Gather ‘Round, Padawans: Panther Pride

c. Marvel Comics
c. Marvel Comics

Been a minute since I wrote one of these. It isn’t that I have been enjoying my comics; there has been a lot of genuinely fantastic stuff gracing the racks at my local the last several months but I’ve written a bunch of Padawans at this point and I didn’t want to bore you all to sleep by repeating myself (or repeating myself again in some cases).

I was supposed to go to local poet, Yona Harvey’s, signing at our comic shop but kids were sick, homework was lagging behind, etc etc and I wasn’t able to make it. I did, however, snag a copy of Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 last time I stopped in (which I didn’t notice at the time was signed, but it is, so yay for that) to which Ms. Harvey contributed and violá! Padawans fodder. Which is hopefully more pleasant than bantha fodder.

The book’s primary story, by Roxanne Gay, is a fascinating look into the training of the Dora Milaje (DOR-ah much-LAH-jay), the Wakandan royal family’s corps of badass, female bodyguards (if you don’t read Black Panther, you may still have been introduced; in Captain America: Civil War, Natasha approaches T’Challa upon his release from custody to recruit him to Stark’s cause; she is confronted by a woman in a black dress who introduces herself with, “Move or be moved.” That would be one of the Dora Milaje). It is also a peek at the opening moments of a romantic relationship between two of the Dora Milaje, Aneka and Ayo, which has significant repercussions in the Ta-Neshi Coates’ ongoing Black Panther series.

c. Marvel Comics
c. Marvel Comics

The part of the book which really caught my attention, however, was the shorter, secondary story written by Harvey and Coates. Again, we have met the protagonist, Zenzi in the main Panther book where she is currently one of T’Challa’s primary antagonists, leader of the revolutionary group The People.

Their goal is to overthrow the Wakandan monarchy. As king, T’Challa is, understandably, not a fan.

Wakanda prides itself on being a tolerant, enlightened, progressive nation. The world looks to it as a mediator and peacemaker. A shining beacon of the best humanity has to offer.

Harvey’s story, however, reveals a stain on pristine Wakanda, a dark spot on the underbelly of the bright light.

Zenzi, we learn, is not Wakandan herself but, rather, from the neighboring nation of Niganda. As a child, she spent much of her time in the Alkama fields, a region bordering both Niganda and Wakanda but under Wakanda’s governance. Young Zenzi was friends with other other who frequented the fields, Nigandan and Wakandan alike, none of them caring who came from which side of the border.

The parents of the Wakandan children, however, did care; at one point a Wakandan mother snatches her daughter away from Zenzi, asking, “How many times have I told you to stay away from that filthy Nagandan girl?” As readers, and observers, we’ve seen nothing but children at play, enjoying one another’s company regardless of nationality. So from whence, then, came the Wakandan vitriol?

Apparently, it came from fear their children would discover a hidden truth: the vibranium which gives Wakanda its wealth, its stability, was first found on land stolen from Niganda, the very fields of Alkama in which Zenzi and her friends played. Lack of wealth, lack of stability, and reliance on Wakanda had, in Zenzi’s mind, weakened her nation and her people, leaving them the victims of a despot who would later massacre her parents. Had Wakanda allowed Niganda to remain intact or, at the very least, shared the wealth, Nigandans would not be left to grovel in the dust.

Thus men, including Wakanda’s powerful and supposedly enlightened monarch, have failed Zenzi and her people. Not even the Panther has done anything to stop Niganda’s descent into chaos.

c. Marvel Comics
c. Marvel Comics

When a group of supposedly enlightened Wakandan men attempt to assault Zenzi, she discovers she has powers that allow her to defend herself and, with the guidance of a mysterious shaman figure, to liberate both herself and potentially her nation.

To do so, she needs to bring down the monarchy of Wakanda.

Here’s the thing. Never once does T’Challa think to ask Zenzi why she is set on shattering Wakanda’s monarchy.

He makes plentiful assumptions: she, like so many others, wants wealth or power or some other prize. She is jealous or jilted or resentful.

