‘Black Panther’ Has an Important Lesson for All of Us About Identity

‘Black Panther’ Has an Important Lesson for All of Us About Identity

New York Times Feb 21, 2018

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There’s a hard truth about identity that is laced throughout, though never quite stated in, the new film “Black Panther” as well as the bounty of smart commentary it’s elicited.
That hard truth is that identity, in basically all forms, is to some significant extent a fiction. Confronting this can be awkward, controversial and even painful but, in the long run, we believe, can make life better and the world’s problems more manageable.
That might sound like a rebuke to the film’s celebration of pan-African and African diaspora identities. But it’s quite the opposite. What makes the film powerful and important, we think, is its implicit acknowledgement that identity is made up by deconstructing old, colonially imposed identities so as to build a new, better set of identities.
“Africa—or, rather, ‘Africa’—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth,” Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker. The film’s fictitious African nation of Wakanda is, he says, “a redemptive counter-mythology” that is “no more or less imaginary than the Africa conjured by” colonists and their enablers.
All identities are, to some extent, invented. If one has been invented for you to justify your subjugation, displacement, murder or worse, why not invent a better one?
Racial identity is made up, forced into artificial but deeply consequential categories. That doesn’t mean it can’t feel real, or be a source of value or social place or harmful discrimination. It just means it’s artificial and therefore can be imposed or manipulated by outsiders — for instance, centuries of Westerners constructing a black identity that would justify slavery and colonialism.
We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about national identity and nationalism recently, and it’s clear that national identity can also feel like one of the most “real” things in many people’s lives, but it’s made up, too.
Often, national identity is engineered by governments to justify and exert their authority over territory within otherwise arbitrary borders. That identity is then dressed up in mythology and symbolism to make that territory’s unity feel eternal and inevitable.
Most European nations, for instance, began as mere collections of territory whose residents had little in common, including language or race. It’s only very recently that those countries have developed shared languages and cultures that make them feel like a unified whole — like a nation.
Consider this mind-blowing statistic from Eric Hobsbawm, a prominent scholar of nationalism: “The French language has been essential to the concept of ‘France,'” although in 1789” – the year of the French Revolution, the pinnacle of Frenchness — “50 percent of the French people did not speak it at all, and only 12 to 13 percent spoke it fairly well.”
Diaspora identities, such as Irish-American or Nigerian-British, are especially complicated because they incorporate both race and nationality, which they are meant to reconcile but in practice keep locked in tension with one another. Americans know this as the struggle of the hyphen.
“Black Panther” deals, Mr. Cobb writes, with the hyphen in “African-American,” a bit of punctuation fraught with so much history and “dissonance” it could be replaced, he argues, with an ellipses.
Part of the film’s triumph is in deconstructing what it means to be African or part of the African diaspora, building those identities back up into something — symbolized by the fictional, nevercolonized nation of Wakanda — that is just as real, but designed to empower rather than subjugate.
And, perhaps more important, it’s an identity constructed by the people who hold it rather than ill-wishing outsiders. Mr. Cobb calls this “a kind of democracy of the imagination” and a “reclamation” of Africa and how it is conceived.
But that reclamation is possible only by acknowledging that identities are constructed, which means going against lifelong educations telling us that our race and nationality are rooted in some deep and immovable truth. That an identity made in a superhero movie is as good as, and maybe better than, one articulated over generations of real-world abuses.
The right to define oneself, either as an individual or a community, is fundamental. Edward W. Said, the Palestinian-American theorist, called this the “permission to narrate” one’s own experience, which he argued had been denied to Palestinians.
“Black Panther” is an act of defiant self-narration, and therefore a kind of liberation from being defined by others. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are all, in some sense, trapped in identities that were made for us. Most were designed for subtler and less catastrophic ends than slavery and colonialism, if they were consciously designed at all, but all come with constraints and obligations we might not have chosen for ourselves.
“Black Panther” is a spectacular expression of liberation for a spectacular medium, but it’s a kind of breaking free that might have attraction for all of us.

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of All Time

 

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of All Time, Rolling Stone July 01, 2016

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“You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.” Ali standing over Sonny Liston

“I strongly object, Ali said, ‘to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand–either I go to jail or go to the army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice.”

“I represent truth. The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They for me. They not for the system. All the black militants…all your hippies, all your draft resisters, they all want me to be the victor.”

Charles P Pierce: “Ali was a better American citizen than were the people who denigrated him for his brashness, who spat on his religion, who called him a coward because he wouldn’t be an accessory to mindless slaughter.”