In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. This week, Felicia Stewart discusses the significance of the movie, Black Panther, on Black culture in her essay “Cross My Heart and Hope to Die in Wakanda” from Why Wakanda Matters.
“If You Can See It, You Can Be It; Black Panther’s Black Woman Magic” (Allen, 2018)
“Making Wakanda Great Again” (Cooper, 2018)
“I Dream a World: Black Panther and the Re-Making of Blackness” (White, 2018)
“O Wakanda, Our Wakanda” (New York Times, 2018)
These are just a few articles inspired by Black Panther. The headlines alone speak to a psychological need of those who felt both empowered and comforted by the film. They preview the yearning for a different reality and indicate how Black Panther fans locked onto a distinctive mental space that was both comforting and empowering. This title joins the ones above. What does it mean to “Cross My Heart and Hope to Die in Wakanda”? Answering that question requires a sojourn that reveals the significance of a film, specifically to the history of Black diasporic people.
For generations, films have been bringing people together. Movie franchises have fan clubs and some even have cult followings. Star Trek has their “Trekkies.” Harry Potter’s fan base is called “Potterheads.” Fans of Lord of the Rings are called “Ringers.” Star Wars fans are, well, “Star Wars Fans.” And now, Black Panther has its “Wakandans.” Since 2008, large fan bases have followed the Avengers characters in theaters. To date, the Marvel franchise has produced more than twenty films and boasts box office totals in billions of dollars. Fans have lined up to see films that carry the names of their heroes, such as Iron Man (2008), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Thor (2011), and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). In 2018, Black Panther was added to that list, and fans loved it.
What many of these film franchises have in common is the element of fantasy. Something about the fantastic nature of magic or science fiction envelopes the hearts and minds of moviegoing fans. The fans then find ways to connect with one another through their love for the film, the story, the setting, and the characters. Psychologically speak- ing, fantasy is necessary. It allows people to fulfill their unconscious desires. Fantasy gives license for people to go where they want to go. Black Panther connected people on a psychological plane that allowed them, albeit for a short while, to live in another space—a space where their Black was beautiful. They began participating in the fantasy, mentally drawn to this world called Wakanda.
The character Black Panther made his first appearance in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War. The plot, which included T’Challa seeking vengeance for the death of his father, King T’Chaka, and conclusion of the movie, where T’Challa joined forces with the Avengers, both indicated that Black Panther would be seen on-screen again. Prior to Black Panther’s opening, people began to anticipate the positive vibe of a Black cinematic experience. There was something brewing in the air as fans created moviegoing groups, crafted costumes, and talked excitedly of dressing up for movie screenings. Legions of audience members bought tickets ahead of time, longing to see the empowering images that have been absent in cinema. (1) People called their friends and loved ones, asking when they were going and when they were taking their children to see Black Panther. Celebrities bought out entire theaters so little Black children could see the extraordinary cinematic display of power and might. (2) It was as if there was an unspoken understanding that Black Panther was a must-see for the Black American culture. But it was not only for them. The spoken understanding of the significance of Black Panther created a mass curiosity and appeal leading up to its premiere. Previews and news coverage had saturated the market. There was no mistaking that the release of Black Panther would be a monumental event.
Social media was ripe with discussion and buzz as people waited for the arrival of the film. The feeling of anticipation can be summed up in one artist’s comment when viewing a poster of the movie prior to its release. Upon seeing the character of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in the center with a supporting cast of other Black characters (Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker), the artist ran to the poster and excitedly claimed, “This is what white people get to feel like all the time.” (3) His friends had similar reactions. They all posed for photos and the video of their enthusiasm went viral. There was a feeling of ownership, comfort, significance, belonging, importance, and centeredness. There was no tokenism.
As talk of the movie spread, people waited eagerly to see something at the box office that was both strange and unfamiliar—a Black superhero surrounded by a Black cast in a movie directed by a Black man. Comic book readers might have known what to expect, but others were unaware of the journey that was before them. For what was before them was more than just a trip to the movies. It was indeed a pilgrimage, as they were introduced to a world many have dreamed about but thought impossible. What was before them was life in a space like none other: Wakanda.