But Zenzi doesn’t want power or wealth. She’s not jealous nor jilted, nor resentful. Her rebellion is not intended to bring her gain but to destroy prejudices and misconceptions which have harmed her people and made them the target of their supposedly enlightened neighbors.

We all have prejudices and preconceptions. Humans like neat boxes and predictability, both of which served to keep us alive when we were still knuckle-dragging and tree swinging. An understanding of cause and effect allowed our survival as a species – if you hide up here, the tiger won’t notice you; if you try to run, it will eat you etc. Equating predators with the nighttime and shadows prodded us to build shelter and use fire.

But we are now well into the 21st century. We’re supposed to be civilized. We’re supposed to have moved beyond animal instinct to a higher understanding. Many of us are safe from such concerns as apex predators and scavenging for food.

Our attitude, our measure of other people, should have evolved as well.

It hasn’t. Not really.

Epic fail, humanity. Epic. Fail.

Prejudice carries a more negative connotation while “preconception” is more neutral but, in truth, they’re the same thing: an assumption about who someone is or how they’ll behave based on a single trait such as nationality, skin color, or gender. Are all prejudices/preconceptions bad? No, not necessarily as discreet entities divorced from human action though many of them certainly are. Many of them have done great harm over the centuries. They have been used as rationalizations for massacres and wars and slavery. Can humans know everything, understand everything, be flexible everything all at once? No. We’re born blank slates less certain reflexes. We learn through experience and interaction, time and trial/error. We don’t, and can’t, understand everything and everyone straight off.

That’s why we have higher function, people: to acquire data, to compile it. To synthesize and analyze. This is why children are inherently curious, why they’re always with the “why” and the “how” and the “why” again. This is why we get earworms and develop fascinations. This is why we tell stories and read books and make art.

To learn.

Everyone has prejudices and preconceptions.

The problem comes when we refuse to acknowledge their existence. When we let some sort of bizarre social pressure or internal moderator tell us we should be ashamed of ourselves for having a thought. When we run away from it instead of confronting it, examining it, pulling it apart, and throwing away the scrap.

The problem comes when we, like the Wakandan mother who forbade her daughter to play with Zenzi, remain willfully ignorant.

When we remain willfully ignorant.

Why would anyone choose to do such a thing? There are a litany of reasons: fear, concern about giving offense, lack of experience, closed upbringing, religious belief. Etc., etc., etc.,  ad nauseum.

Those are explanations.

They are not acceptable rationale for failing to realize you have a gap it may take an effort to fill.

You cannot live in someone else’s shoes but you can at least make an effort to examine their footsteps. To discover what you don’t know and admit your shortcomings not only to yourself but also to your kids. Teach them it’s okay not to know things provided, once you realize you don’t know, you get off your butt and go find out. As long as they understand the world is bigger than you, bigger than them and it’s wonderful and terrifying and worth making time for, and the people in it are worth getting to know. That it’s our responsibility as human beings to make the effort for one another, friend or enemy or stranger.

We may not always agree nor is it necessary we must. One of the reasons the world is such a miraculous place is it has room for all of us. What we need to learn to do, though, is agree to disagree provided the opposing opinion isn’t exclusionary or based on hate. Those things? They’re ignorance plain and simple, an unwillingness to afford other humans the courtesy of viewing them as such.

There’s no place for that.

c. Marvel Comics
c. Marvel Comics

That’s me taking a stand. That’s me teaching my children to take a stand. For what’s right, even if it’s scary, even if it’s difficult, even if it means people treat you differently or call you a freak or exclude you because you insist on protecting the rights of someone of whom they’ve chosen to remain ignorant.

I am a nasty woman and I am making nasty next generation.

The world is counting on us. Break down barriers. Ask question. Teach others what you learn even if you have to yell at the top of your lungs. Even if you have to say it a thousand times. Even if they ignore you or berate you or walk away. You have the right to question. You have the right to learn.

No one has the right to hate.

So stay nasty, people.

We have work to do.