Boxes and Holes: The Importance of the ‘Black Panther’ (Winner Spring 2017 Ex Umbra Literary Contest!)

Boxes and Holes: The Importance of the ‘Black Panther’

by Aaron Dial

My father lives in a box. He has existed, and as far as I can gather will always exist – both in mind and body – in these cramped and stifling shelters. He is a giant; in the same way I imagine most fathers are. By giant, I am not referring to his stature; for me, ‘giant’ indicates his wealth of experience garnered through a bibliographic sense of control and an archeological understanding of discovery. Simply put, he has lived a life.

My father grew up during a time where being poor meant working hard. With this type of poor, there was no ‘working smart’; there was simply work. “If you got it; you survived,” he says. “And if you didn’t – well, there was always tough times.” For his mother, being poor was working just hard enough to watch her kids go hungry. For his father, being poor was working just hard enough to know all the things he and his family couldn’t have. These are the boxes, not merely the architectural equivalent to cardboard and everything that comes with it, but rather and more importantly, the existential barriers to contemplation, the cyclical and perpetual struggle which sharpens the crosshairs of thought to only consider the “how” of living. To be poor – for my father and his contemporaries – was the monastic struggle that strengthened families and communities. To be poor was to be proud. Now, being a man of pride, my father wouldn’t describe himself as poor, because today that implies some sort of weakness, some sort of idealized failure of manhood. And my father, Joseph Lawrence Dial, is not now nor has he ever been a weak man.

“There have been tough times, but we made it through,” his words meticulously stroking the blank canvas of his life. “I can only go so far; my father only went so far, so I can only go that much further.” Clutching his words the way “SAMO” and “Trane” gripped the needle, with each syllable uttered, my father attached and attaches his identity to the high of ‘being a man’. “Everything I have ever done is to make sure you have the space I never did. I want you to be god-damned James Brown, just the James Brown of whatever the fuck you wanna be. That’s all I want for you, son, is space.”

One of the oft forgotten penalties of poverty is the acquiescence to the claustrophobic. The painful realization of and resignation to the understanding that one will never have enough space – indicated by the constant shuffling and reshuffling of inches and feet with hopes that one day, magically, “by the grace of God” you will find more space – can be a heavy burden. Now the existential chore of this constricted life, the only way one can attain some semblance of sanity is the many ways one finds to poke holes in the box.

For me, my blackness – another box – is the inescapable, creeping sensation of night in the skin. It isn’t necessarily the understanding that the night is in some way inferior to the day; it is more specifically the consideration that the night can only be truly interpreted through the lens of the day. By this I mean that, if not paired with the light of day, the night is simply darkness. They do not balance each other; this would require them to be the same length of time. The night is merely a resting period; the transitional Sabbath bookended by periods of life and activity – the day. We seize the day and slumber through the night. Blackness and whiteness, night and day, are really mirrors of one another. Blackness is historically, rhetorically, legally, politically, and sociologically seen as a perversion of whiteness. The reason why it is difficult for whites to contemplate the plight of Blacks in this country is because they are asleep. But should we really be surprised when considering the night?

I, like my father, lead a compartmented life. My existence is framed completely inside several other boxes. I only identify as Black; I am severed fully from my ancestral roots. For my white brother and sisters, the systematic and bureaucratic box-checking of identity conflicts totally with identity’s organic and conversational narrative. They get to be Italian or German, French or Polish, or even just plain American; the list is endless. They get to have a homeland; they are afforded with the luxury of ethnicity. My homeland, my ancestral narrative is attached to a place that would see me killed in the street. I too live in a box; though unlike Joseph, my box isn’t ensnared in the ‘how’ of living. No, my box is something more sinister; my box is the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of life and living[1].

