Wakanda Forever by Dr. Tony Stringer

I have a secret.  I’m going to tell you, but I don’t want too many people to know.  I certainly don’t want this to get all over the congregation.  But I’ll tell you as long as you keep it to yourself.  Raise your hand if you can keep my secret.

Okay, well here it is.  [Pause]  I’m Iron Man.

That’s right.  Iron Man.

Growing up, Black Panther wasn’t my favorite superhero, mostly because he came along too late.  Iron Man was there first.  He came into my life when I was 7 years old, the year my father died and long before the Black Panther ever raised a claw.  And Iron Man was my secret identity.  You see, I wasn’t born Tony Stringer.  I was born, or should I say, I was named Young Stringer Jr.  I was named after my father, who was Young Stringer Sr.

Young is a horrible name for a child.  I have no idea what my father was thinking for surely it must have been a horrible name for him.  My peers variously perverted my name to Old Stringer or Youngster Stringer.  Even those who knew me as Junior, couldn’t resist turning that into Junebug, or something equally obscene.  By the age of 7, I’d already had enough of being Young.

When I lost my dad at age 7 to cancer, I mourned him.  I also mourned the loss of my innocence about life—-I suddenly knew how this story ends for all of us.  And I knew that the end could come when we least expect it.  Life, for me, was too short to waste being Young.

And so I asked my mom if, instead of being Young, I could be “Tony.”  Where did “Tony” come from?  I never told my mom, not even once in the remaining 40 odd years of her life, what I am telling you right now.  I never told her that I wanted to be “Tony” because Tony Stark was Iron Man.

In some ways, I had the best mom in the world.  What mom let’s her 7-year-old convince her to legally change his name shortly after the death of his father.  She wasn’t even Unitarian.  But my mom let me convince her.  She might not have, if she’d known that I wanted to be Anthony, or rather Tony Stringer because Iron Man was Tony Stark.  I kept Young as my middle name in remembrance of my father, but the year my father died, I became legally Anthony Young Stringer, Tony Stringer to my friends.  If she’d known my reason for choosing the name “Tony,” my mom might have said no.  And I’m grateful that the Black Panther didn’t exist back then, because if he had, I might have asked to change my name to T’Challa.  I doubt that would have gone over well as “Tony” did with my mom.  As I said, she was great.  But she wasn’t Unitarian.

T’Challa—–the Black Panther——-was introduced by Marvel Comics in June 1966, a good three years after I became Tony “Iron Man” Stringer, and more importantly, four months before Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in October 1966.  Neither the Black Panther nor the Black Panther Party had any influence on the other.  They sprang into existence with the same name, only four months apart, by pure coincidence.  And yet, their appeal to Black people may have a lot to do with what they have in common.

T’Challa is king of the African nation of Wakanda, endowed with superhuman powers through swallowing an extract of a heart-shaped herb that grows only in Wakanda.  This herb isn’t the only thing that is special and unique about Wakanda.

An ancient meteorite has seeded Wakanda with an energy absorbing metal called vibranium.  This rare and precious metal is the source of Wakanda’s wealth and influence.  Selling off small quantities of vibranium has allowed Wakanda to become one of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations.  And this has remained largely a secret to the outside world.  Who knew that Africa, darkest Africa, contained a nation so powerful and so advanced as Wakanda?  Oh, and did I mention, did I say that Wakanda is fiction?

But not fictional is the incredible impact of Black Panther, the movie.  Critics have found reason to praise it—–a rarity for superhero movies—–for its directing, its story line, its African-inspired costumes, its contemporary soundtrack, and its pioneering spirit.  Featuring a black director and a virtually all black cast—–the film has been rated as the best movie produced by Marvel Studios.  Black Panther has sold over $1.3 billion in movie tickets, making it the second highest-earning film of 2018, the third highest earning film ever made in the United States, and the ninth highest earning film ever made anywhere in the world.  It’s enough to almost make you believe in Wakanda.  Say it with me, y’all.  “Wakanda Forever!”

Despite the fact that I’m Iron Man, I am not a big fan of superhero movies.  They don’t hold my interest.  Superpowers, masked heroes, comic book violence, science fiction technology, chases, crashes, punches, flying through the air, I can feel myself yawning already.  But Black Panther was different.

