[No spoilers here.]
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been enjoying all of the photos of black folks at various premieres of Marvel’s monumental Black Panther around the globe in all sorts of attires – traditional and cosmopolitan. Suited and booted. Better than Sunday best. I’ve seen black folks connecting to a larger heritage – or at least to the film – through clothing, and it has been beautiful and inspiring. It is a momentous occasion, and I’m all here for it. Now, I don’t own any traditional African cultural printed attire and I was made aware of that when I first heard that people in the group with whom I was to see the film were serious about dressing up as such for this film. The news made me nervous. I didn’t want to wear anything as such because I didn’t want to disrespect any cultural traditions I wasn’t entirely aware of. I probably don’t even have the correct language to speak/write about this. But I do understand that clothes carry meaning. They matter. But I also wanted to be a part of the celebration. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to belong.
The day before I saw the film, I went to get a haircut (because, of course). While I waited for my time in the chair, I walked into a nearby African print clothing store in the mall – a generic one with a slew of pricey photoshopped and framed Obama posters – because I thought for a second that it might be “cool” to do it just this once. As soon as I walked into the store, I totally felt out of place. I utterly felt like I didn’t belong there. I was an outsider in a culturally foreign, but seemingly informed retail shop, in the middle of a ratchet mall in ratchet black Atlanta – a metaspace where I do feel comfortable in my own skin. I walked around the store and glanced the items on the walls and racks. I couldn’t hold my attention on any one item for too long though. But there was this one nice shirt high up on the wall that caught my eye. Black with golden trim. I looked, then looked away within a second or two. I was afraid that someone would think I was interested in buying it, and then somehow quiz me on its significance. Or that someone would see me looking at it and know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and thus silently mark me or publicly “out me” as the ignorant American Other.
Interesting to me was that I had never before seen so many other folks shopping in this store – ever. I could barely walk around without bumping into another black person sifting through a forest of clothes, searching for what I knew would be their own outfit to wear on their weekend trip to Wakanda. But at least they seemed more comfortable in that space than I felt. Or maybe their determination to find something outweighed any such discomfort and anxiety. And so I began to wonder, if I were to buy something now, would I ever wear this item again? (I always think this when buying clothes. Money don’t grow on trees, you know.) Or would it be just for fun, just this one time? Would I understand the meaning of the patterns, the colors, the textures, and the category of clothing I was wearing? Would I take the time to learn? Or would it just be for fun? Moreover, why didn’t I already own any traditional African attires? A friend of mine (at a later time) said to me, in jest, “every black person has some African print somewhere in the closet. They may not wear it, but they got it!” I was almost too afraid to say that I didn’t and never have had anything of the sort in my closet, and I couldn’t say why exactly. I didn’t even consider it, or my lack of it, until this film and the well deserved hype around it. It wasn’t something I understood as lack. I didn’t miss it. I didn’t desire it. I had no serious feelings one way or another toward it. That is, until this moment going into the film.
Now, this is not a critique of other black folks who chose to wear African cultural attires (I don’t even know if that’s the appropriate term) to the film. No. Black folks deserve to have some fun. Go ahead and express some collective joy. Wear what you want to the theater and don’t feel like you will be policed for it. This is, however, simply about me, and of my policing of myself. This is about cultural sensitivity, as an American outsider, and a simultaneous belonging to/distance from the “African” of my African American self. I am both Agent Ross and Erik Killmonger, and I am neither. But I am not T’Challa, the film’s protagonist. That’s where I struggle in my experience of the film itself and its aftermath.
And so, I chose to wear all black, which was my initial decision and my final decision after quickly leaving the African store. I felt overwhelmed by the store and by some pressure to “fit in” with the outward expressions of collective black joy surrounding this film. My choice to wear all black was not unfounded, of course. There is a politics to that as well. But I felt much more comfortable and confident in said choice. (Also, it saved me a lot of money in the process.) I wasn’t alone, as it turned out. Many people showed up in all black. And as you know, black people wear black better than anyone else. It was stunning, and even more so alongside those who chose to wear more traditional African cultural attires. But I wore all black primarily because I felt that I could not responsibly wear such clothing. I wore black because it felt safe. I wore black to avoid risk. I wore black not because it was powerful or some big statement, but because I was afraid and confused. I wore black, I think, as an outward expression of the mysteriousness of my African Americanness among such bold, vivid, and clear representations of what seemed like a shared, but exclusive African cultural heritage. I wore black, too, I guess, because I only had like 24 hours to figure this all out.
The feeling came back to me, again – the feeling of remoteness – when after the film, our group decided to take a photo in front of the now famous Black Panther movie poster. After two hours and fifteen minutes of sitting in the pitch of the theater gazing upon the gorgeous melanin on every inch of the screen in every scene of the marvelous film, I, like many others, was transported out of Wakanda and kicked back into the real world. When we gathered for the photo, I stood (as I typically do) near the side of the group. Subsequently, I’m always one of the ones told to “squeeze in tighter” to get in the frame. Of course, the photographer could always back up a few inches – but I digress. There I was, on the literal periphery of the group photo wearing my neutral all black attire, hoping to avoid notice, while at the same time, attracting unnecessary attention to my presence. But I also found myself policing my attire all over again. I began to wonder, “does what I’m wearing fit in with what everyone in the group is wearing?” I wasn’t too super familiar with anyone in this group, and so I wondered what kind of impression I was leaving. What did they think about my wearing all black? Did they think I was trying to be just as political as they were? Or were they just as confused as me?
But then I saw smiles, and soon I felt joy. I began to realize that wearing black was a choice, and not one born out of fear or confusion, but out of solidarity. It was a choice made from a desire to let blackness, in all its forms, shine on its own terms – whether that be through traditional African attires or through the richness of black skin. It was a chance to belong to a larger consciousness that doesn’t close off but allows the individual to grapple with such questions and concerns. Wearing black became, for me, something like an affirmation of all the complexity I had just witnessed on the big screen – and most importantly, my place in it.