Oral History as Cultural Resistance: Examining the Question on Palestinian Identity


For Mama and Baba


Palestinian collective resistance against Israel is nothing new of a phenomenon. In fact, since Britain’s attempt in governing a colonial administration in Palestine in the 1920s, Palestinians have engaged in a diverse variety of resistance practices, including but not limited to cultural resistance. This form of engagement is dominant both within Palestine as well as by Palestinians living in exile in the West and elsewhere (Desai, 2015, 113). In particular, oral history has played a vital role in Palestinian resistance and cultural production at large. Oral history involves the transmission and re-creation of memories, stories, and narratives of resistance, and as such, summons our attention to examine the ways in which this form of cultural resistance serves to shape the identity of Palestinians living in exile. In turn, this form of cultural resistance underscores how much the experience of living outside of Palestine has become integral to the Palestinian national character. With the purpose of this paper in mind, I use a critical race and anti-colonial lens to argue that Palestinians, in particular those living in exile, engage in oral history as a way to reconfigure place, space, identity, and violence in their everyday lives (Razack, 2003).

Namely, this particular analysis of oral history seeks to not only highlight its political and personal nature, but also acts as a means to illustrate the impact it can have on resistance culture and identity formation. The politicization of oral history together with the historical struggles against colonialism and imperialism within broader liberation struggles and movements will be considered to further explain the importance of resistance culture and the formation of Palestinian identity. By drawing on Desai’s (2015) redefined concept of participatory politics, I explore how the politics of refusal and cultural resistance, both necessary for politics and political engagement, emerge through the exchange of oral history. In light of this, I will discuss how Palestinians in exile activate the politics of refusal as a method of delegitimizing the occupying power of Israel and better understand themselves in relation to the world around them. In keeping with Desai’s (2015) conception of anti-colonial participatory politics and by mention of Giroux’s (2004) notion of culture and pedagogy, oral history is also theorized as an important site for education. With this, I will explore how oral history can be a learning opportunity for both Palestinians when making sense of their identity, as well as for the general public, whose consciousness, awareness, and knowledge about Palestine and the Palestinian people may shift, change, or be revived as a result. More importantly, I emphasize how it could be a site for building solidarity and forging alliances between the Palestinian community and others. Moreover, I will acutely critique the racist, Orientalist, and Islamaphobic representations of Palestinians depicted by Western media outlets. With this in mind, I will show how Palestinians provide counter-narratives to contest and disrupt these dominant representations, while also preserving authentic narratives of identity in accordance with their experiences surrounding violence, occupation, and exile. Finally, I will look at how oral history plays a role in both resistance culture and the everyday lives of exiled Palestinians by drawing on the symbolic and material representations of what Dionne Brand (2001) cites as “the Door of No Return.” As such, this will further orient my analysis to discover how Palestinians conceptualize their own ideas of “home” in juxtaposing the realities of occupation and exile. 

To further strengthen my analysis, I draw on specific passages narrating the personal stories and lived experiences of two displaced Palestinian immigrants originally hailing from Gaza. In Collecting Stories of Exile, a media project documenting family oral history through the multiple mediums of visual video clips, audio recordings, voiceovers, and photography, the discourse centers on the question of what it means to be Palestinian facing exile in the West. Using the art of storytelling and the power of oral history respectively, this piece also addresses their past and present lived experiences, identities, memories, upbringings, family relations, and their conceptualized ideas of homeland and occupation. With this in mind, as a Palestinian woman born and raised in Canada, I write this paper to make sense of my own reality. That is, the purpose of this analysis is to further the breadth and depth of the question on Palestinian identity in context of cultural production and resistance. I hope that this paper not only provides meaning to those who may be going through a similar ontological journey of their own, but that it also assists others in developing a greater understanding on the importance of solidarity work and the building of alliances across a number of common causes and movements within local and global paradigms. 

