This morning, I woke up to the shouts of “Mammy, Mammy, Black Panther is dead. He died of cancer. Mammy, Black Panther is dead.” My eleven year old is standing in his boxers, PlayStation controller in his hand, headset on his head, and his ribs poking out of his skinny little white chest as he was breathing fast. “That’s not true baby boy.” “It is, it is! My friends told me, check Google.” I look at him, pull out my phone and go on twitter. And there it is:
Chadwick Boseman died from colon cancer aged 43.
I look at Adam. “Mammy, what are we going to do?” The Marvel Movies are our thing, Adam and I. Our favourite is Black Panther. “I don’t know…Let’s watch Black Panther tonight, together.”
So, what has the passing of a Black actor at 43 years of age got to do with early childhood education and care you might ask? Everything. The answer is the passing of Chadwick Boseman has everything to do with Early Childhood Education and Care, and while we don’t want to intrude on Black folk’s grief right now, we do have to sit with this untimely death and examine the lessons that Marvel’s Black Panther, Wakanda, and King T’Challa (whom Boseman brought to life) have to teach us as educators.
Not only was Marvel’s Black Panther the first major, portrayal of a Black superhero on screens worldwide, it was also the first significant movie for a generation of children of all colours and creeds where Africa is presented as technologically superior, medically advanced, wealthy, beautiful, and culturally and socially advanced. It simultaneously gave a glimpse of Africa before colonialism, an Africa which might have existed without colonialism, and a taste of some of the urban and rural realities of present day cities and landscapes in many African countries.
King T’Challa is a good and righteous leader who takes guidance from his elders and who leads other clans and tribes, not as a dictator, but as a just leader. Black women are also presented as strong women in Black Panther – not angry, or embittered – but strong, intelligent women who are listened to, and respected by, their king.
In a reversal of popular culture's expectations and stereotypes, it is Black Panther who, at the end of The Avengers: End Game, steps forward into the darkness of battlefield from a bright light on the other side offering hope and salvation to his White counterparts who are war weary, weakened, and near defeat. Black Panther comes back from the dead to save the day, accompanied on either side by his sister, Churi, and Okoye, the female general of his army. This is the second time Black Panther has defeated death and come back to save the world – twice resurrected. In a now iconic clip, which last just seconds, the narrative is flipped about who can save and who needs saving.
The mythical land of Wakanda, where King T’Challa reigns, is not the Africa as whole, the popular cultural representation offered up to generations which came before Marvel’s Black Panther. I am of an age where I remember vividly the images from Ethiopia of starving children, flies, and barren land shown during Live Aid. I sang the lyrics to Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. I remember the Black African children with swollen bellies on the front of the Trocaire boxes at Easter. This was the “Africa” offered to us. I also remember old movies focusing on poverty, slaves, and slavery. Africa wasn’t presented as a huge diverse landmass with many countries but almost as one country.
In my childhood, teenage years, and on into adulthood, programmes and movies that I and my contemporaries watched perpetuated many of the lazy cultural stereotypes that Black Panther countered - where Black women were angry single mom’s or angry old women, Black daddies who were no good or absent, and drug use was prevalent. I remember the over-sexualised bodies of young Black women appearing on MTV, and the animalistic or overexaggerated features of Black men inserted everywhere we were supposed to see bad or evil – Darth Vader in Star Wars, Skeletor in He-Man. I watched popular cartoons or animated movies where African children were portrayed as animals or raised by animals, taking on animalistic characteristics such as The Lion King, Tarzan, The Jungle Book. Black people served up for White people’s gaze.
Even the Disney princesses are not immune to popular culture referencing Black people and People of Colour as less than or animalistic. It took a lecture given by Dr. Victoria Showunmi, at Maynooth University, a few years ago for me to begin to understand Disney’s complicity in stereotyping and perpetuating anti-blackness and the exoticizing of Black culture and the culture of other Peoples of Colour. Dr. Showunmi spoke about her youngest daughter’s disappointment at the much anticipated, first Black Disney princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog. According to Dr. Showunmi, her daughter shrugged afterwards and remarked that Tiana was not a real princess because she never wore the princess gown. When Dr. Showunmi looked further she noticed that no princess of colour has ever worn the trademark blue and pink princess gowns (or purple if they were born into royalty) which indicates on a subliminal or indirect level that they are not “real” princesses.
As an ECEC professional and an advocate of the anti-bias approach, I looked deeper and was introduced to the work of two scholars – Kimberly Moffitt and Heather Harris – who analysed the racial implications and characterisations of Disney’s first Black princess and found their research participants (who were Black mothers) agreed that Charlotte, Tiana’s best friend was actually presented as the “real” princess in the movie. Shockingly, Moffitt found that in the 95 minute movie, Tiana is represented in human form for only 17.15 minutes, and of those 17.15 minutes, she is only on screen as a princess for 3.15 minutes at the end – for the remainder of the movie Tiana take the form of a green frog (Moffit, 2019).
Where The Princess and the Frog disappointed young Black girls, Marvel’s Black Panther surpassed expectations and set a new bar. Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Black Panther represented all that Black people hoped it would and more. It rewrote the cultural script. Black Panther tore up the tired, damaging stereo-type and demanded that Black people and Africa as a continent be seen for who and what they are, who they know they are.
So, Chadwick Boseman’s death has much to do with Early Childhood Education and Care. What he brought to the character of Black Panther, and what he offered the world was a re-imagining – an alternative way to see things, to question what we think we know, and the opportunity to see what we have not noticed before. If Boseman can spend four years living with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy while filming and changing the cultural script of how a generation of young children see themselves and how they are seen, then as professionals we can take a few hours out of our week each week to audit ourselves, our rooms, and our resources and ask ourselves: How do I engage with cultural scripts? What do I say to children? What does this book / toy / resource say to children? We can hold ourselves and our professional colleagues responsible for the perpetuation of damaging cultural scripts or popular culture’s lazy stereotypes. And, finally, we can do the work of educating ourselves in anti-bias and anti-racist literature that Black people and People of Colour, who no longer have the emotional energy (and who shouldn’t have had to do so in the first place) having selflessly, and with great harm to themselves, been doing to educate us for decades. Most importantly, we must do this without centring ourselves or our feelings.
Rest in Power, Chadwick Boseman, and may your family and community be left in peace to grieve you and celebrate your all too short life.