The movie tells the story of T’Challa’s ascension to the thrown of his kingdom and his ingestion of the herb that makes him the Black Panther.  He fights off challenges to his kingship, temporarily loses the thrown, nearly loses his life, but eventually triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds: In other words, a pretty pedestrian, run-of-the-mill, superhero story line.  Are you yawning, yet?  Well don’t, because the movie has a bigger story to tell.  It has bigger themes to explore.

First and foremost it is a movie about Black ascension, rather than Black degradation.  No, we must never forget slavery, and the miserable human stain it has forever smeared across this American landscape.  But I grow weary of movies about slavery.  I grow weary of novels about slavery. I cannot bear another Ten Years a Slave, it is like bearing another century.  Sometimes you just want to feel good.  No, we must never forget racism, white supremacy, micro-aggression, and macro-assault.  But sometimes, in fact most times, after the latest Donald debacle, the most recent act of Trumpian terrorism, I need to go back—-if only in my mind—–and revel in the heady days of Obama’s ascension to the presidency.  And yes, it seems almost a century away, but oh my God, do I need to hold on to that moment of ascension.  First and foremost, Black Panther is about Black ascension.  Say it again: “Wakanda Forever!”

Second, Black Panther is about Black women.  Shuri, Black Panther’s sister, is a genius inventor to rival even my namesake Tony Stark.  Sorry Iron Man, but Shuri rules!   The character Nakia is not just the Panther’s attractive love interest.  Nakia is an activist who puts life on the line to rescue enslaved women in Nigeria, and she proves she doesn’t need a man in a skin tight suit to rescue her when she gets in trouble.

And what about the all-female warrior regiment, with their high-tech spears and shaved heads, that guard the Black Panther like a Wakandan Secret Service.  We have few of them with us today.  [Do Wakanda salute]  Okoye, the leader of these powerful female warriors is forced to cover her head with a wig during a secret mission.  In one of the best scenes of the movie, she throws aside “this ridiculous thing” as she calls it, and proceeds to kick some serious butt.  The women——sisters, mothers, warriors, geniuses, activists——are the powerful heart of this movie.  They don’t just scream “Black is beautiful,” they proclaim that the Black feminine is synonymous with Black power.  Say it: “Wakanda Forever.”  Black Panther is about Black women.

Third, and more soberly, Black Panther takes up a debate that has divided the African American community for as long as there has been such a community.  Appropriately, in the movie it is a debate symbolized by the Black Panther on one side, and Killmonger on the other side.

Killmonger, the character who dethrones and seemingly kills the Panther, prepares to unleash the full force of Wakandan technology in an angry bid for revenge against the entire world.  Fittingly, Killmonger is an African American in search of his Wakandan identity.

But you don’t need to see the movie, to know about this great Black debate.  It is between those who would integrate and those who would separate; between those who would quietly assimilate and those who would militantly agitate; between those who would reform and those who rebel; those who march in protest and those who shoot back in resistance.  It is “We Shall Overcome,” or it is “Burn, Baby, Burn.”

It is overly simplistic to associate names with one side or the other.  To put Booker T. Washington here and W.E.B. Dubois there; to force Martin Luther King into one position and Malcolm X into another.  They were all great thinkers whose best ideas defy simplistic classification.  Each was capable of holding in their minds, in that truest mark of intelligence, two opposing points of view at once.  It is the intelligence of Black Panther the movie, that allows it to do the same.  Though Black Panther wins, the mortally wounded Killmonger still receives a noble and dignified death that reconciles him with his lost heritage.  The movie doesn’t resolve the debate, despite the Black Panther’s victory.  Nor should it.

Wakanda’s wealth and power comes from its isolation: Its decision to resist colonization and enslavement, to wall itself off from the outside world and guard against appropriation, exploitation, and ruin.  For those have been the seemingly inevitable results of black encountering white, of African meeting European.  The great Black debate rages, not just in Black America, but everywhere Black people have had to grapple with white racism.  Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, every African liberator has grappled with this question in their quest for freedom.

As free people, do we love our former enemies, or do we seek revenge?  Do we share our gifts, or guard our treasure?  Do we engage, or disengage?  And if the former, do we transform ourselves into something safe, polite, quiet, and acceptable?  Or do we reject such pale pretenses and engage only on our own terms, black as we wanna be, whether anyone likes it, or not?  And how are white people to respond to these differing choices?

