Last week, Thursday was a major holiday in my world. The atmosphere was already high from the Olympics running in PyeongChang. And it was the Lunar New Year (i.e., “Chinese” New Year, which is a fine name for it if you’re actually Chinese, but pro-tip: maybe don’t repeatedly ask an Asian what they’re doing for Chinese New Year if they’re not, you know, Chinese). And on top of that, it was opening night for Black Panther. (Thank you to the marketing folks who realized that old people with early bedtimes get very excited about movies, too.) And not only was Black Panther just, you know, Black fucking Panther, but two schoolmates from graduate school had major roles in it, one of which was their first movie role ever.
Basically, Thursday night was the night of Turn The Fuck Up.
As you might have heard by now, this was a movie event where the hype did not match the reality – because what was expected was a movie that brought a black heroic narrative into the mainstream and didn’t fuck it up, and what was delivered was many steps above that.
(And here’s where I say: if you haven’t seen Black Panther, stop reading this and go see Black Panther because spoilers and also treat yourself.)
There are plenty of people with insights and opinions about Black Panther who know a lot more about the subject matter and/or film in general than I do. Here are a few of them:
- Black Panther’s Right Thing
- In Defense of Erik Killmonger and the Forgotten Children of Wakanda
- An American Monster in Wakanda
- Nakia, Killmonger, and Toxic Masculinity
- Coogler’s Black Panther Is Black America’s Proof of Life Statement to Africa
- The Most Important Moment in Black Panther No One Is Talking About
- Why Museum Professionals Need to Talk About Black Panther
- The Tragedy of Erik Killmonger
- Dance Theatre of Harlem Was My Wakanda
- On the Blackness of the Panther
My thoughts about Black Panther don’t really matter, to be honest. But what Black Panther means to me does matter, if only to provide just one more example to illustrate how wide-reaching the effect of this movie is.
I’m not sure how many other people who were little non-black POC girls in the early 1990s had this experience, but I remember poring over the American Girl catalog and trying to decide between Revolutionary War era Felicity, the settler immigrant Kirstin, bougie Victorian Samantha, and spunky WWII Molly. The Revolutionary War was already my jam, but immigrant stories touched me in a certain way and also Samantha had the best clothes. So I hemmed and hawed as I tried to decide which American Girl would be the one that went in my letter to Santa.
Then, Addy was released. And I went full Issa Rae:
I did, indeed, become an Addy girl and proceeded to be a Civil War history nerd for a good five years or so, which is a lot of time when you’re in elementary school. And not just within the American Girl oeuvre, either – I’m talking As Seen On TV boxes of historical flashcards, family trips to Gettysburg, hats. I eventually shifted over to the French Revolution, but for me, growing up in a white family in an overwhelmingly white community, Addy had started my connection to black history. This didn’t make me woke by any means but, in hindsight, it raised my awareness and investment above the sadly low mainstream level.
Now, let me pause right here and emphasize that I have no claim to either the historical trauma of black people in the United States of America or the present-day injustices still endured. I may feel drawn to increase my awareness and knowledge not just because I believe being an educated citizen is a moral duty but also due to finding a personal resonance, but it’s just that: resonance, not identification. Is there a black culture equivalent of “weeaboo” that’s public-use-acceptable by non-black people? I just barely dodged the former during the anime phase my adolescence, so I hope to hell that I would not be foolish enough to pull those tricks as an adult.
The relationship between Black American culture and Asian culture, both American and abroad, has long been interesting to me. While Asian-held anti-black sentiments are far too common and I can guarantee that you’ll pretty much always peep one East Asian motherfucker at any given white supremacist rally, Eddie Huang (of restaurant and Fresh Off the Boat fame) is a current publicly-identifiable face of a notable affinity and exchange that has been going strong for decades. Korean hip-hop artists are coming to more prominence now (the artistic and moral integrity of the commercial music industry is another topic) and, well, the Wu-Tang Clan exists. Samurai Champloo. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
But curious to me in my specific experience, I think back to lunchtime during my freshman year of high school. My elementary school was so overwhelmingly white (at its most diverse point, the 500-student population had six non-white kids, myself included) that there really was no choice when it came to demographics, and my middle school was so small that my entire class fit at only two lunch tables (boys and girls, which I still regret in hindsight). But looking back at the start of my high school career, when I came in not knowing anyone to a class of 70-odd young women who mostly also didn’t know each other, I can’t help but wonder what led me to end up at, to put it bluntly, the black lunch table.
It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. But when you’re the odd one out, you often gravitate toward other odd ones out. And in many parts of the U.S., there is that little voice inside of you screaming to get out of that sea of whiteness.
There was a lot that was conscious decisions and deliberate awareness in my anticipatory lead-up to Black Panther. It was a fact that the team was good and could be counted on to do good work. It was the fact that this movie was placing black culture to the forefront in an unprecedented way. It was a fact that the teaser trailer had more women in it than the whole of the MCU. It was the fact that I had gone to graduate school with two members of the principal cast, one of whom was actually a year-mate with whom I’d worked on a number of shows. All of this meant that I signed up for ticket sales alerts months ahead of time and bought my opening night tickets for my second-choice showing as soon as I got home from work on the ticket release day in January because my first-choice showing was effectively sold-out after only four hours. I wanted to see a good movie, and I wanted to give my financial support to it.
