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'Black Panther' puts spotlight on question of connection

Deepti Hajela, Associated Press | 3/17/2018, 3:43 a.m.
When Jennifer Emejulu went to see "Black Panther," the New Jersey resident didn't feel like wearing any of the traditional ...
In this Jan. 29, 2018 file photo, Danai Gurira, a cast member in "Black Panther," arrives at the premiere of the film at The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Featuring a predominantly black cast, the film that is an ode to Africa - with costuming and sets heavily inspired by African cultures - moved many viewers, including cast members themselves, to dress in African-themed garments for their viewing the film. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK — When Jennifer Emejulu went to see "Black Panther," the New Jersey resident didn't feel like wearing any of the traditional Nigerian clothing she routinely wears for family parties.

She enjoyed seeing photos of those who did come out to see the global blockbuster about the superhero leader of a fictional African nation dressed in their African-inspired outfits, but Emejulu found it a little ironic, too.

"Growing up, we used to get made fun of for being African" by black Americans, says the 36-year-old physical therapist who was born and raised in the United States to Nigerian immigrant parents. "Now ... we're in, we're cool."

In the weeks since its release, "Black Panther" has been a juggernaut — holding the top box-office spot, bringing in more than $560 million domestically and $1 billion globally. Featuring a predominantly black cast hailing from the all over the world, it's an American-made film from an African-American director, Ryan Coogler, that's an ode to Africa — set in the fictional, never-colonized and immeasurably powerful nation of Wakanda, with costuming and sets heavily inspired by existing African cultures.

Its central story pits T'Challa, the Black Panther and king of Wakanda, against Erik Killmonger, the son of T'Challa's uncle and an American woman, who was abandoned in America, and touches on how and whether the country's power should be used in aid of black people globally. Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, feels his father's African homeland should arm black people in global uprisings, while T'Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, questions his country's history of isolationism but doesn't want to see global bloodshed or Wakandan imperialism.

In touching on the questions of what's the connection or displacement among peoples of African descent all over the world, it's put a spotlight on a very real-world issue, one that's been talked about by academics and activists for a century and more and one that's had an impact on how Africans and African-Americans have interacted with each other.

African-American figures including W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X have long invoked a connection between American blacks, descended from those who were forced to come here as slaves and stripped of everything including their cultural heritages, with Africans on the continent and Africa itself, said Jonathan Gray, associate professor at John Jay College in Manhattan.

"For a lot of people who are 'conscious,' there is this tradition where we've tried to discern this connection," he said. "It's an act of diasporic imagination. It's the same act of imagination that allows for a Jew living in Portugal, a Jew living in Brazil and a Jew living in Poland to all think of Jerusalem as their home even though, let's say in 1930, none of them had ever been to Jerusalem."

Some of the context of the need and desire for that connection has been the legalized racism of the systems African-Americans were forced to live under, first slavery and then segregation, for much of the history of the United States, that has made it extremely difficult for most African-Americans to trace their particular ancestries back past a handful of generations in this country.