2 months since Marvel Studios’ release of Black Panther and it is now the second-biggest superhero movie in terms of tickets sold, lagging only behind the movie Avengers – its parent project. The critically acclaimed film has won the hearts of a diverse swath of moviegoers of all backgrounds, but it’s no secret that Black Panther was a highly anticipated film for black people, by black people.
As the first 100+ million dollar film directed by a black man and centered around a predominantly black cast depicting an uncolonized black utopia – Black Panther isn’t just another installment in the Marvel Comics superhero storyline; it stands apart as a celebration of blackness and the richness of the African Diaspora. Perhaps even more so than blackness in general, Black Panther is a celebration of black women specifically.
Black Panther introduces us to the Dora Milaje, an all female army of the fiercest, most loyal defenders of the thrown and protector of King T’Challa, the Black Panther himself. We meet Angela Basset as Ramonda, the mother and once queen of Wakanda as a regal and wise matriarch guiding and encouraging her son as he takes his rightful place as King. And my favorite character, Shuri – the Wakandan Princess and brains behind the most STEM advanced nation on earth who develops all of the technology that helps Wakanda thrive and the Black Panther survive. Black women are the lifeblood of Wakanda, and if you just can’t get enough of them, you can see more of the Women of Wakanda in Marvel’s latest installment – Infinity Wars.
But we don’t have to go to the movies or an imaginary African country to see this dynamic play out. In reality, black women have always been the lifeblood of society – they just never get the recognition they deserve because, racism. Because, misogyny. In 1962 Malcolm X famously said, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” He was right then, and he’d still be right today in most cases.
Perhaps the closest we come to a Wakandan society where black women are the lifeblood circulating through the body is the black church. Like in Wakanda, black women are the most loyal members and protectors of the black church. And like in Wakanda black women power the programs and build the infrastructure needed to sustain the black church. Women make up an estimated 70-90% of black congregations, so it’s no surprise that they are the hands and feet of the black church body. But like in Wakanda, women are largely still not given the opportunity to be the head of the church body.
There is a scene in the movie Black Panther where anyone of Wakandan descent can challenge the succession of T’Challa as heir to the throne. When Zuri, the elder Statesman played by Forrest Whitaker asks if there is anyone brave enough to challenge T’Challa for the opportunity to be crowned King of Wakanda, T’Challa’s sister, Princess Shuri, playfully interjects as if she was challenging her brother, only to jokingly ask, “Can we get on with this already??” Yet the initial reaction Ramonda gives Shuri before learning that she is only kidding is one of shock and disbelief. As if to say, “how dare you – a woman – have the audacity to challenge tradition, but even more than that, your own brother, a man – THE man, for the throne?”
Even when we are given the power to create our own utopian society where black women are held at a higher regard, they are still not held at the highest regard. Patriarchy is so engrained in our reality that it even infiltrates our imagination. Wakanda is not much different than the black church in this regard.
I recall worshipping in a black church once where all the ministers present were asked to stand and bring greetings, some of them being women. When it was a woman’s time to share she was passed over as if she was invisible because this particular black church tradition didn’t recognize female ordained ministers as being ordained by God. It was humiliating. Yet the greeter at the front door of the church was a black woman. And the person who showed me to my seat. And the person that brought announcements to the church. And the people that tended to the members physically moved by the Holy Ghost. And the lead in the choir. And the people in the kitchen that fed us after the service. And…
Quite frankly, if all of those women and every woman in attendance decided not to show up to church that day, there’d be no worship. Yet and still black women can be the hands and feet of the black church, but they cannot be the head. It wasn’t until this year, 2018, that for the first time in history an African American woman became the lead pastor of a 20,000+ member megachurch when Bishop IV Hilliard of New Light Christian Center Church in Houston, TX named his daughter, Dr. Irishea Hilliard senior pastor.
When asked by KTRK ABC 13 News about her father’s decision to name her as his successor, Dr. Hilliard explains, “He really wanted a boy and I was supposed to be a boy. He always thought, you know, I don’t have a boy, so I don’t have someone to pass the church to, but in that moment, God spoke to him and told him he got it right, and that I was always meant to be his successor and take over the ministry and I was his promised seed.”
But what if he’d had that boy he always wanted? Would Dr. Irishea Hilliard have been an afterthought or would she have been allowed to compete with her brother for the top spot at their church? What if King T’Chaka never had T’Challa? Would tradition then take a back seat to entertain Princess Shuri as the rightful heir to the Wakandan throne? If Wakanda’s greatness is hinged upon a society predominantly sustained by women – what then could the possibilities be if those very women were given an opportunity to lead?
I pose this very question to black churches everywhere. During this era of #metoo, #timesup, #WakandaForever, and all the other hashtags that highlight the powerful influence of women, I hope that black women in particular, are not just the honorees of our Women’s History Month programs at church, but that they are being praised year round for their leadership, and therefore considered as more than just the hands and feet of the black body of Christ.
Otherwise the black church Dora Milaje is reduced to a Dora Mirage – a figment of our collective imaginations that tricks us into believing that we’re doing black women a service, when in reality Princess Shuri still can’t be King.
A version of this article was originally published at The Christian Recorder.