Rip Off the Racial Mask

Cosplayers portraying characters from the 2018 US superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character, Black Panther pose in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi on February 14, 2018. (Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty Images)Cosplayers portraying characters from the 2018 US superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character, Black Panther, pose in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi on February 14, 2018. (Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

Was this the Promised Land? Black people partied on the escalator. I was going to my seat and asked if the movie was good. “Yooo,” they cheered; a teen mimed a silent explosion from his head. We laughed and slapped hands.

Black Panther is more than a film. For two hours, it lets us leave the imagery of people of color as problems or victims.

The cinema looked like an international airport. Parents in dashikis, posed for selfies with kids in tribal face paint. Young men, flashed cowrie shell necklaces. Women fluffed afros. Here was Black joy. Here was Black pride. The doors opened and the staff scanned tickets like passports to escape the US.

Marvel’s new Black Panther is more than a film. For two hours, it lets us leave the imagery of people of color as problems or victims. Against racist contempt for us or liberal pity, Black America is embracing a nationalist version of Afro-Futurism, in which technology and heroism define us. Even as we wore costumes to the theater, we came to take off our masks.

Faces Inside Faces

Before the film began, I looked at the brothers and sisters in Black Panther costume and thought of my trip to the National Museum of African Art. A year ago, nose near the glass box, I studied centuries-old outfits and ceremonial masks that invited the spirit to possess the wearer.

In contrast, hours ago, I taught in my Harlem Renaissance class a James Weldon Johnson poem where he wrote, “We wear the mask that grins and lies.” It was a magnifying glass for how we, people of color, hide our true selves to survive in the US. Black people have expressed in art the anxiety at biting one’s tongue at racism or clowning to ease white people’s fears. Behind the “mask,” rage poisons the body it’s bottled up…

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