Wakanda is a fictitious country situated on the continent of Africa. Wakanda reveals itself as a nation that has been mostly untapped by the colonization and other atrocities that have plagued real African countries. Wakanda is advanced in development, a far cry from the images of underdeveloped African countries so often portrayed in the media. A stark contrast to the real world’s perception of the “motherland,” Wakanda is a place of pure beauty. It is a place where men and women are warriors—where women are viewed as equal and valued without question. It is a place with cutting-edge technological advancements created solely by Black minds. It is a place that is free from the influence of outsiders, unspoiled by foreigners to the land. Wakanda is a place that Black people may have imagined but have never seen.
In the early moments of the film, T’Challa flies home to Wakanda after a brief but successful mission. It is here where the audience gets their first glimpse of Wakanda—an aerial view as the aircraft descends upon the land. At that moment, the film itself began to take people on a psychological excursion. Moviegoers immediately saw a nation enshrined in beauty that was presented as expected and natural. Africans, who are so often shown as starving, poor, violent, uneducated, or uncivilized (or all of the aforementioned), were anything but. Not only were they “civilized,” but they were also regal, wealthy, intellectual, and admirable. They were generals, warriors, scientists, caregivers, and counselors. They were Wakandans.
Wakanda is made up of five tribes. Four of the tribes—Merchant, River, Border, and Mining—live in harmony. The fifth tribe, the Jabari, dwells in the mountains, hesitant to give allegiance to a Wakandan king. Though not without flaws or conflicts, Wakanda symbolizes a dreamland for Black audiences who fixated on a desire to be part of its community. It solidified a common mode of thinking and granted permission for Black moviegoers to share that connection with one another and engage in acts of solidarity. Proof of this camaraderie appear in both verbal and nonverbal expressions from Black Panther.
Many audience members began to unite via two distinct emblems that appear throughout the movie: the phrase “Wakanda Forever” and the nonverbal crossing of the arms over the heart, also known as the Wakandan salute. These expressions are representative of Ernest Bormann’s fantasy theme. Fantasy themes explain a group’s sharing of a unique bond fueled by common emotions or motives. When shared widely, they become rhetorical visions. These visions capture “social and cultural realities that make sense to groups, organizations, or media audiences.” (4) The visions of Wakanda make sense to Black moviegoers. The fans begin to communicate with one another in dramatic fashion, revealing their fears, their hopes, and their sense of self-worth. The verbal and nonverbal expressions initiated from Black Panther are indicative of how Wakanda has cultivated a sense of solidarity among a diasporic people. Wakanda is their shared fantasy.
The most lasting memorable verbal statement from Black Panther has entered the Black lexicon and has united people in playful celebration and psychological consensus. The two-word exclamation “Wakanda Forever!” has connected strangers across the globe. What is it about this simple phrase that led people to embrace it? What need does this connection with others fulfill?
Using verbal expressions to demonstrate psychological solidarity among people of African descent is not a new phenomenon. Many in the Black community shouted phrases like “Right On!” in the 1970s. Other examples of verbal expressions that have gained traction among Black people include, “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud”—made popular in a 1968 song by James Brown—and “Black Is Beautiful.” These expressions denoted a connection to others and acted as a meeting of the minds for those who would understand Blackness in ways to which others were not privy. For instance, if a Black man were to express his discontent resulting from discrimination in a public business, onlookers to the man’s plight might share their approval and understanding of his reaction by shouting “Right On!” The prominence of these phrases was evident in popular culture, appearing on television shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son.
In the late 1980s, another phrase stemming from popular culture became a unifier for Black people. Featured in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, “Fight the Power” was not just a song; it was also a call to action. Public Enemy’s lyrics encouraged others to fight against racism and inequality. The phrase quickly permeated Black culture. “Fight the Power” appeared everywhere, from conversations to merchandise, such as on T-shirts and bracelets, to other movies.
Similarly, “Wakanda Forever!” is a rallying cry—a call to act. At the very least, it is a call of allegiance. In Black Panther, the phrase “Wakanda Forever” symbolizes loyalty, solidarity, and unity for a people who have pride for and commitment to their homeland. Like the phrase “Fight the Power,” “Wakanda Forever” is a verbal expression that demonstrates a desire to live in a different space—one that demolishes the oppression of Black people.