Moreover, settler colonialism must be unpacked here to acquire a deeper understanding of what drives Palestinian resistance, and in turn, how it materializes accordingly. It is important to recognize that settler colonialism is the control over land and domination of space and place (e.g. who “belongs” and who does not). That is, within settler colonialism, the most important concern is land. Hence, for settler colonial states to gain authority and power over the people and resources in which they occupy, control over land is crucial. Above all, land is extremely contested because settlers claim permanent occupancy of the land and exploit its resources as a primary source of capital for themselves. As such, the interference of Indigenous relationships to land represent a deeply concentrated epistemic, ontological, and cosmological violence (Tuck, 2012, 5). Since settler colonialism involves an ongoing genocidal process that gives control to foreign power, the displacement and exile of Indigenous people becomes an inevitable consequence of occupation. Bearing this in mind, understanding the historical conditions that allow settler colonialism to exist is key to theorizing the significance of occupation and exile in relation to the production of cultural resistance. This is especially true given how settler colonialism, as a dynamic and profoundly complex power structure, is complicit and directly implicated in the symbolic and material conditions of occupation and exile. For that reason, one must acknowledge the incredibly nuanced and multi-faceted relationship that settler colonialism and the production of cultural resistance have with one another. Given the scope of this paper however, this framework will only be employed as an entry point in hopes that it will move and challenge us to think more critically about the broader structures and systems that greatly influence our day-to-day lives and our societies at large.

The Significance of Oral History and Cultural Resistance

In Context of Exile, Occupation, and Identity Formation

By considering Ghassan Kanafani’s insights on Palestinian literature, one is better able to conceptualize how oral history is engaged, interpreted, and studied accordingly. In defining Palestinian literature, Kanafani centers resistance as its key, defining element. In this sense, resistance literature presumes a people’s collective relationship to a common land, identity, or cause, whereby a historical and political existence between occupation and exile becomes possible (Harlow, 1987, 2). In the same way, for Palestinians living in exile, oral history is a form of cultural production that embodies resistance; one that constructs a collective Palestinian identity or a common national character based on a shared history. It not only documents the historical and material conditions of exile and occupation, but it aims to make sense of it as well. That is, oral history gives cultural meaning to the everyday lives of Palestinians living in exile, both personally and politically. Just like resistance literature, oral history conceives of an “occupying power” (i.e. Israel) to make sense of occupation and exile. That is, Israel is a settler colonial occupying power guilty of dispossessing Palestinians of their land and rights whilst waging oppressive and violent governmental laws and policies. By virtue of this, Israel has consequently interfered with the cultural development of Palestinian people. Oral history then presents an arena of struggle (Harlow, 1987, 2-3). In this way, oral history is a cultural production that symbolizes Palestinian resistance in the face of Israeli occupation, particularly in what Kanafani refers to as a “cultural siege” (Harlow, 1987, 2-3).

The Politics of Oral History

In Context of Historical Struggles Against Colonialism and Imperialism

To put things into perspective, just as resistance literature is written within a specific historical context, oral history too is shared, interpreted, and studied within a specific historical context. This context is often situated within the larger scope of contemporary national liberation struggles and resistance movements against Western imperialist domination within Palestine and elsewhere (Harlow, 1987, 4). For instance, resistance movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the National Liberation Front (FLN, Algeria), the ANC (South Africa), the Mau Mau (Kenya), and the FMLN (El Salvador) must resist systemic forces emerging from colonial and imperialist structures of power. This historical struggle against colonialism and imperialism is nevertheless fought alongside the struggle over the historical and cultural record (Harlow, 1987, 7). For example, upon first entering Beirut, the capital of Lebanon in the fall of 1982, the Israeli Defense Forces made a deliberate effort to target the PLO Research Center and destroy its archives containing the documentary and cultural history of the Palestinian people (Harlow, 1987, 7). In the context of organized resistance movements, the role of culture and cultural resistance for oral history then is part of a larger struggle for liberation and freedom (Harlow, 1987, 10). Therefore, it is important to understand that colonialism not only rejects Indigenous knowledges of the people and land of which it occupies, but it also seeks to completely distort, disfigure, and destroy the history of an entire people. Like this, cultural production, specifically oral history, plays a determining and critical role in what Edward Said refers to as “repressed or resistant history” (Harlow, 1987, 28). It follows then that oral history, and resistance in general, is positioned as political and politicized encounters. Oral history recognizes itself furthermore as directly concerned with a struggle against dominant forms of ideological and cultural production, and as such, works to resist these hegemonic discourses accordingly (Harlow, 1987, 28-29). Whereas the social and the personal have tended to displace the political, the emphasis in oral history in context of cultural production and resistance is on the political. In short, the theory of resistance and the role of oral history is intricately situated in its very politics (Harlow, 1987, 30).

