The Wakanda Suit We Share: The Role of Weaponized Tech In Combatting Systemic Black Trauma
**warning contains mild Black Panther spoilers**
“All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and recreate yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact — this may sound very strange — you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” -James Baldwin
I t is no exaggeration to state that being born Black in America is inherently a traumatic experience. Operating from a space where issues of health inequity are pervasive, particularly in some of the most vulnerable communities, the impacts of those systemic inequities have fallen disproportionately on communities of color. From Indian reservations, to Flint, to Oakland, to Harlem, communities are struggling to equip themselves with the tools to prevent recurring traumatic experiences from continuing to happen in the future. Whether those experiences are tied to lead in our water, lack of access to proper nutrition, or the rising trauma of gentrification and the narrative of displacement, these communities are forced to navigate their way through these harsh realities. Socioeconomically, studies show it is not just the poor who are most affected either. Whether you are Black and homeless, or living in a gated community, a spike in blood pressure due to external stresses over a sustained period of time can affect long-term organ failure meaning not even wealth protects you fully from the internal side effects of trauma.
The release of Marvel’s Black Panther, directed by Oakland’s own Ryan Coogler, is justifiably being celebrated far and wide for the messages it sends its audience; both direct and indirect. Often you’re left wondering throughout the film how exactly the script in its current iteration slipped across some Hollywood executive’s desk. While there remains plenty to unpack, what was most top of mind the day after seeing the film was the Black Panther suit itself.
In the movie, Shuri (Letitia Wright), Princess of Wakanda, tech-genius, and STEM loving half sister to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) unveils a new Black Panther suit technology to replace his “old tech.” To demonstrate the newest capabilities, Shuri tells him to strike the suit; to hit it in any spot. When he kicks it, the test mannequin goes flying across the room. She then informs him to strike in the same spot. When he does, the Black Panther suit, now emitting a slight purple glow, “kicks” back and unleashes that energy onto T’Challa, sending him flying across the room instead. In explaining how this is possible, she cites a Wakandan technology in the suit’s fabric that absorbs the kinetic energy into the suit, and holds that same energy to redistribute it elsewhere.
Without further spoilers, the suit and that specific function play a critical role throughout the film. So what does any of this have to do with the Black experience? Black Panther’s suit has been intentionally engineered to combat impact and violence on the body; trauma, into redistributed energy for the Black characters in the film who wear it. That redistributed energy can be stored, or used later for protection. The pain inflicted quite literally becomes the source of its strength.
-Sit with that for a second-
Communities everywhere struggle with understanding what to do with the added stress and burden that comes from living through trauma. If you are Black, that feeling is even more pervasive. Whether through the traumatic experience of institutionalized racism or, for example, systemic police terror and gun violence, the number of those impacted continues to rise. There are also the micro aggressions more broadly, which play out whether you’re in a public space, or walking into your corner office. As someone who has experienced trauma first hand in the loss of my own twin brother to cancer, it is a feeling whose navigation is all too familiar. We each have a story to tell. Often it is rarely one individual affected, it is typically a community of connected individuals who are impacted as our stories spread. Much of the trauma in Black communities lives intergenerationally as it passes on from family member to family member.
The word “weapon” tends to be associated with direct violence; warfare, capitalism, all for justifiable reasons. In the militarized context it has lead to the erasure of entire civilizations. The other less commonly used definition for weapon however, is “a means of gaining an advantage or defending oneself in a conflict or contest.” In short, a weapon is a tool for whatever you choose to utilize it for. In this age of 21st century technology, that “weaponization” has emerged through design. Unfortunately for Black communities, we are often excluded from the central design processes. In technology and engineering for example, this is partially why wrongly calibrated automatic sinks may take a few more hands swipes to work on Black hands. In far worse cases as expressed in Virginia Eubanks’ latest book Automating Inequality, this design is the reason why the automation of social services disproportionately affects poor and vulnerable communities. These communities are further exposed to policing and violence by way of algorithmic bias.
So when a movie like Black Panther gets released, it should come as no surprise there is an opportunity over the course of its two hour and fifteen minute run time, to unpack a lot of historical realities in very creative and nuanced ways. That suit was one such example. What might that reverse engineering look like manifested in other ways?
Activist DeRay McKesson gave a talk at Harvard’s Black In Design Conference last October about the important work of reimagining. It was on the title of his forthcoming book On The Other Side Of Freedom. The premise was that if oppression were no longer a reality, and Black communities had the freedom they’d fought so hard for, what would that look like, feel like, smell like? What would that design be? Ultimately, it was a call for action to use today to design for tomorrow’s liberation. As we reflect and unpack Black Panther’s cultural significance in the weeks, months, and years ahead, we are called to this work of thinking how our own collective trauma is navigated. What does that stored energy we reckon with look like when it is manifested and released back into the world. What shape does it take?
The good news is, I know Black men and women doing that work in the present. In the technology space I see that work manifested with initiatives like Black Girls Code, Kimberly Bryant’s organization equipping young Black girls with early exposure to STEM education. In my own community I see those efforts through initiatives to develop organized technology spaces and hubs for the purpose of greater engagement and distribution of economic opportunity in the 21st century. Ventures like Harlem’s Silicon Harlem, and Charlotte North Carolina’s BLKTECHCLT.
And then, quite literally, the act of figuring out what to do with kinetic energy is what Jessica O. Matthews of Uncharted Power has made her life’s work. Initially taking stored energy from a customized soccer ball and using it to generate power for charging devices including lights to help communities in need of non diesel electricity sources, her company is now (quite literally) democratizing energy. They are taking the energy that exists and can be harnessed in nature; pedestrians walking, buildings swaying, cars driving, and converting it into stored power. Btw- Ryan Coogler and Hollywood, if you’re seeking to get a real life Black Panther suit made, you might want to give her a shout real quick*
The conversation around Shuri’s suit upgrade speaks to a need for creating improved outcomes through reimagined design. We see what continues to happen to our communities when those who design do not have our vantage point, or take diverse world views into perspective. At its very least it is an inconvenience we are forced to deal with; at its worst it contributes to Black death. Marvel’s Black Panther was a powerful reminder of what becomes of our collective stored trauma and how we choose to navigate it. It is a reminder of what can happen when we repurpose the energy we are forced to hold onto, and the tremendous responsibility and consequences that come with the decisions of how we use the tools and resources around us.