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In February 2018, the action film Black Panther was released in theaters worldwide. For fans of comic books everywhere, this was an important moment because the story of the Black Panther was a critical puzzle piece in the broader Marvel Universe. Wakanda, the fictional home of the super hero, was also the source of vibranium; one of the galaxy’s most powerful metals and the key ingredient of Captain America’s shield. But even if you weren’t a fan of comic books or Marvel, the film reached and impacted casual movie-goers; especially if you were Black.
It was one of the few moments in pop culture, we, as a community, had a reason to feel proud and celebrated in broad daylight. So as the film smashed box office records, its success became our success. A rare moment where we felt seen, understood, and respected by people outside our cultural border. Though fictional, Black Panther effortlessly wove elements from the real world into its script, costumes and dialogue. And that secret ingredient made the movie a masterpiece and a shot of bravado desperately needed by a community who found itself lost in the midst of an openly racist presidency.
I’m not gonna lie. When the movie came out, I didn’t know who the hell Black Panther was. But my lack of familiarity had no bearing on my enjoyment of the film and it certainly didn’t limit my ability to assess how it would influence our culture. After all, this had happened before.
A trip back in time
In 1992, I was coming of age as a pre-teen in Brooklyn, NYC. My life was largely defined by classic hip hop, the Jordan era and flirting with any pretty brown-skinned girl with a pulse. Soon, and perhaps quicker than I would’ve liked, more powerful, historical and social forces would begin to shape my thinking. That year, my school planned a field trip for all students to see X, the latest Spike Lee film, in theaters. To my knowledge, it was the only time they’d ever coordinated something like this and looking back, I’m grateful they did. The telling of Malcolm X’s story through Spike’s lens’ re-introduced the slain leader to a new generation and single-handedly caused a ripple effect through Black America.
Immediately, there was renewed interest in Malcolm’s story of transformation and the book—of which the film was inspired—became mandatory reading. Denzel Washington, who played Malcolm, was glorified and eventually nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, though ultimately losing the Oscar to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Go figure.
And among Black and Brown communities, the letter X grew to symbolize the struggle as clearly and fondly as the afro pick. Everywhere you went you’d see it on hats, shirts, earrings, jackets, medallions and baggy jeans as a mark of respect, cultural affiliation and shared identity. If Black culture were a brand—and many would argue it is—X was it’s unofficial logo.
If Black culture were a brand—and many would argue it is—X was it’s unofficial logo.
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Fast forward almost three decades later and the Wakandan salute—an act wherein you cross arms in the shape of an X across your chest— would create a similar break through. Wherever you went for the months after the film’s release, you could bet someone would greet you accordingly if they even suspected you saw the movie. That year, little boys dressed up as T’Challa [The Black Panther’s real name] for Halloween, every Black parent I knew taught the salute to their children and Chadwick Boseman, much like his mentor [Denzel], became a household name.
The salute and adjoining phrase “Wakanda Forever” was a not-so-secret code of sorts; an expression of love and solidarity that allowed us—Black people—to be outspoken without judgment. And like all great bodies of creative work, it’s resonance led us to ask questions about where we’d been, where we were going and what we were capable of.
I don’t remember who I sat next to when I first saw Denzel getting a conk in the opening scenes of X. But I certainly remember who I sat next to when I watched Chadwick become a superhero. For reasons you’ll come to understand later, we’ll call him Will.
Will is my guy.
He is a shining example of Black excellence and someone I’ve looked up to for years. We met as co-workers when I was fresh out of grad school and he was one of the few Black Directors in the company. Early in my career he was a role model from a distance and I’d find myself reaching out to him on occasion to share ideas and gain visibility into parts of the company where I had none. My hope was that he’d see potential in me, observe my work ethic and serve as a mentor. And for years, that’s precisely what he did, all while he paved his own path further up the corporate ladder.
So when our former company’s Black Employee Resource Group hosted a viewing to see Black Panther in theaters, I was as giddy as—well—a twelve year old on a school trip. To me, the gesture was both a signal of the film’s importance and a reflection of the company’s commitment to embody it’s stated values. Given the hostile political environment of 2018, the feeling was that executives were taking their roles as leaders seriously by creating a truly diverse workplace.
But time would prove these efforts to be largely performative. And much like the Black Panther’s personal challenges with his father’s generation of leadership, there would be tough times ahead. Challenges that would shine the light on just how differently one generation’s view of the world could differ from the next.
Leading While Black
For Black employees in predominantly white work environments; working under a Black leader is a luxury. You reap the infrequent benefit of seeing someone that looks like you in a position of power and influence. And almost intuitively, you’re granted permission to show up to work as your authentic self; not the muted, white-washed version you’d typically present to colleagues. Throughout my corporate career, I’ve sought out and thrived in these hidden pockets of freedom. But it wasn’t until the end of my tenure as a 9-5 employee that I gave real thought to what it must be like for Black leaders in corporate America.
The highest up the corporate ladder I’ve climbed was a Manager and if I had to guess, at my former place of work, approximately 5% of employees at my level were Black. Above us were Directors, and as you can imagine, there were even fewer Black people working out of the corporate office at that level. So it should come as no surprise that as you reach the ranks of Vice President, Senior Vice Presidents, Presidents and board members, the positions were predominantly and historically held by white people. This, despite the company priding itself on being diverse, winning multiple awards as a top employer in the city and having a US headquarters in Atlanta where there is no shortage of diverse talent.
Will was one of the chosen few who’d managed to reach these heights so to have had a relationship with him prior to his promotion was both valuable and inspirational to me. His achievement underpinned my belief in what was possible within the company and in corporate America as a whole
After watching Black Panther together and as employees began to slowly exit the theater below us, Will and I were in awe of what we’d just witnessed. The movie was so rich in it’s references to our lives that we both admitted we’d need to see it again to fully wrap our heads around it all.
Black Panther wasn’t just an instant classic for entertainment purposes; it was mandatory viewing for anyone who wanted to better understand the intricacies of being Black in America. We, like every other Black employee in the theater that evening, left with our heads held high and our swag on eleven. We felt connected to our ancestry, indoctrinated into a hidden group of powerful like-minded people and inspired to be the best, truest versions of ourselves. It didn’t matter if you were an executive assistant, a coordinator, a manager or Vice President; that night, we were all from Wakanda. And since Will had climbed to the highest of levels, it only made sense that he serve on the council as our Black Panther.
But as it turns out, I was wrong. And in the final days of my tenure at that company, while my employment was at risk and I was facing a serious threat to my reputation, Will didn’t swoop in to protect or save me. Though he had the power to act, he chose not to and it would come to serve as one of the most important lessons I’d learn in my career. That even at the highest of levels, Black leaders in corporate America aren’t superheroes…they’re employees.
…even at the highest of levels, Black leaders in corporate America aren’t superheroes…they’re employees.
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