When We Rise

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I sat in a theater watching Black Panther for the very first time. Flashbacks of Facebook posts from friends expressing their deep gratitude and excitement for the film zipped through my mind.

Okoye appeared on screen, and the words of one friend, a woman of color, rang in my ears:

“I didn’t know I needed to see myself, my story, portrayed in the media until I saw it,” she said of Black Panther. “We need to see our stories reflected back to us, and even if you don’t look like the people on the stage or the screen, look for the pieces of their story that resonate with you. We can all learn from each other’s stories.”

Okoye stood, bold and brave in red armor, and something in me rose. She was beautiful and confident, a smart leader who’s equality with the men around her was so natural it couldn’t’ possibly be real. I wanted to be like Okoye.

Throughout the movie, I recalled several articles I’d read over the last year. Articles with titles like this one from National Geographic: As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind. Or this one from NPR: Majority of White Americans Say They Believe Whites Face Discrimination. Or this blog post from Huffington Post: When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression.

I considered these articles as the Wakandan leaders debated about whether or not they should let the rest of the war-torn world in on their technological secrets.

Those in favor claimed it was their duty to help everyone in need no matter what part of the world they lived in. Those that opposed believed the most important thing to do was protect their own country. “If you let them in,” they said, “then Wakanda will become like the rest of the world.”

Why is it that as humans, we often feel reluctant to make space for other people to rise? Why, when the tide shifts and another race, country, culture, company, person or idea starts to rise, our initial response is defensiveness and fear?

I saw it in Wakanda, in our culture and my life, daily.

When my friend told me about an agent who contacted her for a book proposal, my first response wasn’t, “Oh that’s great! How can I help you?” It was an internal grumbling, a compiling of reasons why I might be a better writer than her, and an inner worry that I’m actually just not good enough.

Likewise, when someone else is recognized at work, I often respond with a whiny, “Why didn’t they recognize me?” rather than joining in on the praise this coworker rightly deserves.

Whether it’s an entire nation struggling under the shift of a cultural revolution, a personal battle in the workplace or on the homefront, the fear that bubbles up when someone else rises to power and privilege will vary from person-to-person, but the root of that fear is likely to be couched in misplaced identity.

If our identity is rooted in our status and accomplishments, in being the best and being in control, it’s only natural that we put our fists up, ready to fight and keep control at the first sign of a threat.

On the other hand, when we’re able to remember the true source of our identity - being a child of God - we’re able to let go of our need to be on top and embrace Jesus’ definition of what it really means to rise.

In Mark chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples travel to Capernaum. The disciples strike up a conversation about which one of them was the greatest, and when they arrive, Jesus asks, “What were you discussing out on the road?”

The disciples, embarrassed by their conversation, remain silent, and Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.”

When we take the place of a servant, we make space for others to rise, and when we make space for others to rise we open the door to collaboration, to hearing each other’s stories and learning from one another.

Let us not become so consumed with maintaining our own place of privilege that we forget the humble place Jesus calls us to.

I love the scene at the end of the movie where T’Challa, Okoye and Nakia stand before the United Nations to let them know that for the first time in history, Wakanda was going to let the rest of the world in on the technological secrets that they had been keeping for centuries.

Their black skin stood out against the skeptical white crowd, and I welled with pride for my friends of color whom I knew were reveling in their ancestry being portrayed with such dignity and poise.

One diplomat raised his voice and asked, “What does Wakanda have to offer the rest of the world?” The three Wakandan leaders smiled, exchanging a look that seemed to say, “Just you wait. We’re about to make space for you to rise. Will you make space for us?”

When we make space for others to rise, we all rise.

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