shot 41 times by four white police officers in 1999.  All four police officers were acquitted. For African immigrants, who are often insatiable consumers and imitators of African American culture, to choose to look away from the enduring problems of systemic inequality and racism that have resulted in real-life versions of Erik Killmonger is dangerous and unconscionable.

“Baba, tell me the story of home,” a young Erik Killmonger begs his father. Throughout the film, my mind grappled with this yearning of a black boy who wants to know about his ancestry. I confess that I shed a tear for Erik – for his fate in the film and for the way he was depicted. In a way, he reminds me so much of my three children, black children of African parents who were born in the Diaspora. Among this large population of “first generation” Americans born of African parents, there is often confusion, struggle, and uncertainty. As parents, my husband and I work hard to set our kids on a path to pride in their heritage, but we also want to give them a clear view and appreciation of African American culture as well as other diasporic influences. They should know of the sacrifices that African Americans have made to make it possible for us to live here.

And, I cannot help adding that this is why fields like Black Studies and Africana Studies are so crucial to our collective future. This is one arena where we can teach, research, publish, and contribute to the vast bodies of knowledge about people of African descent around the world, knowledge that is not only important for black folks but for all of us. The many layers and concepts seen in Black Panther allow us to revisit transatlantic and transgenerational ideas as we excavate fresh revelations about our world. Indeed, to return to T’Challa’s good council, we should all strive to be wise: we should all strive to build bridges.


  1. Nnennaya Duke

    Beautifully written and all points well articulated.

  2. ElleElle

    This a beautiful essay. Thank you for writing it! Respectfully, T’Challa’s name is misspelled throughout. There is no “h” at the end.

    Wakanda forever!

  3. joseph jordan

    love the thoughtfulness of the writer … very refreshing and definitely needed. But I am continually struck by the ahistorical nature of much writing on the relationship(s) between members of the African (writ large) communities and African American communities in various parts of the country, at various moments in history. Nigerian/African American relations in New York or Houston in the 1980’s on, are likely different than those between Ghanaians and African Americans in Philadelphia and DC in 60’s and 70’s. South African, Zimbabwean and other brothers and sisters from the continent have very distinct stories about how they were greeted in various parts of the country during the era of liberation movements when African Americans in many places embraced them openly and with a different political consciousness than is common today. Without being too lengthy, it is problematic to suggest an “enduring chasm” as a theme for a topic that is much more nuanced and in need of elaboration than what is offered here. But I deeply appreciate the commentary … this too is part of that larger conversation.