| ‘Black Panther’ Reminds Us Why Pan-African Unity Is Still Important

February 22, 2018

A lack of connection to history fragments the diaspora. [flipped this!] It means a perpetual sense of being overlooked. I remember my shock when I found my hometown, Orangeburg, South Carolina, the subject of a New York Times article on the 2016 election. Orangeburg is home to two historically black universities and the site of the 1968 Orangeburg massacre, where police killed three unarmed students and injured 27 more for trying to bowl at a segregated bowling alley. The city had only garnered attention because residents in a traditionally mainstream Democratic county were considering voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary. The article ran on Feb. 11, 2016, almost 48 years to the day of the massacre, which happened on Feb. 8, 1968. The Times covered the massacre two years later, in 1970, for an article that discusses it primarily in relation to the Kent State shooting and another student protest in Jackson, Mississippi. However, few outside of visitors to the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center in Orangeburg, which was named in honor of the slain young men, know who they are. 

Being kept in the periphery of history lessons is common among communities in the diaspora and in Africa. Benin is one of those small countries that rarely receive international attention. The history of the Kingdom of Dahomey, which fought French invaders but was eventually defeated, is fairly accessible. What people know less about are the numerous small nations, like the Bariba in the north of Benin, who were also subsumed in the defeat, and who suddenly found their lives upended by a foreign presence without ever engaging in direct struggle. Elderly residents in a Bariba village in northern Benin recalled the trauma of sudden French occupation in a 2014 documentary called “Sous l’arbre a Palabres.” Their history is largely unacknowledged by the world, and even sometimes among themselves, as the film captures.

When Killmonger meets his death, he says that he would rather join his enslaved ancestors who jumped ship in the Atlantic Ocean rather than spend their lives in chains. The poignancy of the statement encompasses the assault on black freedom, which includes mass incarceration. But when I spoke to my friend, Pretty Adjanohoun, a 28-year-old from Benin who also saw the movie, I found that the mass incarceration reference was lost on her. Instead, she homed in on the film’s depiction of “the Africa of the future,” her term for the movie’s Afrofuturism genre.

It made her think of Africa as beautiful and lush, she said. As someone who has never left Benin, who is used to the red clay and monochromatic cement architecture of its cities, the landscapes of the movie, which recall northern Ethiopia, were pure fantasy. Africa is indeed lush and majestic but she, like so many Africans, cannot easily travel the continent due to expensive intercontinental flights and visa requirements. Though more countries are scrapping visa requirements, flights are still often cost prohibitive.

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