People who saw the film began using the phrase with one another. Some people chanted the phrase to show love for the success of a Black film. Others chanted the phrase to show an understanding of another’s plight, particularly in places where racism appears alive and well. For example, in the United States, a country with a complex history around racism, people of the Diaspora commonly experience different forms of racist behavior, whether through microaggressions, institutional policies, treatment by authorities (where even the president of the United States labeled some African nations as “sh**hole countries”), or other means. Thus, circumstances may warrant a quick utterance of the phrase “Wakanda Forever” as a way to empathize with someone who is sharing a similar experience. Some have used social media platforms to offer encouragement or to acknowledge another simply by posting or tweeting “Wakanda Forever!”
The fantasies that are fueled by chanting the phrase “Wakanda Forever” stem from the multiple realities of those who choose to say it. For some, it is ever important to demonstrate kinship through the sharing of circumstance. More than just a fun way to acknowledge a fellow fan of T’Challa and the Dora Milaje, the chant is a cry of hope—a hope for a better life for those of the Diaspora. On the heels of yearly deaths of multiple unarmed Black people at the hands of (mostly) white police officers, the fantasy of “Wakanda Forever!” shows an understanding of a continued struggle. It recalls the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice in 2014. It recognizes the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. It illuminates the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in 2016, Shouting “Wakanda Forever!” allows people to become part of a fantasy chain that contributes to a larger psychological need. It is almost another way of saying “Black Lives Matter.” The difference is that Black Lives Matter is inherently a persuasive campaign. With “Wakanda Forever,” no persuasion is necessary. Those who speak it already know. They know the value of their being. The phrase is a declaration, not a plea.
Wakanda is a safe space for people of African descent. When people say “Wakanda Forever,” they are celebrating a place where they can live in harmony. For them, Wakanda represents
- a place where Black people create and sustain their own;
- a place where Black people can serve as a leader without someone demanding his—or her—birth certificate again and again;
- a place where when Black people put their hands up, nobody shoots; or better yet,
- a place where Black people never have to put their hands up;
- a place where Black people can drink tea, eat skittles, and walk home in peace;
- a place where Black people can ride a train on New Year’s Eve and not be shot while handcuffed;
- a place where Black people can breathe;
- a place where the strength and beauty of a Black woman is the norm; and
- a place where no one ever has to say “Me Too.”
“Wakanda Forever” signifies the verbal fantasy of living in a better place. It also allows those who utter and hear it to recognize the value of their existence. For example, Black Panther and the phrase “Wakanda Forever” have provided motivation to little Black boys. After years of witnessing people who looked like them being killed in the streets, seeing a Black superhero in command of a space of Black achievement is inspirational. A shout of “Wakanda Forever” may be playful and fun, but it is also psychologically strengthening, contributing to the esteem of young Black people. With their eyes, they see something different than their normal, and they begin to take ownership and become a part of something phenomenal.
The ideas behind the use of the phrase “Wakanda Forever” have since expanded. People would put their own spin on it for their particular symbolic needs. The star of the film, Chadwick Boseman, edited the phrase to signal his loyalty to his alma mater, Howard University, during his 2018 commencement speech. At the end, he crossed his arms and stated, “Howard Forever.” (5) Others have borrowed the “Forever” half, placing whatever they have allegiance to in front. Nevertheless, the original phrase “Wakanda Forever” has taken on a life of its own. It has become a motivating phrase for people of color, many of whom have paraphernalia that displays “Wakanda Forever” in some shape or form. The phrase has grown in meaning in terms of its representative capacity, but still resonates as a phrase of solidarity in Black culture.
The Wakandan Salute
In addition to the psychological associations of the verbal phrase “Wakanda Forever,” Black Panther produced a cognitive connection through a nonverbal symbol. The emblematic nonverbal gesture—the crossing of the arms over one’s chest as a greeting—has provided moviegoers with another way of acknowledging and connecting with like-minded others. This has become known as the Wakandan salute. According to the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, the gesture has multiple meanings. He notes it stems from West African sculptures as well as American Sign Language’s words for “love” and “hug.” (6) Coogler explains that love and brotherhood are prominent features of the Wakandan culture.
