I remember 10 years ago taking Berea College students for a January "Short Term" to Cuba. Our month-long assignment was to study the African diaspora in that island nation. One day we were privileged to have Cuban poet, essayist and historian, Roberto Fernandez Retamar grace our classroom. Now 87, he was then about my age.
On that occasion, the great man said something that struck me as powerful, and that relates to the blockbuster movie everyone's talking about, Black Panther. Retamar stated that black people in the Americas are the strongest, most beautiful most intelligent people in the world.
He explained why.
Before slaves were transported from Africa, he said, they were closely inspected for their strength, beauty, and intelligence. Their arms and legs were assessed for their musculature. Like horses for sale, their teeth were scrutinized. Women were evaluated in terms of their beauty and apparent ability to reproduce. Only the best were selected and shipped abroad. Those who didn't measure up were left behind.
Then on the Middle Passage, only about half -- again, the best of the best themselves survived.
When the slaves arrived at the auction block those evolutionary wonders were once again culled -- for strength, beauty, skills and intelligence.
The culled are the ancestors of today's African Americans, who remain, not surprisingly, the strongest, most beautiful and smartest people on the planet.
That's what Retamar said. And it thrilled me and our mostly African-American students.
The same thrill is today being experienced nearly universally by millions of African-Americans and others across the world as they view the Disney and Marvel Comics film, Black Panther.
It celebrates the beauty, strength, intelligence and resourcefulness of Africans and African-Americans in a magnificent display of their inherent gifts. The film has been called "a defining moment for black America."
That's because Black Panther's stellar cast is nearly all African or African-American. And to reference another great man, in the movie's mythical country of Wakanda, all the women are strong, the men are beautiful, and all the children are above average.
Moreover, the film presents themes that are anti-colonial, pro-liberation, wonderfully African and conscious of the oppression that people of color to this day experience everywhere.
The bare bones of the narrative are reminiscent of Greek tragedy: The benevolent king of a fabulously wealthy African country (Wakanda) has died. His virtuous son, T'Challa, is selected to fill the vacancy. But there's a rival for the throne. It's his villainous cousin, who challenges and defeats and apparently kills T'Challa in ritual hand-to-hand combat. The cousin proceeds to head a regime that tramples on tradition, disrespects women, and uses his country's wealth for evil purposes. But T'Challa returns from his coma to restore order, tradition, and prosperity. He shares his nation's wealth with the rest of the world.
Again, it's a classic story whose details celebrate blackness, names white supremacist racism for what it is, and calls for revolution against colonialism in past and present forms. All of that is ground-breaking and entirely admirable.
However, the film pulls its punches severely leaving its potentially revolutionary message muddled and garbled. That's true to such an extent that Black Panther finally comes across anti-revolutionary propaganda for the status quo and CIA. The attentive will see this as they witness a film that: