Black Panther: Using Its Cultural Impact To Engage Your Students

by | Mar 2, 2018

Not only is Black Panther’s colossal cultural impact an effective way to stir up conversations about Afrofuturism, it also contains several great lessons that can be applied in classrooms for students of all ages. Here at Pop Culture Classroom, we’re all about using the power of comics and graphic novels to help your class look at themselves and their world in a brand new way. T’Challa and the rest of the inhabitants of Wakanda have most certainly provided a variety of new, vibranium-glazed facets through which we can better understand our reality as well as ourselves.

So, how can you use this cultural impact in your classroom to engage your students and get them thinking like Shuri?

The fictional nation of Wakanda is one that’s not just hidden from the rest of the world, it’s also voluntarily concealed behind a projected image of a sprawling forest. Much like Wakanda, we, too, sometimes voluntarily hide or conceal our own personal Wakanda, covering up treasures and gifts that could otherwise benefit the world at large.

While you don’t have to have your students write down or discuss aspects of their personality that they might have tucked away, you can ask them why people might choose to not reveal certain sides of themselves. Is it fear of being judged? Not wanting to change the opinions of family and friends? Being anxious about going against the grain and not fitting in? Additionally, you can have your class discuss the potential consequences of not sharing their full, authentic selves and their truth with others – consequences like those resulting from Wakanda not sharing its technology and culture with the rest of the planet.

Black Panther’s main antagonist, Erik Killmonger, also has a lot to teach us. In the film, Erik is so consumed with his ambitions that he refuses to see anyone else’s point of view about how he can accomplish his goals without toppling the balance of the world as well as that of Wakanda. Sometimes, we become so focused on succeeding in our goals that we miss out on opportunities to not only triumph, but learn important lessons along the way. Ask your students if there was ever a time when they had their hearts and minds so anchored and attached to a specific goal that it became their singular focus. You can use this to lead a discussion about what it means to have such intense concentration, and how it can be done without missing out on valuable wisdom and knowledge that might be missed with this sort of focus.

Wakanda’s resident tech genius, princess, and occasional warrior, Shuri, tells her brother T’Challa, “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” Going back to the goals touched on above, just because you accomplish those goals doesn’t always mean you’re done. Once your students get the hang of basic multiplication and division, there’s still algebra and calculus in their school years ahead. And just because your class is familiar with all the words and phrases Shakespeare uses doesn’t mean they fully understand the many layers of meaning within his plays and sonnets. Shuri teaches us to never stop improving or advancing, in both school and in our personal lives.

Have your classroom of “Shuris” write down their talents and how they might be able to improve on those skills. Not only is this a good way to get your students thinking about their strengths, you can also get a better idea of their interests and passions, information that can be used to get a better gauge of your students’ individual learning styles and subject matter that will keep them engaged.

Touching back a bit on hiding away our personal Wakanda, Nakia, a spy for the fictional African nation, sits down with T’Challa and tells him that he “gets to decide what kind of king” he wants to be. One of the reasons we might tamp down and cover up our true selves is because it’s easier to do what everyone else is doing, follow the same path.

Begin a discussion with your students about whether there are any behaviors they engage in because “everyone else is doing it.” Additionally, ask them if they derive pleasure or a sense of satisfaction from these actions, or if they’re merely wearing clothes that don’t fit quite right. Camouflaging is a great way to hide and blend in, but applying that same mindset to life can lead to a person feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied, and having poor mental health as well. What kind of kings and queens do your students want to be?

T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, explains to him that “it’s hard for a good man to be king.” Not only is this theme present in Black Panther, it can also be applied to our current times. The question is: is it hard for good people to act as leaders and fully maintain their integrity all the while? As a president, royal leader, or politician, you’re in charge of the welfare of a large group of people, doing what you feel is in their best collective interest. T’Challa has several hard decisions to make throughout the film. Does he keep Wakanda hidden? Does he give Killmonger what he wants? What punishment does Klaue deserve for stealing vibranium and attacking Wakanda? These decisions are left up to T’Challa, and none of them are easy to make.

You can pose these exact questions to your class. What would they do in T’Challa’s position? There’s the right thing to do, but it might not necessarily be the good thing to do. How do you decide what action to take when someone else’s life is in your hands, even if you know for a fact that person is guilty of a horrendous crime?

Another common theme seen throughout Black Panther is the idea of building bridges – bridges to the outside world, bridges to the past and present, bridges between the five scattered nations of Wakanda. The film touches on the idea that it’s not only important to build bridges, but maintain them as well.

Have your class write down or work in groups to discuss the important bridges they have in their lives and what they do to maintain them. For instance, do they have strong bridges with their family and friends? Do they have a solid connection with their inner selves? How about their ancestral history, are they well-grounded in their family’s roots? Are there any connections they have neglected in the past or wish to strengthen? You can take this a step further by having your students help each other and themselves come up with ways to maintain these connections.

Just like you have to maintain your car and home appliances to get as much use out of them as possible, the same is true of maintaining the many bridges in our lives. Otherwise, those tethers might fall into disrepair and crumble.

Black Panther is the first movie of its kind to not only have a majority Black cast, but to have a majority Black cast in a science fiction movie. Much has been discussed about how essential this type of representation is, especially since most science fiction movies, books, and TV shows don’t focus specifically on Black narratives and the Black experience.

Rather than keep this contained to race representation, you can expand on the concept. Ask your students their opinions on the importance of seeing different facets of their personalities and selves reflected and represented in their favorite mediums. For instance, you might have disabled or impaired students in your classroom, or perhaps some are members of the deaf community. A few might also exist as part of the LGBTQIA community.

How do members of your class feel when they’re “left out of the conversation?” Does it matter to them when they and people like them are made to look and feel as if they don’t have a unique experience to share on the screen or on the page, or when their unique story isn’t being told? While TV shows, books, movies, and even video games are more inclusive than they’ve ever been, there’s no denying that sometimes minority groups (regardless of race) are often left as side characters whose lives are only partially explored…if they’re actually explored at all.

There’s plenty that can be learned in the audience and in the classroom alike after experiencing Black Panther. No matter their race, your students are sure to find a few things to identify with in the film and its many themes. We look forward to hearing about the discussions you have with your class and how effective and engaging the above topics are.

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