Oral History as a Politics of Refusal

This politicization of oral history further illuminates the influence it carries on resistance culture, especially with how Palestinians, particularly those living in exile, come to understand themselves, others, and the world around them. This is better exemplified in Desai’s (2015) redefined notion of anti-colonial participatory politics. She borrows from Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen’s (2014) concept of “participatory politics”, whereby it is initially introduced to frame their analysis on youth political participation. By definition, the concept of “participatory politics” are “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern” (Desai, 2015, 112). In other words, it is the warranted desire for greater citizen control that sanction efforts to be carried out in challenging common issues of public concern. This is the basis for what constitutes participatory politics, and they are often practiced in some of the following ways: electoral activities (e.g. voting), activism (e.g. protest), civic activities (e.g. community service), and lifestyle politics (e.g. boycotting) (Desai, 2015, 112). Desai (2015) argues that while the concept of participatory politics is applicable to the Palestinian context, it is nevertheless limiting for a number of reasons. For one, under Israel’s military presence and occupation, there is an explicit ban and criminalization against these forms of participatory politics practices. Furthermore, it is limiting in its assumption that “all people have achieved their political, economic, and social self-determination and sovereignty”; which Palestinians have not. The concept of participatory politics also focuses on the notion of “citizens,” whereby “citizens” are the major actors in demanding that issues of public concern be addressed accordingly within a nation-state (Desai, 2015, 114). For Palestinians however, this is simply not the case. Namely, Palestinians, especially those loving in the Occupied Territories, are a stateless people, meaning that they cannot be considered “citizens” since Palestinian citizenship ceased to exist after the Nakba of 1948. Instead, under Israel’s military rule, Palestinians are solely branded as “residents” to the territory that is originally theirs to begin with (Desai, 2015, 114). Therefore, in the context of occupation and settler colonialism, Desai (2015) points out that Palestinians are not only barred from partaking in any form of citizen political engagement, but are too often subjected to severe punishment if they do (114).

With this in mind, Desai (2015) formulates a redefined concept of participatory politics using an anti-colonial framework; one that considers the politics of refusal and cultural resistance as central to politics and political participation. Audra Simpson, an Indigenous scholar, argues that refusal, “comes with the requirement of having one’s political sovereignty acknowledged and upheld, and raises the question of legitimacy for those who are usually in the position of recognizing” (Desai, 2015, 114). Simpson further accentuates the centrality of refusal in the context of Mohawk struggles over sovereignty here:

“Like many other Iroquois people, the Mohawks of Kahnawa:ke refuse to walk on some beams, and through this gesture they refuse to be Canadian or American. They refuse the gifts of American and Canadian citizenship, they insist upon the integrity of the Haudenosaunee governance” (Desai, 2015, 114).

Similarly, for Palestinians living in exile, memories, stories, and personal narratives of oral history shared among themselves and others necessitates that their political sovereignty be acknowledged, thereby articulating a kind of refusal that demands their personhood. In turn, oral history is informed by the politics of collective refusal whereby refusal and resistance to a colonial power (Israel) is believed to be the only way for the colonized (Palestinians) to truly achieve liberation, self-determination, justice, sovereignty and decolonization (Desai, 2015, 116). In Collecting Stories of Exile (2016), these very sentiments are expressed by a 49-year-old Palestinian immigrant father. In what follows, he offers an account of what life was like for him growing up under Israeli occupation, and in general, what it continues to be to this day.

 “We have greater problems than life itself. We are under an Israeli occupation. The Jews who came to Palestine and who occupied our country and stole our land, we have our issues with them as well. So to live a simple life like the rest of the world, no, of course it is different because Palestine is an exceptional case in and of itself. And it will continue to be that way, that is, until it is resolved.”

“Of course, when we were young, we had always hoped to be freed from the Israeli occupation. And it continues to be my hope. But, it makes us strong because it is a just cause. The land is ours. The land is ours.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016)

Here, oral history explicitly challenges Zionist beliefs (Kanafani, 1968/2009, 15). To be exact, Anwar problematizes Israel as a settler colonial, occupying power that has no legitimacy or right in his homeland, Palestine to begin with. While well aware of the conditions that Israel creates for Palestinians living under its occupation and military rule, Anwar continues to have hope that Palestine will one day be liberated. From the outset, this narrative articulates that the possibility of freedom from occupation is contingent on the refusal of Israel as a legitimate state. Moreover, in doing so, Anwar further restores his personal sovereignty by refusing Israel altogether. Seeing how the politics of refusal works in conjunction of the role of oral history, Palestinians like Anwar come to understand themselves in relation to occupation and exile by way of sharing their lived experiences and narratives vis-à-vis Israel as a settler colonial and oppressive state. Additionally, oral history further allows exiled Palestinians to formulate a strong identity for themselves, both individually and collectively, to make sense of their everyday lives and to resist the denial of their humanity.

