Like much of the rest of Black America, I spent my entire weekend thinking about, talking about, and celebrating Black Panther. The central question that I think the characters in the film are grappling with is how do we, as people of African heritage (both on the continent and in the diaspora), define and carry out our responsibility to care for each other? Particularly given the fact that Western colonialism and capitalism have created such widespread poverty, inequality, and oppression throughout the globe (but which Wakanda has managed to escape), what are the responsibilities of those who do have some power and means towards those who have less?
Teams have been chosen and much has been written about the differing approaches presented in the film: Killmonger/N’Jdaka (and his father N’Jobu) want to arm the oppressed communities of the world and create a Wakandan empire, W’Kabi also wants imperialism and thinks Wakanda can “rule them all, the right way,” and Nakia wants to take in refugees and provide aid to other countries. Ultimately, T’Challa decides to share Wakanda’s knowledge and resources through outreach centers, and join the efforts of the UN – a path that many of us were dissatisfied with as it relies on existing imperialistic aid and power structures.
If I have to choose a side, I’m #TeamNakia. But, as I heard her implore T’Challa to engage in humanitarian efforts, I couldn’t help but feel that just as Wakanada could become a violent, colonialist power by following the paths of either Killmonger or W’Kabi, it could just as easily become the new benevolent savior, handing out aid to other countries on the continent (or to kids in Oakland for that matter) who would then become dependent on its support.
In the worst-case scenario, both Nakia and the Killmonger’s solutions could end up mimicking the worst parts of the oppressive power structures, only with black, instead of white, people on top. But, even in the best-case scenarios, neither of these solutions are sustainable in the long term. Is a single country supposed to provide aid for the world indefinitely? And what happens when the vibranium runs out?
The film touches on many real-world problems faced by black and brown people, including violent over-policing in the US, extreme poverty on the continent, and massive wealth inequality around the globe. The solutions to these problems are complex and were not fully articulated in this film, but that’s ok; raising the questions is important in and of itself. I believe we need a multi-pronged approach in the fight for liberation and equality and that investment in communities is a key component of that fight.
The term investment is often associated with giving money in exchange for ownership in order to get maximum financial returns for the investor. I’m referring to a broader type of investment (sometimes called "impact investing"), which consists of putting in time and energy, as well as money and other resources, to create returns (or benefits) that are distributed amongst investors, organizations and communities. These benefits should not only take the form of profits but also of self-determination and sustainability so that resources (including wealth) can be equitably shared.
From the old cliché, we know that “giving a man a fish” is good, and “teaching a man to fish” is better. But, in considering solutions to inequality, rarely do we think beyond charity or training people for survival within the current system. These are useful approaches in some situations, but they do not ensure lasting equality. For example, knowing how to fish does not do you any good if the owner of the pond puts a fence around it. It would be better if the fisherman owns the pond, but one day he may also decide to put up a fence so he can keep all the fish for himself. Better still would be for the community to have collective stewardship (or caretaking) rights over the pond. This way they can ensure that everyone has access to fish and that the ecological health of the pond is preserved for future generations.
For the record, I don’t believe capitalism will get us to liberation, or that everything should be bought, sold, or owned (including things like water and access to healthcare), but within the reality of our current system, somebody does, in fact, own the pond. In the short and medium term, communities who are fighting for liberation can use those ownership structures to determine for themselves how resources should be used and shared, and therefore take back some control over their lives. Ultimately, I believe we want to get to a system of collective stewardship, by which I mean that people have the right to control resources, but also the responsibility to care for and preserve them for the benefit of all.
Recently there has been a lot of press around black elites giving back to communities. Most efforts have focused on “giving a man a fish.” Sometimes that’s done thoughtfully—in cases like Kaepernick, or Beyoncé and Jay-Z supporting organizing groups and non-profits that are working to increase community access and control to resources in a sustainable way. But then we also have Drake peddling some serious poverty porn with his “God’s Plan” video, portraying himself as the savior of helpless black and brown communities. The video was moving (I definitely shed a tear), and many will argue that at least he’s doing something, but I’d like to see more people focus on strategies that provide a pathway out of poverty and increase collective wealth and equality for the long term.
Black celebrities and wealth holders who do not want to repeat the cycles of dependence and oppression we’ve seen in the past would do well to focus on investing their capital into things the black community can own and manage, in a way that prioritizes collective welfare. The existence of a growing black elite is certainly progress, but I’d now like to see us ask the harder questions, like those posed in the film, around how those elites are lifting up others and making sure that the resources they enjoy are creating a better future for everyone.
The good news is there are many real-world organizations that create and support structures for community ownership and access. Take, for example, Cooperation Jackson, who is “building a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.” They are part of a global network of worker-owned coops who are creating a new power structure in businesses across every sector. There are also venture capital firms like Impact America Fund and Cross Culture Ventures who seek to support underrepresented entrepreneurs and diversify access to capital. And, for those of us who may not have millions of dollars to invest, but do have some disposable income in the bank, we can move our money to organizations like Southern Bancorp, a black-owned Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which “combines traditional banking and lending services with financial development tools and public policy advocacy to help families and communities grow stronger.” I feel lucky that through my work with Candide Group, where we strive to build a more just and sustainable economy, I’m part of a growing movement of people who support businesses and organizations that are committed to increasing power and access to resources in the communities that need it most.
Black Panther marks a joyous and important cultural moment and indeed there is much to celebrate, including increased representation and the fact that a whole lot (by Hollywood standards) of people who look like us got paid for their craft. However, if we want to more deeply engage with the movie’s central question of how we define and enact our responsibility to care for each other, we should seek out community investments that help to distribute ownership so that we can move towards a world where power and resources are not held by a small group of elites (Black or otherwise), but shared and stewarded by communities for the benefit of all and for future generations.