She’s Been Teaching About ‘Black Panther’ Long Before the Movie

Below is an interview with Mastery’s African-American history teacher, Ms. Abigail Henry. In lieu of class one day, she took the freshmen class to see Marvel’s “Black Panther.” We discuss why she chose to include Black Panther as part of her curriculum.

Why did you choose to include the graphic novel “Black Panther” in your history curriculum ?

I wanted something that was high interest, challenging, and could directly connect to what I was teaching in class. At the beginning of the school year we focus on different African kingdoms and tribes, and the cultural customs that can be identified in these different communities.  

The setting of the Black Panther provides unique opportunities for students to further explore the landscape of Africa. Wakanda has a capital city (in my mind a modern Timbuktu), the desert, and the rainforest. As students read the Black Panther they are able to make larger cultural and geographical connections around the rich history of Africa.  

We had a great time just exploring the map of Wakanda: it’s cities, rivers, mounds, and boundaries. We study the Wakandans’ clothes, hair styles, music, religion, and technology, making comparisons to Black culture today.

How have students reacted to reading the graphic novel? What connections have you been able to make to issues of social justice?

Students initially assume that because it’s a comic book,  it’s going to be easy to read. Students are surprised when they get their quizzes back, that they have missed key parts of the story and need to reread. We have been reading the Ta-Nehisi Coates version of the Black Panther, and frequently throughout reading the text I have to pause and make sure all students actually understood what occurred within the 2-3 pages covered.

Another reason I like teaching the Black Panther is that the story provides opportunities to explore the role of Black women in society. The women in Black Panther are not over-sexualized, they are not stereotyped in some ridiculous fashion. Rather, they are strong, powerful, thoughtful, athletic, and fashionable. As we read  Black Panther we have made connections to Black women in society today who can be the hidden figures that not only defend a king like T’challa, but also families and communities.

The last connection that was made was completely unexpected and wonderful. While teaching about Garvey (in my Black Panther mask), we were comparing him to Du Bois and Washington, and how he is specifically the only one of these three heroes not born in the U.S.  

At that time I had a student raise his hand and say something like “Yo, Ms. Henry you know these kids, when you take them to the BP movie, they’re going to make fun of the African students and accents and stuff.” In response I said, “Oh really, thanks for letting me know. Let’s talk about that.”  

What followed was a heart-warming, honest, and real conversation about the need for us as a Black community to support ALL of our students of color. I told students that my Dad would always say “the worst thing you can do to a Trinidadian is ask him if he’s from Jamaica,” and that when we moved to the U.S. people assumed just because of the way my Dad talked that he was from Jamaica. It was hurtful to him, and it’s hurtful for me to hear that some members of our community think it’s ok to make fun of others because of a certain accent or because of a certain name.

I then told the students that if I heard any student make fun of another student because of where they are from or how they talked, I would not be taking them to the BP because I cannot trust them in the theater. After saying this, I had a Caribbean student stand up with a big smile on his face and shout “Thanks! Ms. Henry! Thanks for saying that!” This straight talk, honest, and vulnerable conversation occurred because of the Black Panther, because of Marcus Garvey, and has been the highlight of my week.  

Why did you decide to take the class to see the movie?

I think taking students to see the Black Panther is the perfect opportunity to celebrate Black culture and help boost positive racial identity. For our students that struggle at home or at school, coming together as a community to do something joyful feels like the right move to make despite the stress of logistics. 

I wanted to take all of our freshmen, therefore I have been wearing the Black Panther mask while I teach to pump them up to purchase their ticket. Students complain that schools often don’t do enough field trips. This one, at the end of Black History month, feels like exactly the right time to bring everyone together.

What do you think?

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Abigail Henry

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