Black Panther isn’t a movie, its an experience. I am no fan of superhero movies but as an African raised in the U.S.- it was my red carpet moment. This heightened period of African celebration has been a bellwether for conversations on identity and politics. While plot points served as platforms for said interlocutors – I was stirred by the aesthetics and symbolism of Africa being championed by the film and moviegoers. The Black Panther celebration of “African culture” was confined to what can be poorly amassed as “black” Africa. The material makeup of Ethiopia’s Habesha identity wasn’t forgotten- it was pointedly omitted.
From films cast, moviegoers, critiques and all manners of internet proprietors have been bursting to praise the aesthetics of “African culture”, the colorful, loud and ostentatious- a Nigerian hallmark. The West African flare of moviegoers attire is a reflection of Black American’s lineage and to some degree- access to dashiki inspired clothing. The space and place for this West African celebration is appropriate, what is alienating is this exclusive claim to African-ness. Unbothered by the West African vibes, I wore my subdued white cotton Ethiopian dress to the cinema. The movie matched the ignorance of the “African fashion” commentators. Black Panther’s sourcing of the Wakandan tribes further cementes archetypical view of Africans. In a behemoth of a movie established on the narrative of sovereign Africa, Ethiopia’s highlanders (only thwarters of European colonialism) were not an inspirational launching pad for the films ascetics. Don’t fret, Ethiopia was acknowledged in Black Panther, costume designer Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler drew on the Ethiopian Mursi Tribe for the Wakandan Chai and Tirma people – a peoples making up less than 1% of Ethiopia. To me it was an odious sign of exotification; a search for the bizarre/unfamiliar. In that sense the Black Panther movie was an extension of the orientalizers fascination with the Dark continent.
As a University freshman I earnestly joined African Student Association because ipso facto I am a first generation immigrant from AFRICA. Throughout my tenure, I always had the unshakable feeling that I was just a welcomed spectator. Something about my Ethiopianess just didn’t fit in. The Black Panther sensation surfaced those same sentiments: Do I belong here? The answer is YES- AbsaFuckinglutley. The drift between Habesha’s and Africans – is a vestige of colonial categorizations; Arabian features. The authentic “Afrianness” that the Black Panther fanfare champions has been ascribed by Europeans and does not reflect the diverse makeup of Africa.
Even Ethiopians perpetuate this distinction from “Black Africa”. During a hookah session with my longtime Ethiopian girlfriend- we shared our BP viewing experience & she remarked on the painstaking process of piecing together her Black Panther outfit. I gave her a look of bewilderment- she lives at home and her mom just got back from ET, the girl liberally wears quality netela’s as hair bonnets. She clarified, I was looking for the “Africany” garb. She had worn a strapless sidamo patterned wrap (southern Ethiopian) with shells detailed on the ruffled top. I had worn a modern habesha kemis; a traditional white-cotton dress adorned by limited embroidery hailing from Northern/Habesha Ethiopia.
Black Panther creators delivered Africans and the Black diaspora a film they had been denied. Let’s look at the Ethiopian film landscape; famine, war, rape and innumerable documentaries on fistula’s and female circumcision. While these issues should be addressed, Black Panther was a refutation of the lack of imagination/artistic thought and fixation with morbid subject matter that plagued Western production. Like Ethiopia, Black Americans and other Africans have also been confined to these crippling narratives. We are all Africans regardless of our phenotype– linked together by geography, tangible institutions, and our ceaseless fight for sovereignty from “the colonizer”.