Around the world, people mourn the unexpected death of actor Chadwick Boseman, a man whose Hollywood career featured many roles from prominent African Americans from history, to a prominent African in the comic book world. In his roles, and as a fine actor, he served as an inspiration for people in and outside the movie industry.
And as the world reflects on the man and his legacy, I think it’s fitting to consider the words he gave us as T’Challa, the superhero known as Black Panther, in the movie Black Panther. At the end of the movie, in a mid-credits scene, T’Challa stands before the United Nations after he has been shown that the isolationism his father and forefathers espoused may have done more harm than good in the world, and he decides it is not only within his power, but a moral imperative, to change that policy. Prominent in his address is this:
We will work to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this earth should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.
How apropos is this sentiment, especially now in our history when racial unrest has once again flared up, fanned by political divisiveness, economic struggles and distrust of authority at the street level and up. Yes, the words were carefully chosen by the writers to directly address the policies of the current US administration… but they are not wrong. And they serve as inspiring words that all people should take to heart.
Perhaps the last sentence is the most powerful because, as T’Challa suggests, we are all of one tribe—equal members of the same family—the Human Race. We all came from the same mother, we spread across the planet from the same family; and though, over the years, our appearances have changed, we all share 100% of the same DNA elements. All of us. We are only separated by differences in the expression of those elements… just as the differences in those expressions make my brother look different than me. But we are all still the same.
Over those years of spreading across the world, we have banded together in small groups for support and protection; we created tribes. Those tribes have expanded as our skills and abilities improved, keeping us protected, keeping us fed, and allowing us to learn from each other and continue to improve our collective lot. And those tribes would meet new tribes, combine resources, and grow even further. At first, tribalism was a good thing.
But over time, tribes coming into contact with other tribes began competing for resources instead of sharing and cooperating, and tribalism came to mean a very different thing; it separated peoples, it defined social groups, and in so doing, defined outside tribes as different, untrustworthy… dangerous. Objects to fight, to dominate, or to enslave. And this form of tribalism has been the net cause of the vast majority of the war and strife in the world.
In the movie Black Panther, Erik Killmonger, the antagonist, a lost member of the royal family, confronts T’Challa and the leaders of Wakanda and accuses them of holding back their resources, including their ability to help the Africans that have been enslaved, dominated, stolen from and kept down, largely by European imperialists around the world; and Erik is angry enough about it to forcibly demand change. Wakanda, a collection of tribes, wars with itself over the issue of change versus isolationism and the status quo; and T’Challa, at first accepting of the old traditions, comes to realize that Erik is right—isolationism is no longer the best direction for the world. A popular moral in superhero comics is that With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility; and T’Challa finally understands that his responsibility extends beyond the borders of Wakanda.
We might not actually have the technological capabilities of the fictional country of Wakanda; but today, with our combined vast resources, and the ability to take care of everyone on the planet many times over, it’s time to make tribalism mean what it used to mean: Banding everyone together for mutual support and protection. T’Challa’s message meant that his nation would share their knowledge and resources with the rest of the world, to make all of it a better place. And it can only become a better place when we all recognize that, differences aside, we have much more in common, and much more reason to stand together, than to stand apart.
Chadwick Boseman referred to us all as one tribe. Let’s start acting like it.