If I am allowed a brief digression, it is important to note that when I use the term “box” I am not trying to be intentionally dysphemistic. I see it simply as a statement of description, detailing the where of both my father’s physical and cerebral life. In fact, it seems to me, my father’s cubic life is more an epistemological trait rather than a momentary set of circumstances. My father has always lived in boxes. His father lived in boxes. My great-grandfather lived in a shed – a smaller, poorly made box. His father before him lived in a shack – a poor excuse for a box. And as we slowly continue to creep up the branches of my family tree, the trend continues box after box each one smaller than the last. The climb culminates with our bill of sale; the point when my family’s history crosses over from being unwritten to a matter of accounting.

Back to holes. I am not speaking of holes that puncture the construction of a house; although, my great-uncle did tell me a funny story about him, a Phillip’s head, and a bird. I am talking about the holes for thought and thinking. I will defer to the eloquence of Dubois: these are the holes which allow us to “feel our poverty…to feel the weight of our ignorance…[to feel] the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of [the] decades and centuries [that have] shackled his hands and feet.” These types of holes – the holes of my father, the holes of me – are the throughways to a life outside, a life beyond claustrophobia, a life where one can stretch their legs and bask in the sun.

Like me, my father is a reader. However, his thirst for the written word is far more passionate and less discriminate than my particular taste. “I would read anything. Momma only kept two books, her bible – she wouldn’t let me read that, except on Sundays[2] – and the manual for the refrigerator. So that’s what I read. I read that damn book a good hundred times. I had it memorized. I was only eight, but that was the only book.” Generating the image of my eight year-old father absorbed in an appliance manual proves to be a difficult task. I just can’t see it. I can’t see his eight year-old eyes feverishly consuming every word line by line, with pupils bursting out of their sockets like some Tex Avery cartoon. It is important to note that my troubles with comprehension are not limited to my father. For me, the stories of historical figures like Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass are equally problematic. They aren’t problematic in the way of being hard to believe; they are problematic because I literally cannot imagine a true quest for literacy; when my own literacy is merely the haphazard result of a circumstantial existence?

In Hollywood, at the El Capitan Theatre, Marvel Studio’s head Kevin Feige didn’t waste any time. On the stage, Feige exuded the confidence of a man holding onto a secret; a secret that would ignite the collective passion, excitement, and imagination of moviegoers around the world.   On October 28, 2014, Marvel Studios unveiled their cinematic plans for the next five years – a series of nine movies, colloquially dubbed “Phase Three”.   With each film Feige announced, the Marvel cinematic universe expanded; changing how we perceive and receive movies – especially the AAA blockbuster – and the characters and narratives, which make them up. Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” changed the way we watch TV. Tyler Perry’s “Madea” built an empire, turning the city of Atlanta into Hollywood East. Within Marvel’s extensive announcement, there is one film, one character that will again alter the way we think of Black characters and the fiction they reside in. Without a director attached or a script written, I am confident that film and character will be “The Black Panther”.

Not to be confused with the activist group and political party The Black Panther’s, the Black Panther was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby – first appearing in the “Fantastic Four” #52 in 1966. He is the warrior-king of the imagined African nation of Wakanda. In the words of Reginald Hudlin, author of an acclaimed run of Black Panther comics, “There are some places you just don’t mess with. Wakanda is one of them. Since the dawn of time, that African warrior nation has been sending would-be conquerors home in body bags. While the rest of Africa got carved up like a Christmas turkey by the rest of the world, Wakanda’s cultural evolution has gone unchecked for centuries, unfettered by the yoke of colonization. The result: a hi-tech, resource-rich, ecologically-sound paradise that makes the rest of the world seem primitive by comparison. Ruling over all this is the Black Panther. The Black Panther is more than just the embodiment of a warrior cult that’s served as Wakanda’s religious, political and military head since its inception. The Black Panther is the embodiment of the ideals of a people. Anyone who’d dare to make a move on Wakanda must go through him.”

