Like my native tongue, Wakanda bridges the cultural gap between my African ancestry and Black American life
We, descendants of stolen Africans, want to put on the clothes and feel, if only just for a little while, the connection to our homeland.
by Antoinette Gregg
Until I moved to New York City for graduate school, I had never been asked the question, “What kind of Black are you?” Growing up, there was only one kind of Black that I knew of: Geechee.
A hodgepodge of Caribbean, African, and European ways of life, Geechee/Gullah is the culture, language, and cuisine of many Black folks along the Southeast U.S. coast from North Carolina to Florida, with Charleston, South Carolina at the epicenter.
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Many people’s frame of reference when it comes to the Geechee/Gullah nation comes from the popular Nickelodeon children’s show, Gullah Gullah Island. The show, which took place on one of the islands owned by the Geechee/Gullah nation in South Carolina, gave folks a glimpse into this population of Black Americans who were able to hold on to some of their ancestral traditions through speech, food, and basket weaving.
The patois of Geechee people is a mix of African dialects and English, along with some AAVE. This came about historically due to the massive amounts of slaves that were bought and sold in Charleston. Its port was the number one port in America to disseminate stolen Africans throughout the continental United States. Those Black folks who were enslaved in Charleston and surrounding areas had to be able to communicate with the stolen folk coming into port but also learn the language of their captors. Through years of this duality my culture was born.
Folks always tell me that my culture is seems one notch closer to Africa than some other Black Americans. One friend of mine went so far as to say, “Your language is an instrument of your liberation.” He went on to say that the fact that I can directly trace certain words straight to a word in an African tongue means that throughout generations of enslavement, my family and our culture carried a tangible connection to Africa that is present in my everyday life.
Soon after, we visited the Black Smithsonian and saw an exhibit tracing the direct linguistic markers of Geechee to Africa. He admitted that it made him jealous because he unfortunately does not have that much depth and connection to Africa in his Black American experience.
Last year, I was able to have my DNA tested through a campaign known as Activists for Ancestry, and when the results came in I was surprised and excited to see that results are 97% African. Looking at the list of the countries that my DNA traced back to made me feel so elated and grounded. Since then, I have become determined to read ferociously about each country and eventually visit them so I can know more about where I and my ancestors come from.
The hype surrounding Marvel’s Black Panther as we eagerly awaited its release this past year inspired me to think even more deeply about my heritage, especially because I was excited to see people who look like me in the film.
The memes, gifs, videos, and posts about planning Black Panther attire and anticipating the experience of being in the theater together. I saw folks are paying homage to the Black Panther Party, wearing all Black, or kente cloths and headwraps. People went to the theaters wearing Dashikis, kufis, and traditional garb of the Yoruba and Igbo. I saw my skinfolk truly showing their excitement. Yes, all the pomp was built up for this huge dose of representation in a major film, but I think it was and is due to more than that.
I believe that we, descendants of stolen Africans, want to put on the clothes and show up en masse to feel, if only just for a little while, the connections to our homeland that was stolen from us. And what better way to do this through Wakanda?
Black Panther is a coalescing of African and American. It is a truly hyphenated movie. Marvel (as your neighborhood hotep would tell you) is a white-owned, billion-dollar company which has made most of its money from white-centered superhero entertainment. But now, here come T’Challa and the Dora Milaje.
Seeing the beautiful, epic stills and photos, trailers and the like over the past two years, and now the film itself, have lifted the spirits of Black Americans at the same time that the presidential administration seeks every day to do the opposite. To dream of a better world for Black folk as white supremacy continually rears its head and works against us is cathartic.
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Watching Black people get hype and declare #BlackPantherSoLit was healing for me, and after Black Panther weekend finally arrived and I was able to see all the cosplay and African prints in theaters, I felt even closer to my ancestors.
As we took in the film, many of us were able to feel for those couple of hours that our shackles were broken. Just for a little while, we were among past generations on the shores of Africa, dancing in celebration with our tribe.
Antoinette J. Gregg is a sociologist, activist, and organizer dedicated to empowering marginalized populations. She has experience organizing and directing in the fights for higher education affordability and access, livable wages and lives in general. She worked with NYPIRG to keep New York free from hydrofracking, she helped fast food workers in New York’s Fight For $15 campaign as an organizer, she is versed in fundraising and development both on the ground and on the screen lending a hand to organizations like NYPIRG, Justice League NYC, and Everytown for Gun Safety; and, she has been active in various organizations and actions to put an end to police brutality and the killing of Black folk.