I think that there are things that goes further back and deeper down for me, though.
The more that I try to untangle it, the more twisted it appears to me. I certainly didn’t grow up with any desire to dismantle white supremacy. Of course slavery was Evil and racism was Bad, but, like, “law and order,” ya know? I was a Bible-studying, flag-waving, God-bless-the-U.S.A.-ing insecure little thing with a need to prove how very American I was. Because that can happen to you when you only ever see your face on the bodies of foreigners and are asked “But where are you really from?” for as long as you can remember. Somehow even back then, I knew that I would never be White.
But blackness? These people, too, were Other, but they were also undeniably American. Nobody ever asked them where they were really from. In that case, it was because America doesn’t want to hear the answer to that question since white supremacy has a vested interest in not looking at that too hard. But to a child grasping at straws and with limited sense of history, I think that my interest in blackness had a very real, if subconscious, basis in me trying to figure out how to make myself an American, which is almost deranged, given the real history of violently forcing American-ess onto people. To continue that consciously would be a pretty sickening use of blackness. But despite racial tension between black and Asian communities in the U.S., there have also long been those who recognize that resonance of Other-ness. And that that shared cause can better be used to unite for justice rather than playing into the hands of the power-holders.
So speaking solely for myself, I’m now realizing that I walked into this movie after having been latching onto black characters and narratives for years. In a similar way to how I felt just a bit extra proud and invested in seeing my friend up there on screen, reveling in someone else’s success, I found myself rejoicing in the victories of a sibling community.
Black Panther occurring in the middle of the Olympics also intersected in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.
I grew up as a huge Olympics fan. I’ve always been weak for a sports narrative, whether it’s me almost tumbling off of the second-floor loft balcony inside my childhood home as I rushed at the television down in the first floor living room during a particular exciting World Series moment or the many, many hours of my life that went to Prince of Tennis during a mild depressive spell in my junior year of undergraduate for which my shorthand is “at least it wasn’t cocaine.” And while it’s cool to poo-poo the deluge of human interest stories in which the actual athletics are awash, I’ve always eaten that shit up with a spoon.
What the Olympics have never been for me is “non-political.” I remember, as far back as the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, seeing Hwang Young-cho win the men’s marathon and doing the political calculus in my head for how I would answer if someone popped out of a bush and asked me whom I was rooting for. The United States first, of course, and then anybody Korean, but that was just like when your home team doesn’t make it to the finals but another non-rival team in your region does, so you root for them instead, you know? I was happy for Hwang, but not too happy. I wasn’t disloyal in any way. I was 100% American! No one could get away with accusing me of treason!
These are the thought of a seven-year-old.
In the past decade, I did become increasingly disillusioned, however, by the various cheating and judging scandals, the way that athletes and host city residents were used as pawns in this game of 4-D geopolitical chess, so I tried to detach myself from the Games. It helped that my early career years were marked by having neither a television nor a lot of time. Few things support morality better than convenience.
I hadn’t even been planning on finding a way to watch the Olympics this year, but it turned out that my new roommate was a huge Olympics fan. And so, after a comical evening of attempting to get a network television signal (a downside to the concrete jungle, it turns out, is that the only location in our apartment that signal can reach is one window in my bedroom), we ended up with the NBC Sports app. In pre-opening testing to make sure that the app was working, we turned to the only sport already in competition, mixed-doubles round robin curling, with an air of jovial disinterest, only to have karma hand us our asses by us becoming really intensely invested in this weird Scottish ice sport. But also for me, the first time a segment opened and they played the bumper — with those neon-colored abstracted CG athletes swooshing across the screen and those circular geometric designs and hangul spinning to that arrangement of Arirang that I’m sure that the entire world is sick of now — it suddenly struck me that, indeed, these Olympics were a Korean event that was happening in Korea.
Of course, I knew this logically. I’d long said that I’d visit Korea when they got the Olympics, so it was definitely on my radar when they got the games. And I’d been following the news, including how half of the South Korean women’s hockey team was being benched to avoid nuclear apocalypse. But it wasn’t until that moment watching curling that I began forming plans to take a trip down to K-town after ice skating at Bryant Park that Thursday to pick up supplies to make the opening ceremonies the next day hella Korean.
The next night, I ended up inadvertently drunk live-tweeting the entire opening ceremonies, which I guess meant that I was on my way. I truly had only intended to post a cheerful and cheeky commemoration of the start of my Olympic spectatorship, but to my surprise, I found myself falling into my feelings. It was a whole range of them, too – sentimental joy at the narrative of celebration, gut-anger at clueless NBC commentators, nostalgic pride at the familiar marks of Korean culture, deeply-conflicted anxious hope at the joint Korean entrance. How strange, I thought to myself, that I was having such a deep experience of something that I hadn’t even planned to watch.
