“In my culture, death is not the end. It's more of a... stepping off point.” These are the words of Prince T’Challa, Prince of the fictional Kingdom of Wakanda, an African country in the Marvel Comics movie universe. T’Challa emotes these words after the assassination of his father in the movie, Avengers: Civil War (2016).
As the individual Marvel Comic movies all exist in the Marvel Comics cinematic universe, the plot and consequences of one movie impact the others. The assassination of Prince T’Challa’s father in Avengers: Civil War serves as the impetus and temporal beginning for The Black Panther (2018) movie.
The Black Panther movie takes place in the fictitious and utopian African country of Wakanda. The kingdom of Wakanda is technological marvel, powered by a special metal called, “Vibranium,” which fell to earth in a meteorite ages ago. Wakanda is also home to a special fictional plant, “the heart-shaped herb.” When consumed, this special plant gives the consumer heightened physical and mental abilities, essentially giving the consumer super-powers.
As Prince T’Challa ascends the throne and becomes King following the death of his father, he begins the ritual traditions the Wakandan people practice in royal rites of passage. Per the royal rituals, T’Challa eats the heart-shaped herb. After consuming the herb, he then receives the ability to enter, “the ancestral plane.” The ancestral plane is a special place where the dead and the living are able to connect. As Sir Roger Scruton said, “In all societies, rites of passages have a sacramental character. They are episodes in which the dead and the unborn are present” (2017, p. 128). The “sacramental character” Scruton referred to here is a conservative concept known as the sacred. Nisbet defined the sacred as, “the mores, the non-rational, the religious and ritualistic ways of behavior that are valued beyond whatever utility they may possess” (1966, p. 6). Further, the sacred is, “the totality of myth . . sacrament, dogma . . in human behavior” (Nisbet, 1966, p. 221). The sacred’s diametric opposition is the profane (Nisbet, 1966).
To those who believe in the sacred, and more specifically, the concept of time as sanctity, such as the Wakandan people, they have a different conception of time, life, and death. As Mircea Eliade said, “by its very nature, sacred time is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present” (1957, p. 68). This type of time, “sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (Eliade, 1957, p. 70). Sacred time moves in a cyclical pattern where time regenerates (Eliade, 1957, p. 80).
Sacred time, when compared to profane time, shows a stark contrast. Think of profane time as a number line, moving in a straightforward linear progression from zero to infinity. Sacred time moves in a circular pattern, starting from beginning and moving to end. Look at the graphic below:
*****Insert Graphic From Slide****
The arrow represents profane time, while the circles represent sacred time. The cyclical nature of time corroborates what T’Challa meant when he said, “death, is not the end. It's more of a... stepping off point.” Eliade’s scholarship is congruent with T’Challa’s quote, too: “death is not final” (1957, p. 157), for, “the world is renewed annually” (Eliade, 1957, p. 75), and that, “Time is regenerated” (Eliade, 1957, p. 80) when time is sacred.
In sacred time, births, deaths, weddings, rites of passage, holidays, and various other spiritual events take place outside of time. Looking at the graphic again, the sacred rites take place on the points of the circles, not on the line; they occur outside of time. This is what T.S. Eliot referred to as, “The point of intersection of the timeless with time” (1943, p. 44).
These sacred rites of passage Scruton referred to are ones which, “the community briefly steps aside from time” (Scruton, 2017, p. 128). They have moved off the arrow from the graphic and now exist outside of profane time in sacred time. These events occur not just between the living, but with the dead and the yet-unborn as well. This is what Edmund Burke referred to as, “the great primæval contract of eternal society” (1790, para. 165). As Burke understood,
Society is indeed a contract. . . .It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. (1790, para. 165)
Sir Roger Scruton, a spiritual heir to Burke’s legacy, explained that, “the dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living. To dishonor the dead is to reject the relation on which society is built- the relation of obligation between generations” (1999, p. 31). While not physically present, the dead and unborn are still nonetheless with us. They exist with us outside of profane time in sacred time, at the intersection of the timeless with time.
When we fail to see the presence of the dead in our lives, we have, “lost respect for the dead and have ceased to be trustees to their inheritance. Inevitably, therefore, they lose the sense of obligation to future generations” (Scruton, 1999, p. 32). This sense of obligation is the basis for the web of relations in Burke’s eternal societal contract.
T.S. Eliot was supremely conscientious of this idea. Eliot’s soul-nourishing work, The Four Quartets (1943), is about the concept of sacred time (among other things). Eliot knew the past was not gone, but very much alive in each and everyone of us. When we forget this, we show an abandonment of stewardship to the next generation.
