Black Panther, The American Dream, and Finding Success

Black Panther, The American Dream, and Finding Success

So I saw Black Panther a few weeks ago. I hope you, your friends, your kids, and your people already went to see it at least twice because after this sentence, I have nothing but spoilers for you. After my first time seeing the film, (and I won’t tell you how many times I went because that’s my business) I kept thinking about the perspective of the story’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger. On my Facebook feed, I’ve seen at least three different debates erupt over supporting Killmonger’s method of liberation and whether he’s the villain or the hero and if his methods made sense or ultimately were the reason why he failed.

Black Panther offers a way to talk about possibilities and process. We always say there is no one-way to succeed. We say it at CORE all the time (I hope you’re already aware, but our motto is “Success Happens!”) but what we don’t always talk about is how success happens.

I recently read an article called “Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color” by Melinda D. Anderson. If you get a chance, you should definitely take a look at it on The Atlantic. Meritocracy is the idea that people succeed based on their ability. In America, that looks like this idea that everyone who works hard has the same chance of succeeding. I’m sure you’ve heard it, it’s called “The American Dream”: “America is the land of opportunity where everyone who works hard has an equal chance to succeed” (Anderson). Therefore, when you see someone with wealth or success, we tend to think they got there through hard work and that people without it, don’t work hard enough.

As many of you already know, it doesn’t really happen like this. Sure you can work hard, but what “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tends to mean, is that you take nothing and then you add some fairy dust called “work” and that nothing becomes a whole dream life. This American idea of success disregards the fact that it is much easier to turn “nothing” into “something” if by “nothing” you really mean a little bit of money from your family, previous work experience or people who can vouch for you, food in your stomach, a place to live, someone to help you with job and school applications, and it doesn’t hurt to be a white guy, let’s be honest. When the equation is: person + work = dreams come true, we limit ourselves and our dreams to the narrowest possibilities through a lens that already excludes the majority of us.

Ok, so let’s bring Killmonger back into this. Killmonger’s end goal was the liberation of Black people, fantastic, I’m all here for it. But his process of getting to liberation was this unfortunate equation person + work = success. In this case, the “work” part of the equation meant getting a PHD in engineering from M.I.T and becoming one of the best militiamen in the world, adept at murder and taking over governments. Killmonger wanted to beat the world at its own game. That meant being the best, doing anything and everything it took to get to the top, including killing his own girlfriend, and then marching into Wakanda and taking over the world. But see how that worked out for him? Not well. I’ve seen a bunch of Facebook arguments with people saying  “Well, if he just had an army and wasn’t working alone, his plan would have been a great one”. I don’t buy that. Killmonger and his plan, are what happens when we take oppressive methods of success and try to turn them into something that looks like freedom.

What would have happened if Killmonger ruled the world? Well, we saw what happened when he ruled Wakanda for like two days and in that time, an ancestral link to past leaders was burned and a war started, plus he choked up an old lady. How much different would a world led by Killmonger have been than the world we already live in? Who would have gotten free? What I see in so many arguments in support of Killmonger is this idea that we have to become the problem to defeat the problem. There is only one way to success: learn the ways everyone else did it and then just do it that way.

I’d like to propose the idea that perhaps this method of just working hard and replicating the ways people have succeeded before us, is not actually getting us anywhere. All that to say: yea, why don’t we try something radically new?

Progress requires us to consider how success has been presented to us, whether or not that leads us to change, and then to grapple with the truly difficult work of creating and living out possibilities that we have never seen. Forging new paths is never easy, but there will always be people who are on board to figure it with us and all the old adages of failing and trying again still apply. It all goes back to considering that maybe this path isn’t working not because there is something wrong with you, maybe it isn’t working because there’s something wrong with the path itself.

Success in college works much the same way. After so many years of being told, “you have to work twice as hard to be half as good”, I’ve internalized the idea that I need to be perfect, learn the ropes and beat my would-be-doubters at their own game. For awhile, that meant asking for help made me weaker, relying on others made me less competent, devaluing the typical definition of grinding made me lazy. The idea of success that I’ve been conditioned to strive for is one that, if I follow it to its intended end, is supposed to make me comfortable in the status quo. For someone who sought post-secondary education as a means to help me change the world, the logical conclusion to that path is individualistic: it makes no sense.

I’ve read your applications and I know for a fact that many of you are first generation college students, some of you are immigrants, and most of us just want college to be a stepping stone to a life where we aren’t struggling anymore. For some, college is the new pathway you’re looking for, if that’s the case, I hope you find new ways of conquering it that are different from the ways I tried. I hope you find that college is more of a community effort than an individual one. The narrative that doing it all by yourself will make you stronger is really a myth. A friend of mine recently told me, “Geese fly 70% further when they fly in a v-formation than when they fly alone”.

If you’re in college because someone told you that’s how you make it in this country, I hope you think about what “making it” means to you and whether or not that’s the impact you want to have on the world. As I said in last week’s blog post, college is just a tool, it isn’t a badge of honor. If you stop succeeding because you got a degree, you’re selling yourself short. I said it last week, but maybe I’ll say it in every blog post. All of you are exactly the people the world needs for progress to be made. Succeeding at changing the world is not something anybody can tell you how to do, and there’s a reason for that: not everyone wants the world to be changed.