Black Panther & the American Creative Continuum

When Black Panther opened last month and proceeded to set records at the box office, it just so happened to be 200 years, almost to the day, after Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Maryland. The significance of this particular symmetry might be observed through any number of lenses, including those distorted by presentist emotions, which tend to warp historic narrative. But one truth that unquestionably sits between these parenthetical milestones is a reminder that the progress of American democracy—namely the effort to define and shape its grand promises—has always been literary.

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass describes his introduction to literacy by Mistress Auld, and the consequent lesson inherent in Master Auld’s rebuke, as follows:

“From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”

While still a fugitive, Douglass registered this book for copyright in 1845, and it was more than a year later that his friends purchased his freedom from Thomas Auld. This overlap in time, when Douglass owned intellectual property while he was still technically the property of another man, says a lot about the painfully bipolar identity of America, but it also reflects the fact that the evolution of the nation’s literary voice has always been intertwined with broadening the initially too-narrow meaning of American liberty.

As the last of the witnesses to the Revolution were dying off, the first generation of Americans born under the Constitution—most of the population was under 30 circa 1840—inherited the exciting, and often harrowing, task of defining what it actually meant to be American. For some, this entailed reconciling the declarative chutzpah of independence with the many social and political hypocrisies that manifestly betrayed all the beautifully-written hubris of the Framers. And one answer to this dichotomy was the advancement of a national literature.

By the time Douglass published Narrative, a literary revolution was already reshaping the fledgling nation. In an 1837 address at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon America’s next generation to produce literature that shed reliance on the conventions of England. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves,” he said in his opening remarks.

Any reader of Walt Whitman’s poetry will note Emerson’s use of the verb sing, and indeed “Leaves of Grass,” first published in 1855, was one of the most famously overt responses to this summoning of national identity through creative expression. Whitman was among the authors—others included Hawthorne, Melville, and Whittier—who coalesced around the newspaper The Democratic Review, founded in 1837 by John O’Sullivan. The mission of the Review was to advance a younger, more diverse, and more expansive vision of democracy through a literature of “original works treating commonplace themes with forcefulness, directness, and dignity,” writes historian Edward L. Widmer in his book Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City.

This was America’s first generational culture clash, in which the Young Americans, as Widmer describes, stood in opposition to an older and more conservative population of Whiggish elites. It was this literary-political agenda that shifted the cultural center of gravity from Puritan Boston and Philadelphia to riotous, diverse, petulant, exuberant, and unabashedly commercial New York.

While a proper schematic of the social and political views among these forces is too complex to describe in a short post,* the emphasis on prodding the American creative voice into its own was intertwined with the general aim of expanding the promise of civil rights and dignity to a plurality of American citizens. “I speak the password primeval … I give the sign of democracy;/By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms,” wrote Whitman, who, interestingly enough, was an advocate of copyright as an engine of democratic principles more than one of economic necessity.

In the narrative of the ever-evolving American voice, we can draw a line from Douglass literally stealing literacy to transcend his captivity to the moment when Mark Twain in a single sentence in Huckleberry Finn simultaneously obliterates moral ambiguity about slavery and asserts the power of vernacular in American literature. “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” says Huck upon his decision not to turn in Jim as a runaway slave. From there, we can draw a long but clear arc to the video review by Danielle Radford for Screen Junkies in which she explains why Black Panther is “black as fu©#.” Because its cinematic language employs a vernacular that is uncommon among Hollywood blockbuster movies.

Yes, Black Panther is just a Marvel action film full of chases and fight scenes and magic, as expected. But that’s why it’s significant. As Radford describes, its subtle choices—the million tiny decisions where film artists are truly at work—broaden the cinematic language in a way that actually reverses her opening declaration. The relevance is perhaps not that the film is “black as fu©#” but that it’s American as fu©#. And it has always been the role of creative artists to write and revise exactly what that means.

*In particular, the subject of abolition among the various factions would require a whole post just to set the stage.

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