I wasn’t alone in finding these Olympics to be an emotional rollercoaster, though. It enlightened me to myself to read R.O. Kwon’s account of how the PyeongChang games were affecting her. I wasn’t just being weird; this was a real thing. Unlike Kwon, however, I’m adopted, and so there are different layers to my story and a lot more mysteries in my ancestry. I do know that I was born in Seoul, which is located fairly far north in South Korea.
Do I have connections above the 38th parallel?
Which brings me back to Black Panther.
This movie included a scene that punched me in the gut in a personal way like few movie moments that I can remember. By the time we reached it, I’d already been enthralled by power and righteous pain of Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, the best villain that MCU has put forth by far. When he took over the Wakandan throne and was undergoing the coronation ritual, however, he and his story shocked me. Like T’Challa, he underwent an ancestral spirit journey. My lazy brain expected him to open his inner eyes to the same otherworldly environs that T’Challa had experienced.
When he instead opened the door to his childhood apartment in Oakland, I think that I actually gasped.
I immediately chastised that lazy brain of mine, because now that it was laid out before me, it was so utterly obvious. Killmonger did not have access to the celestial skies of Africa, populated by generations of kings, that T’Challa did. He had the place of his father’s death, where he learned of his past the best that he could from a book and from various expressions of black and African culture – the wall hangings, the Public Enemy poster – that weren’t exactly about him but they were something and, maybe, close enough.
My parents were always very open about my adoption and supportive of my learning about my heritage. Shelves of books, years of Korean culture summer camp, trips to concerts and restaurants and Flushing. I’m not a parent, but my guess is that it is probably a parenting truism in general that you can prepare your child for their journey, but you can’t actually take the journey with them. I suspect that this is even more stark, however, for parents and children for whom there is an intrinsic difference of “dominant versus not” in life experience and, indeed, different communities to which they belong. Hearing parents and Deaf children. Straight and queer. White and not.
This movie was not about me. But let it be one more nail in the coffin of the notion that we must turn to heteronormative white men for stories that are “universal.” The little child who had spun fantastical stories about her past saw that Erik had two names, just like her. I had never before seen my childhood of learning about my past not through the traditions, stories, or artifacts of my own family but from gift shop tchotchkes and tourist guides. In speaking with other friends, both KAD and not, it seems that Black Panther has touched on a very raw nerve in the disaporic community – and perhaps especially the diasporic communities in America, the country that puts such an emphasis on looking toward the future, even if at the expense of losing sight of the past.
And on a lighter note, let’s not forget that that amazing night club scene that takes place in Busan. Mere days before, I’d been admiring the incredible cultural style that folks had brought and were preparing to bring to their respective Black Panther openings. This led me to contemplating, as I do every so often, that I’d really like my own hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), but that ideally, I would want something in a style that had contemporary life, Korean in the present day. And there I was in the movie theater to see Black Panther, and what was up on the screen but a club in Busan with staff dressed in contemporary-styled hanbok.
I wouldn’t presume to call it an invitation to the cookout, but it was an incredibly pleasant surprise that had the feeling of a welcome.
I woke up at six o’clock this morning, on less than five hours of sleep, in order to watch the closing ceremonies live, unabridged and without commentary. My roommate and I had discussed doing so for the opening ceremonies, with her even making pancakes for the occasion, but my body won out on that one. In hindsight, I think that there was a lack of urgency, as we’d been watching the pre-opening curling matches for a couple days and, of course, the opening would air later with the games continuing for weeks to come. This time, however, it felt important to me to be with them as the games closed. To watch afterward would be in a position of catching up, with the event having ended over twelve hours before that. I wanted to be there, as much as I could.
I don’t think that I was supposed to be tearing up when the 13-year-old boy started shredding on the electric guitar near the beginning, but when does life go like it’s supposed to, really?
That was pretty much how my entire day would end up being.
Despite having watched the closing ceremony at the top of the day, I also planned to watch the NBC primetime broadcast, because although I preferred overall the unabridged and commentary-free version, I do like Johnny and Tara and I knew that there were undoubtedly details and meanings that I’d missed. I’d thought that I would be less affected this time around, having already seen it, but I was wrong. If anything, watching Soohorang, the tiger mascot, dissolve into a spray of fading lights in the night sky gutted me even more deeply. Even more than when I had actually visited Korea this past fall, I was not ready to let Korea go now, when it had, for these weeks, become a part of my life here in this New York apartment.
Right now, I’m just recovering from having dissolved into a pile of sobs as I tried to finish parts of this essay while the NBC primetime broadcast of the closing ceremony played. I’ve stopped choking on Kleenex, at least, grabbing, perhaps too appropriately, for a Hamilton shotglass and a bottle of craft soju made in Brooklyn by a company recommended to me by a makgeolli gastropub in Seoul. The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics are over, which means that it’s time for life to return to normal. I’m mostly looking forward to it. This much emotion is exhausting, and I’ve got shit to get done.
But I do feel like a slightly different version of me has been left behind, watching the spaceship disappear into the sky, to continue on with this life of mine. All things considered, it’s far from the most drastic or painful transformation that a person could undergo. But I think that I need to walk a little while to know whether I’m traveling lighter or heavier now.