This was not my originally intended blog post for this week, but it has to be written.
Black Panther, the movie depicting the Marvel comic of the same name, marks a cultural shift regarding the consumption of “blackness” and representations of being “Black in a Museum.”
We are familiar with “Black in the (da) Hood”
Maybe even “Black on the Block.”
But a Black person’s intellectual commentary during gallery perusal? Not the usual.
This is why, in a scene that lasts only mere minutes, at least three critiques emerge regarding the experience of “blackness” in a museum space. While watching the movie last week I reflected on the role of museums the American imagination, especially as it relates to young, Black people. *Possible spoilers ahead*
- Museums consume Black material cultural without engaging black people. Museums like with one depicted in Black Panther consume “blackness” by the boatload (pun intended). Museums obtain, smuggle, display, host, monetize elements of the African Diaspora for the viewing and educational pleasure of guests and visitors, usually without grappling in any real way with the experience of those descended from the African diaspora and living all over the world. When we speak of our role as educators, in museums and beyond, I hope that we hold some examples forward from the movie to consider what role we have in dismantling white supremacy and uplifting experiences of Black people- not just white gaze viewing Black history, art, culture, and artifacts.
- Power dynamics in museums can uphold white supremacy. Most educators resist shared authority and instead present the curator or staff member as the expert. The irony of this authority is that it often perpetuates misinformation, and often holds the curatorial voice above and beyond anyone else’s experience. Erik Killmonger, on an afternoon jaunt to the “British Museum of History,” (which looks a lot like the High Museum of Art) engages with a white staff member. She casually sips coffee (IN THE GALLERY) while explaining the historic legacy of artifacts from ancient kingdoms in Africa. Artifact are labeled and shielded in the standard glass display. Killmonger casually engages with the staff member about each artifact. Curiously, she omits how these artifacts landed in glass cases in this imagined museum. Her selected details along with the selective memory of the curator are exactly the indicators that white supremacy is at play. Her dismissal of Killmonger’s possible knowledge about the artifacts becomes her undoing when he reveals to know the provenance and history of an artifact while she fakes authority. There is a larger metaphor in their exchange, the older white woman as expert and the younger black man in his “ignorance,” around so many of our educators attempting to “fake it til you make it,” with unknown histories. We are a field dominated by white women interpreting stories, curating shows, and creating narratives. There are many ways this scene could have ended, but in Black Panther, her posture of power is ended in a parallel reparation to colonization- she dies and the artifact is taken.
- Decolonization may require deconstruction. In the short scene at the museum, the glass case protecting the Wakandan weapon and later the case holding an Igbo Mask are destroyed to retrieve the artifacts after killing the “helpful,” but wrong museum staffer. Security guards rush to the scene and are also quickly killed. As a museum professional, this was uncomfortable to watch. I imagined the staff at institutions being put on high alert as people suddenly sought to reclaim ancestral artifacts, land, art, and garb- a culture war to take back representation. Most of us have been socialized to accept the museums as spaces of learning without every questioning the role museums play in community trauma or in what ways they can perpetuate continued hurt in communities, especially communities of color.
Shuri says it best, “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” Celebratory colonialism has always been a little perplexing to me. We celebrate thievery, misrepresentation, and brutality by naming places after the colonizers/colonists.
This isn’t the first movie to host a black superhero or a predominantly black cast for Disney (Princess and the Frog), or even to honor an alternate universe filled with supernatural characterizations of “otherness” (every “mutant”/superhero/comic themed movie). Black Panther was remarkable in that it took on themes that are instructive to our current American socio-political climate, while featuring many of the people who could be most impacted by our distorted reality- American Black men and women as immigrants and as native. I could go further, but I hold up hopeful lessons to the educators. Blackness is represented in Black Panther as the height of intellectual rigor, technological advance, and communal education that honors community memory.
After seeing the movie, I posted this image of my daughter and I together in the theater, dressed out and made up in support of the experience.
We can imagine our Black in the Movies and hopefully, re-imagine our #BlackintheMuseum.
#UsingAlltheColors #ThenIFreakedIt #WakandaForever
Check out the Visitors of Color Blog on Tumblr for more decolonization!