I dropped my friend off after we saw Black Panther together last night. It was Wednesday, April 4. 50 years to the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The drive home wasn't long, and I tend to let my brain shift into autopilot. Pulling up to a red light, I noticed how my muscles reacted reflexively to the color of the light and the flow of the crossing traffic. I have done this hundreds--thousands--of times before. My body is trained to respond to input around me, to keep me safe and to get where I need to go.
I learned the rules of driving through observance, mostly. Watching my parents' responses to traffic, trying to anticipate what they would do next in any given situation. We all do this to some extent, right? Absorb lessons on life by watching those around us and how they respond?
As a woman, I learned through observing just how I should try to act in order to fit myself into emotional and intellectual spaces. As a fat person, I learned through observing just how small I should try to be in order to fit into physical spaces. I grew up with a Hispanic last name, but I learned how to make sure people knew I was Cuban and not Mexican, because where I am from that's 'better.' No one sat me down to teach me these things. Well, a few times they did. But mostly, I just absorbed it all.
Watching Black Panther last night was like encountering an ambulance coming around the corner, sirens blaring, disrupting me from my autopilot daze and forcing me to hit my brakes and watch with wonder as it passed me by. An ambulance, carrying healing with urgency. An ambulance not for me. But when I look down at my chest, my heart is bleeding, and I realize that I need to follow that ambulance wherever it is going so that I can be healed, too.
When the movie premiered, I earnestly wanted to see it. On opening night, my Facebook feed was filled with my beautiful friends of color all decked out in glorious array. Their arms were crossed over their chests and they stared straight into the camera with defiant and joy-filled smiles. I knew that this film wasn't made for me, but I still wanted to learn its story and see its beauty. But it was February, and I wash pushing a deadline for my book. There just wasn't an opportunity for me, and I grieved that.
Fast-forward seven weeks. My book manuscript is turned in, and I finally have the resources--financially, emotionally, and time-wise--to see it. I didn't mean to go on the 50th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was martyred.
The majesty of Wakanda. The spirit of its people. The colors and the sights and the technology and the passion. The empowered women and the tenderness of the men and the Afro-futurism that captured my imagination...
The words of Martin Luther King, Jr echo in my heart. Wakanda seems to me the dream fleshed out, come alive, reaching hearts and changing the world. The credits roll and I realize that there are tears tracing a path on my cheeks. What have my ancestors done? What beautiful people they stole and brutally tortured for profit. My soul cries out--not only for the pain and tragedy that brutalized beautiful people of God, but for the healing we have not yet received for the sin of racism we carry in our hearts.
We absorb white supremacy and racism just like any other lesson we learn, from the people around us even when no one gives us a direct set of instructions. I have absorbed so much from my cultural exposure, and I confess that when I began to examine my heart regarding race, I found and regularly still find ugly and offensive sin. I have wrongly believed that black people were more prone to violence than white people. I have wrongly believed that black people are lazy and looking for welfare. I have wrongly believed that my smart friends who were black were "acting white," as if intelligence and eloquence were attributes of whiteness. I have accused people of playing "the race card" and being too political, as if our faith could be lived out in an unpolitical vacuum. I have wrongly believed that my expression of Christian faith is the best expression, and I have belittled, ignored, and neglected the amazing faith and story and struggle of the black Church.
As God continues to confront me with the sins of racism and white supremacy within me, my heart is raw. I need the ambulance to bring a healing dose of Vibranium--the beautiful infusion of culture and life and power and vulnerability and incarnated reality that exists in these precious and mighty people made in the image of God.
I know it is no coincidence that this movie came out this year, 50 years after the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain for his radical commitment to racial justice. The reality of racial injustice has not disappeared or faded into the background. Reading the text of MLK Jr's I Have a Dream speech, I am in awe of his power as an orator, speaking truth to power. This paragraph in particular struck me in light of Black Panther and Wakanda.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
His words are as true today as they were in 1963, and Black Panther stirred me to see this in a new way. Wakanda's majestic heights are a force to my soul. I cannot stay in the comfortable mode of self-preservation. My destiny and the destiny of my children and grandchildren are bound to the freedom of every person of color who is denied justice. Wakanda gave me a foretaste of what racial justice looks like, where black people are celebrated and honored and empowered and free.
For months, my heart has been heavy over racial injustice. I can no longer keep silent. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and as a Christian, I have a duty to act to correct the plight of my black and brown neighbors as urgently as I would for the sake of my own children.
To my friends of color: I am sorry that I have lived in ignorance of your pains and your joys. Thank you for being patient with me. I have so much to learn, but your faith and hope are a testimony to me that all things are possible with God.
To my white friends: We have so much to learn. Let's listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters of color and humble ourselves before them. All things are possible with God.
We cannot walk alone. There is much grieving, much repenting, much listening to be done, and we must do it together. When we feel overwhelmed or insignificant or simply not up to the task at hand, we must remember: all things are possible with God.
If you think that social justice is annoying or too political or corollary to the Gospel and not a concern for Christians (and especially if you are Catholic), I will conclude with the summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Social Justice.
1943 Society ensures social justice by providing the conditions that allow associations and individuals to obtain their due.
1944 Respect for the human person considers the other "another self." It presupposes respect for the fundamental rights that flow from the dignity intrinsic of the person.
1945 The equality of men concerns their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it.
1946 The differences among persons belong to God's plan, who wills that we should need one another. These differences should encourage charity.
1947 The equal dignity of human persons requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities. It gives urgency to the elimination of sinful inequalities.
1948 Solidarity is an eminently Christian virtue. It practices the sharing of spiritual goods even more than material ones.
(Read in more detail here.)