I said that Wakanda isn’t real, but there is an actual village in Ghana that took a path much like that of the fictional Wakanda.  It is called Nzulezu—-the village built on stilts.  Legend says that Nzulezu was founded by people fleeing European slave merchants.  They worshiped a god who assumed the form of a snail and guided them across a great lake to a location so remote and inaccessible that they were never found and captured by slave merchants.

My wife and I visited this village during a trip to Ghana in 2012.  It took 30 minutes by leaky canoe to reach it.  I was excited to see Nzulezu, but it was nothing like Wakanda.  Despite being designated a United Nations World Heritage Site in 2000, the people are poor and the village is littered and dirty.

There is no advanced technology in this real life Wakanda, other than t.v. satellite dishes.  There is no superhero king, and the only magical herb growing there smells suspiciously like marijuana.

Out of respect for their wishes, I photographed only the buildings and not the people.  The ramshackle school, the dilapidated canoe dock, and the small shed where the snail god still resides, perhaps the nicest dwelling in the entire village.

The people are poor because they have little to occupy them.  Tourism and leaky canoes are their only products.  Nzulezu is a tourist attraction, but it is no Wakanda.

In truth, there can be no real Wakanda.  Isolation leads to poverty, not prosperity.  Isolation was good in that it saved these people from colonization and slavery, but it could not save them from poverty and all that comes with it.  Human advancement comes from human connection.  No people, no nation can achieve alone.  Isolation inevitably leads to defeat, and not triumph.  If Wakanda is forever, then Wakanda cannot be alone.

At the end of the movie, after the credits have begun to roll, there is a final scene in which T’Challa, king of Wakanda, stands proud and knowing before the United Nations and commits his country to engagement with the rest of the world.

No longer will Wakanda go it alone.  No longer will Wakanda hide its people, its wealth, and its advanced technology.  Wakanda will resist oppression, white supremacy, and subjugation of any kind.  But——-it will no longer go it alone.

The reaction of the world is what you might expect.  Knowing only an Africa that bleeds, and not an Africa that heals, knowing only an Africa that starves, and not an Africa that nourishes, knowing only an Africa that is poor, and not an Africa with treasure to share, the world reacts to T’Challa’s gift with astonished silence.  A skeptical United Nations demands: “What can a nation of poor farmers offer the world?” T’Challa’s answer is nothing but a knowing smile because he believes Wakanda is forever.

The skeptical reaction in the movie reminded me of your reaction to two questions I asked this congregation 20 years ago.  Now I realize some of you were not here 20 years ago.  And not everyone that was here, heard my questions.  So let me repeat them today.  By a show of hands, how many of you want to see more people of color join this congregation?  Raise your hands for people of color.  Yep, that’s how you responded 20 years ago.

My second question, which I will repeat today, and which I want you to try to answer honestly——my second question is this: By a show of hands, how many people think that the survival and future of this congregation depends upon more people of color joining and participating?  Be honest.  Raise your hand only if the survival of this congregation requires there be more people of color.  Thank you.

I had to write two endings to this sermon because I had no idea what you were going to do in response to that question.  So here’s the ending I’m going with:

Alternative Ending 1

There were fewer hands raised to that second question.  That’s how it was 20 years ago.  I appreciate the honesty of those of you whose hands were down.  But here’s what I’d like all of us to ponder.

Alternative Ending 2

That’s a lot more hands than were raised 20 years ago.  That’s encouraging.  I do appreciate the honesty of those of you whose hands were down.  But here’s what I’d like all of us to ponder.

Engagement is harder than isolation, especially when it requires us to cross racial, cultural, and economic class barriers.  People of color, and in particular, African Americans, differ from what is now majority America by race, by culture, and often by economic class.  In other words, there are mountains between us and every one of them is an Everest.  We will not climb those mountains until it matters like life itself matters.  It is just that difficult and it must matter just that much.  We will never climb those Mountains alone.  We climb together, or we fail together.

And as America changes around us, as the coming decades erase old majorities and fashion new minorities, as new generations embrace a world that looks far more diverse than this sanctuary does on a typical Sunday——as America changes, so too must we change if we are to survive as a religion in the America of the future.  We can’t survive as just a relic of an America that is passing away.

There are mountains between us.  So let’s start climbing together.  Say it with me one last time and say it like you mean it. “Wakanda forever!”