When my partner and I traveled to Uganda in 2009 for a research trip, I remember the moment at tea time when I finally realized what colonization looked like. Uganda, a country colonized by the British, still bore the familiar scars of that control in something as simple as a cup of tea in the afternoon, even though it gained independence in 1962.
Still, back then at the age of 20, I would never have applied the idea of colonization or assimilation to myself or my own country—no, America would never admit that we are a colonized nation, but it’s the truth. We are taught instead that this land was gloriously discovered by Columbus, and that later it was simply a liberating land from the tyranny of the church of England.
But the terror of what happened on these shores once Europeans arrived is mostly unspoken of. The genocide and assimilation are stories told amongst the indigenous peoples of this land but not often by the outside culture.
A lot of people ask me why I consistently use the term “decolonize,” and part of the reason is to make the point that we are colonized in the first place.
My partner and I attended a showing of Black Panther recently. I waited with anticipation to see a film that celebrates the African culture of so many people I admire and denounces the work and aftermath of slavery.
I realized that I was holding my breath as Wakanda came into view a few minutes into the film.
I was holding everything inside myself still because suddenly, for a moment, a world that had never been colonized appeared before my eyes, a tribal people, rich in culture, indigenous to their land.
Obviously, I’m not African. But I am indigenous to a land that has been pillaged for profit, and I belong to a people who were marched on foot away from the Great Lakes into foreign, barren territory in other parts of North America.
My partner sometimes describes the United States like this: imagine a colonized country in which the colonizers never leave.
America is the place that brought 12.5 million African slaves on ships from their homes across the ocean.
America is the land that saw its indigenous population shrink 90% from the millions that lived here before smallpox blankets were distributed. By 1900, only 237,000 indigenous peoples were in the United States, compared to the 10 to 12 million that once lived here.
In contrast to these colonial atrocities in America, Wakanda is a land free of its abusers, a land rich in resource. And as I watched it, I imagined my tribe, the Potawatomi people, the Anishinaabe, long before colonizers arrived on our shores.
I imagined the way we grew wild rice on the water and harvested the trees for syrup. I imagined the way women were honored and respected, the way they prayed over the water, their strength publicly valued for all to see. I imagined us, the people of the place of fire, doing the sacred and beautiful work bestowed upon us by the Creator.
Colonization took what was and said, “You must look, sound and think like us, and to do that, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.” Thus generations of “kill the Indian, save the man” have attempted to turn people of rich tribal histories and cultures into cookie cutter white, American Christians who have lost ties to their own cultural ways.
And following that, slaves stolen through the transatlantic slave trade were brought for the sole profit of a colonized America in which bodies of color were considered less than human, like those of First Nations people. And so, we are bound up with one another’s suffering, even today.
Erik Killmonger, the Wakandan villain and victim of a colonized, racist America says in Black Panther, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
In the past year and a half of learning about my own ancestors and my own story, I have walked closer to the stories of my African American brothers and sisters, whose ancestors were forced onto a land that they did not know. I grieve that I have not known more of their stories and struggles. I grieve the systems in which I’ve lived that benefit from their suffering.
Somehow, in a way that I do not fully understand, colonization brought us together, and when I see Wakanda, I can believe that we are not just colonized people.
For First Nations people in the United States, the goal of the American system all along has been to assimilate us so much into white culture that we disappear, that we forget our own cultures, languages and ways. But Wakanda will always be this picture of celebrated African culture, and by extension, a celebration of all decolonized cultures as well.
Even if we are doing this on an individual level, fighting colonial systems of oppression, we are working toward a common goal, and the church has a huge part to play in this conversation. If we are to be people who follow Jesus, who was literally crucified for defying the culture of the powerful, we need to be having conversations today about breaking down systems of colonial oppression in the American church.
And in 2018, movies like Black Panther are helping lead us there. So, with our fists raised high, as women warriors who are not afraid, but sacredly bold and beautiful, we proclaim, “Wakanda Forever!”
…a new day is upon us, as indigenous people of this land are revitalizing their languages, restoring familial kinship systems and rediscovering their music, dances and art forms in Jesus Christ—all for the glory of God!
–Richard Twiss, One Church, Many Tribes