Earlier, when describing my relationship with my origins, the word ‘severed’ was used. Like ‘boxes’, I see my use of the word severed not as mere pejorative ramblings, but rather a pointed statement of fact regarding my history. I live a divided life; on one side there is my American existence which I can date back about one-hundred and eighty years, and on the other is my African heritage – a veiled and abstracted ancestry. With this in mind, the Black Panther functions as the proverbial missing link, not the link to actualities, but rather the link of potentialities. I see the Black Panther as an alternate-reality, a faux blackness, where one can imagine the heights and plateaus of a people, outside of colonial influence.

With lightning quickness, the 24-hour news cycle inundates us with images of black criminality, black immorality, and black savagery. These images are the symptoms of a larger disease: the dehumanized black body. And while the rhetorical written works of African American literature – spanning everything from Douglass to West – is important to curing this sickness. We have seen repeatedly that fiction proves to be the best medicine. From quintessential novels like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to timeless films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Lee Daniel’s “Precious”, to culture defining television like “The Cosby Show” and “The Bernie Mac Show”, and all the other works my memory has failed to recover, the impact of fiction in shattering the “natural defense of prejudice” cannot be understated. Today, the most salient Black character in fiction is Olivia Pope from the TV show Scandal. However, when it comes to Black males, positive characters are almost nonexistent. In a world where the Black male form is demonized to the point of endangerment it is important for the Black Panther to exist. Clocking in at a little over seven billion dollars, the Marvel cinematic franchise is the highest grossing American film franchise of all-time, and the second highest international franchise. In a universe that hosts a playboy billionaire, a brilliant scientist, an American legend, the Norse God of thunder, and two international spies – all of whom are white – it is important that an African king hailing from the imagined warrior-nation of Wakanda be said universe’s lynchpin.

The Black Panther is a hole, rather ‘the’ hole which will penetrate the armor of prejudice and bigotry. The hole isn’t especially large; it is just another in a long line of holes – the latest in almost three centuries worth. When speaking of oppression and repression, Paulo Freire once wrote, “One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness. Functionally, oppression is domesticating.” The problems with boxes is that they are warm. Boxes are the axiological framework of existence; they are the want and need of the human to lead a ‘good and decent’ life. However, the problem is that only a select few get to define goodness and decency, but all of humanity aspire to reach these lofty heights. When asking my father about the Michael Brown grand jury decision he callously said, “Well – that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” The pessimist in me – the voice of my father – says that if the killing of a black teenager in broad daylight with the world watching couldn’t destroy the box, then what makes you think a silly comic book character stands a chance. The optimist in me – I’m not sure if this is wholly my voice – responds, “What if this is the last hole – the one that shatters the whole fucking system?”

If boxes are warm, by default, the other-side of the hole has to be a plane of cold and isolation. It exists outside the realm of our perception. The hole is like introducing Ben Franklin to the internet; it would undoubtedly be the stuff of witchcraft and mysticism. To most it is the demon existence challenging everything we hold dear, but to a select few it is the unforged path striving boldly into what humanity could be. I will close with the words of my father, “I can only go so far; my father only went so far, so I can only go that much further. Everything I have ever done is to make sure you have the space I never did.”

[1] This portion of the piece – the last two paragraphs – were written immediately following the grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO. I have read this section repeatedly; and I realize there is a tonal shift, which to some readers may be confusing. For this, I am sorry. They are the shattered slivers of a fractured psyche and broken heart. I have no delusions of grandeur; I exist humbly as marionette tugging on strings.

[2] I recently learned my grandmother couldn’t read said bible. She kept it more as an undecipherable artifact of her faith.

Aaron Dial graduated magna cum laude in 2015 with a BA English writing concentration. He is currently an English master’s student and writing consultant at the Writing Studio.  He has published numerous Campus Echo articles and co-authored an academic article published in Composition Studies in 2015.  He was an intern during summer 2016 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity where his responsibilities included technical writing. In 2014, he was a key member of the student editorial team that resurrected NCCU’s literary magazine, Ex Umbra, in digital format.


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