In Black Panther, the salute appears often and under varying circumstances, symbolizing the love, adoration, strength, power, pride, and camaraderie that the citizens of Wakanda share. One of the first times viewers see this nonverbal symbol is after Prince T’Challa defeats M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe, who had issued a challenge for the throne. After the battle, T’Challa, now the king, crosses him arms in ritualistic passage, and the people of Wakanda respond likewise. When King T’Challa later approaches members of his army, the Dora Milaje, he crosses his arms, albeit casually, to acknowledge their presence. On the other hand, the salute is performed with precision by the Dora Milaje in response to commands by their general. The people of Wakanda include the salute in their daily lives as part of their greeting. The salute is used in battle as Wakandan troops prepare to fight. And when T’Challa’s family works to resurrect him from near death, they cross his arms over his chest.
Like the use of verbal expressions, the use of the nonverbal symbols of solidarity are not novel to the Black community. Nonverbal expressions of support used in the past and still used today include handshakes and other body movements. While a simple handshake suffices as a greeting in many communities, in the Black community, a more intensive slapping, sliding, and gripping of the hands shows a link between greeters and communicates an understanding of respect and support for one another. Some generations call it “dapping up” or “giving skin”; others will do a fist bump or give someone a “pound.” Black Panther also contains these types of expressions. In one poignant scene, when T’Challa visits his sister, Shuri, the royal siblings reveal their close relationship and acknowledge their loyalty to each other. They greet each other with a personalized version of the Wakandan salute that includes a handshake and other movements, reminiscent of the creative handshakes often seen in Black communities across America.
Other nonverbal actions have unified the Black community. Perhaps one of the most recognizable nonverbal symbols of solidarity is the raising of the fist. This gesture caught widespread attention during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City when two Black athletes each raised a black-gloved fist while standing on the podium during the awards ceremony. Known as the “Black power salute,” this action stirred widespread controversy. Since that time, many athletes have openly demonstrated a cognitive need to nonverbally express their pride or solidarity to those within their identified cultural boundaries.
Recently, the Wakandan salute has become a symbol that allows people to express themselves nonverbally, usually in honor or celebration of some event. Since the film’s release, for example, a number of star athletes have crossed their arms after a victory or an accomplishment in their sport. WWE wrestlers Titus O’Neil and Apollo crossed their arms during a match. Soccer player Jesse Lingard of Manchester United also flashed the Wakandan salute after scoring a goal. Tennis players on the international stage, such as Sachia Vickery, Sloane Stephens, and Gael Monfils—all players of color—have used the Wakandan salute in celebration during their competitions (Mohdin, 2018). (7) Monfils gave his interpretation: “I think [Black Panther] is great. It’s great for the community, for our community, it means quite a lot . . .It’s not just a sign. It’s everything. It’s everything going on and definitely it’s a shout-out saying that I’m supporting the Black Panther’s community.” (8)
Aside from athletes, many others in and out of the public eye have utilized the gesture to join the fantasy. The stars of Black Panther have demonstrated the crossing of the arms in multiple spaces and places, particularly at red carpet events. Politicians, including Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris, have “crossed their hearts” during interviews and other public appearances. Other celebrities, such as comedienne Tiffany Haddish and actor Will Smith, have flaunted the salute. Talk show hosts, teachers, and newscasters have participated in the Wakan- dan salute.
Interestingly, the physical movement of crossing one’s arms across the chest has previously been used by another superhero. DC Comics character Wonder Woman also crosses her arms to activate her Amazonian bracelets. However, once Black Panther made the salute, it seemingly elevated the gesture to a different sphere. For some, it may be just for fun or merely to express their fan status of the movie, but for many people in the Diaspora, the unspoken meaning is powerful.
What the Wakandan salute represents can be further illuminated by an idea posed by James Baldwin in 1961. Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”9 While it is safe to say that not all Black people in the United States feel that rage, the Wakandan salute contributes to the relief of the stresses that many Black people may endure. It is a way of saying, “You are not alone in the struggle,” or “I am with you.” The salute symbolizes a psychological wish to dwell in a land like Wakanda, where the pressures of existence are minimal or nonpresent.
