Tess Raser’s students have been studying colonialism in Africa for a month now. Next week — as part of the lesson plan — she intends to take her sixth graders to see Marvel’s Black Panther. For Raser, who teaches at an elementary school in Chicago’s South Side, Black Panther invites her students to meditate on Africa and its diaspora through the imaginary country of Wakanda. She is using the film to explore the legacy of colonialism in Africa and, then, racism in the United States.
Raser’s curriculum is as ambitious as the movie she draws inspiration from. In broad-strokes, Black Panther, a comic book turned blockbuster, follows superhero King T’Challa as he struggles to support the highly-advanced African nation, Wakanda. More deeply, Black Panther reflects on pan-Africanism, racial politics, and imperialism. The conflict between King T’Challa and his cousin Erik Killmonger — as the Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II writes — underscores “the nature of power and the rightness of its use… that have dominated black thought in the United States.”
For educators, Black Panther marks an opportunity to unpack these heavy themes with young people while also celebrating Black beauty more broadly under a racist, “America first” presidency. It’s tricky, but the movie makes it easier and more accessible, multiple educators told ThinkProgress.
The film is purposefully timely — as it’s released in February, a month dedicated to understanding Black history. Moreover, the release coincides with an especially tumultuous social and political period, and gives teachers an opportunity to incorporate potentially controversial issues in lessons, which — as educator Clint Smith explains — is no easy feat.
The cast and crew of Black Panther attending The Black Panther European Premiere at The Eventim Apollo Hammersmith London. (Photo by Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images)
Students will come for flashy fighting scenes, but perhaps they’ll notice, for example, the African cultural representation throughout the film. Wakanda, a fictionalized nation that escapes white imperialism, showcases a pan-African universe, and Raser is making sure her students know this universe reflects real traditions and tribes. In her lesson plan, which she shared online for other educators to utilize, she compares characters to existing African cultures. The Black Panther’s best fighter, General Okoye, wore Ndebele-inspired neck rings and, as Raser goes on to explain, “the Ndebele people in Zimbabwe/South Africa wear these rings as a sign of wealth and status.”
“It’s easy to engage them in things they are already interested in and what is contemporary,” Raser told ThinkProgress. Raser is asking her students to critically engage with the film, just as they would with other works of fiction.
The biggest, perhaps most prominent takeaway is the blackness of the actors and actresses, said Vanesha McGee, former teacher and now-education consultant based in Denver, Colorado. And this is why it’s especially important for kids of color to engage with this film, she said. The movie is also directed, written, and scored by Black people, and for this, everything from the music to the characters is without racial tropes and is, instead, multifaceted.
For instance, the slated antagonist, Killmonger, is far more complex than the average villain. While King T’Challa rejects his cousin’s aspiration of world domination, the Black Panther also empathizes with him and is even influenced by him. And kids can make personal connections with this conflict — the muddled reality of good and bad — McGee said.
But of course, “you don’t want to influence them on what it means to them,” said McGee of students’ interpretation of the film and its characters. She also posted a guide for educators on her blog on how to talk about the movie in the classroom.
Admittedly, it can still be hard for educators to teach aspects of this film. McGee said teachers have reached out to her, expressing obstacles when discussing colorism, more so than racism, perhaps because the former isn’t as embedded in popular culture. Even so, the film, which features dark-skinned Black women in leading roles, does present a good opportunity to talk about colorism — discrimination based on skin tone — in a more encouraging, conversational way.
Because Black Panther is as entertaining as it is educational, crowdfunding campaigns have been sending young people nationwide to see the movie. Critically-acclaimed rapper/producer Kendrick Lamar bought Black Panther movie tickets for 1,000 Los Angeles kids living in the Watts housing project. Little Miss Flint, Mari Copeny, raised enough money to send 150 kids in Flint, Michigan to a free screening. As 10-year-old Copeny explained, “Black Panther gives Flint kids a chance to see themselves represented on the big screen as royalty and heroes.”
While some are skeptical of this approach — as even supporting this movie means supporting white capitalism — Black Panther does signify a big cultural moment — and so it’s important to see it. And, as ThinkProgress’s Sam Fulwood III goes to explain, Black Panther is an “unapologetic black event” and so, for Black people — and especially the youth — viewing it is critical.
As we are finding the “Wakanda within ourselves” let’s not forget the importance of having these conversations and reflecting with our young people. https://t.co/uM4k03B054 offers readings, learning worksheets, and you can find campaigns to still support. #BlackPantherChallenge
— Frederick Joseph (@FredTJoseph) February 21, 2018
“As we are finding the ‘Wakanda within ourselves’ let’s not forget the importance of having these conversations and reflecting with our young people,” said Frederick Joseph, the creator of the #BlackPantherChallenge, on Twitter. He’s been helping children see Black Panther for free and is also offering resources and readings for kids to reflect on the film afterwards. And who is better positioned to moderate these conversations than our teachers?