Black Panther and ubuntu: prescription for healing humanity

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 8, 2018

Members of the cast of a prime contender for next year’s Oscars stepped onto this year’s red carpet and launched me on a linguist’s dream into a land where ubuntu triumphs over racial bigotry and self-interest.

The cast, of course, is from the current box office blockbuster, Black Panther. They are from the fictional Kingdom of Wakanda, a secretive African country uniquely gifted with the highly prized mineral, Vibranium, making them the most technically advanced nation in the world.

But they are also gifted with something even more valuable, in my opinion, something not at all fictional: isiXhosa and its humanity-saving component, ubuntu. More about that in a minute.

To get my wife Mary Anna and me in the mood for viewing Sunday evening’s broadcast of this year’s 90th Academy Awards, we took in the matinee showing of Black Panther at Cochrane Movie House. Highly recommended!

We knew that the superhero thriller based on the Marvel Comics character Black Panther was too recent a release to be up for an Oscar this time round. But were we ever surprised a few hours later during the Oscars broadcast to see how the film and its cast, garbed in arguably the classiest clothes of the evening, came close to stealing the show.

Now, about isiXhosa and its miracle component, ubuntu.

As a linguist, I was immediately intrigued by the language the characters were using on screen – with English subtitles, of course. It certainly sounded different from any language I’m familiar with, and was characterized by unusual clicking sounds.

Upon returning home, I did a quick Google search on the language spoken by these Wakandans. And it’s a real language. IsiXhosa (Xhosa) is spoken by an estimated eight million South Africans as their first language and by another 11 million as their second language.

Oh, and those clicking sounds? A good example is the “xh” in the name of the language itself: it is produced by the side of the tongue making a clicking sound similar to the sound riders use to encourage their horses to “giddy-up.”

Of special significance for me, however – even more so than its linguistic features – is the fact that isiXhosa is the language of two of my heroes, Nelson Mandela and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Which brings me around to why I see this film and its traditional language as being so important for the human race at this time in history. The film concludes in the spirit of a humanity-saving concept expressed in isiXhosa by the word ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too).

This is the spirit fundamental to Mandela’s and Tutu’s forgiveness-rich Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought healing to Apartheid-fractured South Africa. It is a spirit essential for our own Canadian and American interracial healing.

Archbishop Tutu, in his book God Has A Dream, explains the concept this way:

[Ubuntu] is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanise them.

Thank you, Archbishop Tutu and Black Panther, for this humanity-healing reminder.


© 2018 Warren Harbeck

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