Oral History as a Site for Education and Building Solidarity

According to Desai’s (2015) conception of an anti-colonial participatory politics, the politics of refusal must take into account the role of cultural resistance as a course for political and public engagement as well (117). That is, cultural resistance is an essential aspect of the Palestinian struggle; hence, oral history must be theorized as an important site for education (Desai, 2015, 117). Thus, oral history represents a cultural and public space that works to challenge oppressive formations of reality (Desai, 2015, 117). Culture itself is cited by Giroux (2004) as a political and pedagogical site whereby hegemonic ideologies, practices, and norms are resisted and challenged (Desai, 2015, 117). Specifically, Giroux (2004) argues that inquiring into culture can be effective in locating political agency within structures of power (Desai, 2015, 117). This is primarily premised on the idea that resistance can materialize through culture and that learning is not exclusively restricted to formal educational settings alone. Together, it becomes possible for others to realize that culture and resistance can co-exist within the organized social relations of their everyday lives (Desai, 2015, 117). With this in mind, Palestinians currently living in exile exchange personal narratives to underline their past memories and lived experiences. This is outlined in the passages below, as Anwar recalls why he tried to move back to Gaza with his family in 2001. This is followed by a retelling of what it was like for him to live under Israel’s intensified militarization and increasingly oppressive living conditions.

“Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike had hoped for Palestinians to be liberated, and in turn, to have their basic human rights met, for public infrastructure and institutions to be rebuilt, and for them to move freely and as they please. But unfortunately, this never happened. In fact, after the Oslo accords of 1993, Palestinians were further oppressed and placed under worse living conditions. Israel stole more land, built a wall between the West Bank and historic Palestine (Israel), and segregated Palestinians even more than ever before.”

“I was living in Gaza, and Gaza is a small city…I felt I was always suffocating, as though there was a large boulder on my chest. Gaza for me was like surviving in a huge prison cell. Palestine’s circumstances, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank, are extremely difficult. With the presence of the Israeli occupation and an oppressive military regime, these are the circumstances that complicate the lives of Palestinians everywhere.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016; audio unedited)

Oral history here invokes the possibility for the recreation of knowledge production that aims to revive a new social consciousness about the plight of the Palestinian people. Put differently, the exchanges of oral history have the potential to act as a site for educating those who are either unaware or misinformed about the situation in Palestine. This is especially significant given the potential it has in forming new alliances and strengthening solidarity between Palestinian people and others who are enduring unified struggles, violence, and similar forms of oppressions. In addition, the passages above reveal that when Palestinians share and exchange personal stories and narratives about their lives through the remembrance of past memories with others, not only do they comprehend how the circumstances resulting from occupation exiles them from their homeland, but they also discover who they are in relation to Israel as an occupying and oppressive power. This allows the exiled to construct a collective Palestinian identity, by virtue of the shared common struggle and oppression that all Palestinians undergo, both in Palestine and abroad. Education through the transmission and re-creation of memories, stories, and narratives then provides two possibilities for resistance. The first is that oral history is a powerful tool within the sphere of resistance culture, for it has the potential to call on the mind of public consciousness everywhere. The other possibility is that oral history offers a space whereby Palestinians engaging and sharing their narratives of resistance can make sense of who they are, both personally and collectively.

Oral History as a Counter-Narrative of Violence and Representation

Settler colonial and occupying states regularly enact violence on the people they are occupying and oppressing as a way to secure their sovereignty and power. In turn, those occupied and oppressed by this violence often resort to cultural production as a means to subvert and document their lived experiences accordingly (Desai, 2015, 117). Mainstream media, particularly in the West, portray racist, Orientalist, and Islamaphobic images of Palestinians, rendering them as inherently “violent,” “backwards,” and “uncivilized” (Desai, 2015, 119). Likewise, given that the politics of refusal are severed from the racist ideology of Zionism and the history of the creation of a settler colonial state, Israel is continuously fixated on the power that Palestinian resistance has. Therefore, in an effort to delegitimize the momentum that resistance can often generate, Israel tries to dehumanize Palestinians by rendering them as a violent people, to justify their illegal military occupation and settlement (Desai, 2015, 119). Oral history then upholds authentic narratives, knowledge and perspectives that act to counter these hegemonic narratives, while simultaneously making sense of occupation and violence, specifically for those Palestinians living in exile. Collecting Stories of Exile (2016) exposes how a mother of four experiences and makes sense of violence enacted upon her and her family. She recollects feelings of terror and despair during her time in Gaza shortly after the second Intifada.

