What ‘Black Panther’ Says About American Identity

- February 25th, 2018
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With the release of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” featuring the fictional African nation of Wakanda, it’s vital to reiterate: it’s OK for America to have an Anglo-Protestant identity.

To say that this nation was cultivated and defined by Anglo-Protestant Westerners is no less true than to say it is exceptional, and neither is it harmful. To admit Anglo-Protestant Westerners furnished a value system that resulted in the abolition of slavery should be a source of pride for all its beneficiaries. Thomas Sowell argues this point in the affirmative:

Nothing could be more jolting and discordant with the vision of today’s intellectuals than the fact that it was businessmen, devout religious leaders and Western imperialists who together destroyed slavery around the world. And if it doesn’t fit their vision, it is the same to them as if it never happened.

The preeminence of this demographic in America and the West is a matter of historical record, but is it wrong for nations like America to preserve this identity? Marvel certainly doesn’t think so and their audience seems to agree, as evident by the success of “Black Panther.” In the film, Wakanda has a definitively African identity, which King T’Challa—the Black Panther of the title—fights to preserve for the welfare of his people. Moviegoers love it.

Perhaps the takeaway is that it is far more invidious to insinuate nations have no right to preserve or even acknowledge a definitive identity. In the case of America, it is an identity that provided the framework for the most prosperous and tolerant society in the world. America is, in fact, the least racist white-majority society, it affords people of color more legal protections and opportunities than any other nation today.

The strength of this nation rests in its unity, not in “diversity,” which really means tolerance for everything from the Left, and intolerance for everything from the Right. Unity in identity is the basis of E pluribus unum, and Marvel’s “Black Panther” gets it.

There was a time when intellectuals of color understood the salience of unity. Black patriots like Booker T. Washington and Zora Neale Hurston exonerated the speckled history of America with their moving prose. Washington, a man born into slavery before becoming a statesman and a preeminent American educator, once said:

Think about it: We went into slavery pagans; we came out Christians. We went into slavery pieces of property; we came out American citizens. We went into slavery with chains clanking about our wrists; we came out with the American ballot in our hands. . . . Notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, we are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe.

How did we stray so far from such an honest and grateful appraisal of America? We might see some parallels between Washington and his rival, W. E. B. Du Bois, with Black Panther and his rival, Killmonger. In both cases, the latter championed racial consciousness and Pan-Africanism, and in both cases, the former rejected such notions. But Washington wasn’t the first who called for embracing, rather than rejecting, Western values. Olaudah Equiano wrote of white Christian Westerners in his autobiography:

I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners; I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory.

Equiano was a black man sold into slavery by his African countrymen to Europeans. Rather than feeling inferior or resenting Anglo-Protestant culture, Equiano embraced it and eventually converted to Protestantism. Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, went on to win his manumission and united with white Christians against the institution of slavery. This should be the cornerstone of race relations in America and the West, but of course, that would mean the “studies” departments might find themselves obsolete, so don’t count on truth and patriotism being back in vogue in academia any time soon.

Wakanda might be an exceptional fictional nation (one that enforces strict border control, to boot), but America is exceptional and real. That exceptionalism rests in an identity fostered by Anglo-Protestant Westerners, who happened to be the first people to unite against the institution of slavery, side by side with blacks. Now that is an identity worth affirming.

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