Nonverbal gestures can be powerful. Just look at people’s reactions to quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem before football games as he brought attention to racial issues plaguing the United States. Just as many people felt the need to join Kaepernick in kneeling, many have felt the need to cross arms like Black Panther and the people of Wakanda. While the comparison is not pure—Kaepernick’s issues are real and the Wakandan salute began as an affective reference to a nonexistent country—people’s desire to mentally connect through a symbolic gesture is just as palpable. Like- wise, just as many felt the need to criticize Kaepernick, the criticisms for those who make the Wakandan salute came, too. Those naysayers questioned the intent of the gesture. In response to athletes’ displays of the Wakandan salute, one unidentified person commented on Reddit: “Are these Black athletes saying their loyalty lies with their race over their nationality? . . . Wakanda is, after all, a Black ethnostate. Now imagine if white people did this at an event and advocated for their own ethnostate. They’d be banned from sport forever.” (10)
Reactions like this signify part of the issue that causes the need for the fantasy of Wakanda and how it psychologically serves people of the Diaspora. The “colonizers” don’t understand. They don’t understand why people kneel, why people cross their arms, or why people were upset when a white model with blonde hair advertised a “Wakanda Forever” sweater (Lang, 2018). (11) They don’t understand, and they don’t have to. The fantasy is not theirs. Wakanda is not for sale. It cannot be appropriated, and people of the Diaspora are not loaning it out. It belongs to those whose fantasy it represents. In the Wakandan fantasy, Black people live in a place where they are seen for who they truly are. Their voices are heard. But more importantly, they see each other, and they are not afraid. Those who participate in the fantasy don’t care if others don’t get it. There is no need to explain their presence or to convince others of their value. They just exist—freely. And that is enough.
Black Panther left audiences with the lingering effect of a chant and a salute to honor the dreamland of Wakanda. The nation is a “utopic, Afrofuturist rendering of the rich tapestry of African history and culture . . . [that offers] a welcome contrast to our current reality, offering a sense of hope for a better world.” (12) Black Panther held worldwide appeal and stoked a common fantasy about living in Wakanda. That fantasy transformed those moviegoers into a cohesive group. Not only Black Americans, but also people around the world of various hues and backgrounds have joined in the repeating of a phrase and the nonverbal posture. Participation in chanting “Wakanda Forever” and performing the Wakandan salute represents a necessary journey to a fantastical place.
In Wakanda, Black excellence is the mainstream. As much as Black people are welcoming, forgiving, trusting, and open-hearted, Black Panther’s allegiance cry of “Wakanda Forever” and its Wakandan salute are emblems whose meanings are exclusive to a particular community. Just as those of the Diaspora will never understand white privilege from the owner’s perspective, white people will not have the same understanding of the fantasy of Wakanda. It is not theirs, and it is beyond white privilege.
The significance of Black Panther to Black culture cannot be overstated. The film gave a community a place to call their own. Wakanda feels like home. The saying “Cross my heart and hope to die” has typically been used to convince others that one is telling the truth. Wakanda is the truth to many diasporic souls. At least, in their shared fantasy, it is their truth. So, when people of African descent cross their hearts and hope to die in Wakanda, they know their fantasy belongs to them, and they rest in their psychological peace.
- Carter, This Avenger has the most devastating death in Infinity War.
- Mohdin, The “Wakanda Forever” salute has become a symbol.
- Narcisse, The internet’s favorite Black Panther fans.
- Vultee, Man-child in the White House.
- Larimer, Here is what Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman said.
- Francisco, ‘Black Panther’ director reveals the origins of the Wakanda salute.
- Mohdin & Chutel, ‘Black Panther’ is more than a film.
- Cooper, ‘Black Panther’ inspires athletes to use Wakanda Forever salute.
- Lavan, To whom does Wakanda belong?
- Cooper, Making Wakanda great again.
- Lang, Forever 21 slammed for advertising Black Panther–inspired ‘Wakanda’ sweater.
- Ndounou, Finding Wakanda within.
Want more on Black Panther? Order your copy of Why Wakanda Matters.