Note: Black Panther movie spoiler alert.
I attended a friend’s dinner party recently in honor of her birthday. It was an intimate gathering of nine, mostly her immediate family, so I felt privileged to be included. At one point during the dinner, her sister-in-law initiated a ritual in which we went around the table taking turns to share words of wisdom in honor of the birthday woman. Her words in particular stayed with me. And looking back, I see how the ritual she initiated was in itself an embodiment of the words she spoke:
Stand in your power. We got you. We have your back.
She said more, but the gist of it all was summed up in those three short sentences. Looking my friend in the eye as she raised her glass in her honor, her sister-in-law’s words meant something. I could feel the truth of them – I have seen the truth of them in her relationship with her. She, along with her wife (who is my friend’s sister), really do have her back and truly do want to see her “stand in her power.”
Stand in your power. Show [them] who you are.
“Show him who you are!” is a line from the recent movie Black Panther. The line is from a battle scene in which King M’Baku, of the neighboring Jabari Tribe, challenges Prince T’Challa who is to be crowned king that day. M’Baku arrives during the crowning ceremony to challenge the prince for the throne, an act that is within his rights to do, and so T’Challa accepts the challenge. He also begins to lose the fight almost immediately, a violent and difficult scene to watch. But at the very moment when it looks as if he is about to be defeated, he hears his stepmother’s voice, Ramonda, yelling, “T’Challa! Show him who you are!” Her voice is deliberate and powerful. It is a calling, a command, and a reminder that T’Challa is to stand in his power. A power that in that moment comes from him recalling his ancestors.
I am prince T’Challa. Son of King T’Chaka!
The battle then takes a turn and T’Challa regains his footing, overcoming the challenge and winning the throne.
This scene has received a lot of attention. It is a powerful movie moment that the audience has connected with, that has resonated with the heart of a people. It is an affirmation of self, a self grounded in the fact that one has ancestors that “never leave you, even if they’re on the other side,” and a reminder that you can walk tall because you have hundreds, thousands “of generations of souls giving you support and love each day.” And it matters that the actors are mostly all black.
Show them who you are is a call that resonates especially with people who are from a population whose humanity and dignity are systematically and structurally contested. The recalling and naming of one’s ancestors, then, becomes a powerful act of rehumanization for those from such populations. We need the reminder when we continually contend with structural realities that dehumanize us and would keep us from standing in our power. This recalling and naming of our ancestors is also a powerful feminist practice of which Carol Christ writes, describing a ritual of pouring libations and honoring our ancestors:
I am Xochitl Alvizo, grand-daughter of Consuelo Mora, dark, strong and beautiful, from whom I witnessed female strength and nonconformity. I am Xochitl, daughter of Olga, teenage mom, survivor of patriarchy, a woman who to this day keeps charting her own way. I come from a long line of women, known and unknown, stretching back to Africa.
We need our connection to ancestors to regain our footing, to know who we are. We need a community of people who calls us to stand in our power and show the world who we are, even if it continually refuses to see us. Those of us who the media images in ways that repeatedly distort our full humanity and dignity need to have someone tell us, “we got you,” and mean it. We need our communities, and we, especially, need to have each other’s backs.
And yes, broadly speaking, we also need to be able to see each other as one tribe, as part of the same web of life, even while acknowledging the diversity and richness of our respective ancestries and cultures. We can celebrate the life-giving aspects of each other’s cultural inheritances, even as we also acknowledge and critique its violent and harmful parts. We can name both, as this complexity is present in all of our histories.
But damn if it doesn’t feel good to have the power and beauty of black imaged on the big screen. Just like that ritual moment during my friend’s birthday dinner when her family let her know: I see you, your power. Stand in it – we got you; Black Panther does for the collective what that ritual moment did for my friend as an individual, it affirms those who are systematically and structurally denied the fullness of their being and calls out to them, commanding:
Show them who you are!
We got you.
Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and mujerista. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge.