In color and in chrome
When people I don’t know very well (inevitably) ask about “where I’m from,” I receive the same three reactions when I tell them I was born in Tanzania:
- “Where in the world is that again?” (“East Africa, right next to Kenya,” is my usual response.)
- “Oh, you don’t look like you’re from Africa.” (If I have time, this is when I usually tell them about the movement of goods and people across the Indian Ocean, leading my Indian ancestors to settle in Zanzibar many generations ago.)
- “It must be so hard to have come from such a poor country.” (This is particularly egregious when it comes from someone who hadn’t even heard of the country just moments ago.)
The depictions of Africa in popular culture typically fall into a broad characterization of the continent as poor, hungry, struggling, and waiting for help from “the West” for survival. Rarely do we see Africa presented as a place of splendor and brilliance: a place where great people do great things, a place where a multitude of histories and heritages weave into a majestic, multicultural tapestry.
(There are, of course, many people on the continent that are caught in a cycle of abject poverty due to a perverse colonial legacy; I don’t mean to ignore those issues, but only to highlight the things we don’t always see.)
Prior to yesterday, when people asked me what I was most excited about when it came to Black Panther, I would tell them it was Wakanda. I was excited for the story, and for the characters, yes, but mostly, I was excited to see I vision of Africa that wasn’t marked by its poverty but instead by its richness. I was excited to see how fictional world defined by afrofuturism could reflect the real splendour of the continent as it exists now.
I audibly gasped when Wakanda was revealed on screen last night. It was everything I had hoped it would be; it was more than I could have imagined. It showed an African city filled with technology and marvel, but did not ignore the rich heritage of the people who lived there. Wakanda was a mix of urban and rural, new and old, color and chrome. It was a vision of an Africa that we don’t see in movies—an Africa that honors its past and embraces the future.
When I was but a toddler, my parents left Tanzania and brought me to New York. Every day since then, I have been told stories of the land my parents left behind, of the lives they led there and how they shaped who they are now.
These days, I hear rhetoric of my birth country being a “shithole country” and I can not reconcile it with the stories of my parents. Yes, their daily existence was hard and they didn’t have much money, but they lived full, rich, beautiful lives in East Africa. The Africa they knew—the Africa they know—is more like Wakanda than they realize: it is a world where people cared for each other, where the old mixed gorgeously with the new, and where the past was cherished and used to build a vision of the future.
Black Panther reminded me that it is time that I plan a return visit to my birth country; it is time for me to see the majesty of the country I only know in the stories of my parents, to see its resplendent beauty, in color and in chrome.