At an earlier date, Eliot explained that
The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of . . . his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. (1919, para. 3)
Eliot continued, as he thought that
This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity. (1919, para. 3)
While Eliot was talking about writing and poetry, his ideas certainly apply to life outside of literature. Eliot understood that the totality of the dead’s existence is currently present in our lives, and we must therefore make every effort to acknowledge and understand their presence and impact.
Black Panther’s take and emphasis on the concepts sacred of time and Burke’s eternal societal contract, a term G.K. Chesterton referred to as, “the democracy of the dead” (1908), is so refreshing to contemporary consumers of pop-culture and entertainment because the concept has largely disappeared from the zeitgeist of popular discourse. Thomas Paine, Rousseau, and J.S. Mill were figures eager to cast-off the yolk of the democracy of the dead.
Rousseau, in the Social Contract (1762), said, “the past cannot bind the present” (as quoted by, Blakemore, 1988, p. 22). Paine said that
I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living. (Paine, as quoted by Blakemore, 1988, p. 23)
J.S. Mill, at a later date, felt that, “We ought to throw off the hand of this dead ancestry and march away in some rational new direction, with our modern pragmatic rationality for guide and governor” (Mill, as quoted by McDonald, 2004, p. 102).
To Paine, Rousseau, and Mill, the democracy of the dead enslaved them to non-existent beings. These men did not consent to the will of the dead in a democratic fashion, and therefore could not, nor should not be subjected to their constraints (Blakemore, 1988). Burke never saw it this way. To Burke, the democracy of the dead
does not enslave them to dead words, because these words have a living force binding the . . . people to their past, present, and future- freeing them to be who they really are: a free and conscientious people choosing to reaffirm the traditions of their forefathers. (Blakemore, 1988, p. 24)
Burke understood that the democracy of the dead was not something that hurt the present, but rather strengthened it. It serves as a boon, not a stumbling block for the future.
This is exactly what the Wakandan people understood: the dead and the unborn are here with us now and in the future, continually strengthening us in the present. Their spiritual ceremonies had their clergies who said, “praise the ancestors.” When T’Challa was on the brink of death, his mother and sister revived him by supplicating their ancestors, as they, “call upon the ancestors, I call upon the past . . . heal him.” Death is continually referred to by the Wakandans not as death, but rather as, “joining the ancestors.” In another near death experience, T’Challa connected with his father in the ancestral plane. His father, with a blend of joy and stoicism, declared, “the time has come for you to be reunited with me.”
Russell Kirk, a disciple of the same Burkean tradition Eliot adhered to, knew that, “human nature is constant; the same vices and the same virtues are at work in every age” (Kirk, 1971, p. 82). Kirk knew that, “our present discontents, personal and public, can be apprehended only if we are able to contrast our present circumstances with the challenges and responses of other times” (Kirk, 1971, p. 82). We look to our past in the present to strengthen our future. Through our ancestors, so long as we believe they are here with us, we draw strength. Through their presence, we understand how their experiences will inform our future.
In two of the most dramatic scenes of the movie, T’Challa was on the brink of death. In ritual combat with M’Baku, a rival from a neighboring tribe, he is stabbed with a spear, and his consciousness began slipping. His mother shouted, “show him who you are!” This inspired T’Challa to make a miraculous comeback in the fight. He declared triumphantly, “I am Prince T’Challa son of King T’Chaka!” As T’Challa barely clinged to life in a coma, his mother and sister gave him a dose of the heart-shaped herb in hopes that it would restore his vitality. They said, “I call upon the ancestors, I call upon the past . . . heal him!”
When the outcomes appeared grimmest and the consequences most severe, it was T’Challa’s family and ancestors that gave him the strength to recover and propel himself to victory in the face of defeat. As Russell Kirk knew, “the past is not dead, but lives in us” (1971, p. 82). T’Challa was able to draw strength from his ancestors, who were not physically present, but were still nonetheless there with him. The past lived in T’Challa and the Wakandans. They understood that the dead do not hinder us in the present, but propel us forward into the future.
The Wakandans understood that we must step outside of time, find the intersection of the timeless with time, connect with our ancestors, and listen to them. For we must never forget that, “what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living” (Eliot, 1943, p. 51). Eliot touched the hearts of his readers years ago with these words that still ring true today: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere. Never and always” (1943, p. 51). Wakanda sits at the intersection of the timeless and time. Wakanda, never and always, Wakanda forever!