 “We never felt safe getting there, but upon our arrival in Gaza, we would forget all our troubles. We still worried about our travels back and forth nonetheless. We would think, oh now we have to go through security check, in a solitary room, where they would force us to take off our clothes.”

“I can’t possible describe the terror, and the lack of stability, the fear, the question of whether or not we’ll see a new day…I remember many times, for example, we were living in an apartment. They would come and knock on the door warning us of bombings, or we’d hear the sounds of fighter jets in the area. They’d tell us to leave the building. But I preferred to be with my children, that if we were to die, we’d die all together.” – Nahed Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016)

Here, Nahed is flipping the dominant, Western narrative right on its head. In contrast to the prevailing representations of Palestinians as “terrorists”, “anti-Semites”, or the narrative that claims “Israel’s right to defend itself”, Nahed voices a candid and honest account of her lived experiences of the violence enacted on her and her children under the imposed sanctions enforced by Israeli occupation. In doing so, Nahed uses oral history as a means of resisting the very accounts that aim to dehumanize and other her existence. For those engaging and listening to Nahed’s narratives of her lived experiences with violence, it offers a perspective whereby they can recognize the material conditions of occupation and the way violence manifests in the everyday lives of people subjected to this form of oppression. Similarly, by conveying the realities of occupation and violence, Palestinians like Nahed can also make sense of their lived experiences as they come to know themselves in relation to their oppressor. Nevertheless, oral history allows them to exercise a kind of agency that resists and disrupts narratives and realities of oppression, violence, and occupation all together. Just as oral history can contextualize occupation and violence, oral history too can make sense of exile and violence. In the following passages, Anwar explains why he was forced to leave his hometown and family in Palestine behind.

“I noticed this every day on my way to school…when I was young. The Israeli Occupation Forces, in the streets, armed with weapons. Their tanks would pass every day in the streets. The soldiers were always present on the ground, whether in Gaza or elsewhere.”

“I didn’t like the situation in Palestine. Every day, we witnessed killings, the oppression of innocent people, the demolition of homes over their heads. I couldn’t handle it. So, I had to seek freedom, where human dignity is guaranteed…where human dignity is guaranteed. So, thank God, I came to Canada. But, Palestine…I will never forget. It remains in my heart forever.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016, emphasis my own)

Anwar remembers the daily observations and experiences of violence he fell witness to growing up as a child in Gaza. The presence of Israeli occupation and the daily occurrences of extremely violent conditions prove to be the driving forces behind Anwar’s exile and displacement. Exile then can be understood as a material consequence of violence and occupation. Again, oral history in this context can result in two of the following outcomes. For one, those who engage and listen to these narratives of exile learn of the systemic forces that drive Palestinians and others into exile to begin with. The second is that Palestinians like Anwar employ oral history as a way to exercise their own agency in resisting violence and in making sense of their identity as a people who are forced into exile. Therefore, by sharing and exchanging their narratives and lived experiences, Palestinians engage in this form of cultural resistance to formulate a sense of who they are, but also as a way to inform others of how violence, occupation, and exile affect their everyday lives.

Oral History in Space and Place 

Oral history suggests that identities are understood in relation to their specific temporal and spatial locations, meaning that identities cannot stand outside of given historical and geographic contexts (Desai, 2015, 124). Accordingly, for Palestinians living in exile, since leaving is neither a voluntary or desired act, oral history provides an opportunity whereby reconciling questions of place, space, and identity becomes possible (Brand, 2001, 2). In what Dionne Brand (2001) refers to as “the Door of No Return”, I look at how oral history plays a role in both resistance culture and the everyday lives of exiled Palestinians by drawing on its symbolic and material representations. First of all, it is important to understand that “the Door of No Return” constitutes a metaphor for place – a place signifying a site of belonging or unbelonging and a place made up of a collection of places all at once (Brand, 2001, 5-6, 18). Therefore, in the case of Palestinians living in exile, “the Door of No Return” insinuates the homeland (Palestine). It may also characterize the Diaspora whereby exiled Palestinians live as a result of occupation. In any case, “the Door of No Return” allows Palestinians to form their own conceptualized ideas about what and where home is to them. It is a complicated reality for many Palestinians living in exile, for “home” may be neither only here nor there. In fact, for these two Palestinians, “home” embodies Palestine (homeland) and the Diaspora (place of exile) in which they live at the same time.

“After that, your father decided that we’d return to Canada. It was not safe nor was there a sense of stability. You couldn’t go to school anymore. We were too scared and worried to send you. So it was no longer safe and there was no schooling…And we considered Canada to be our second home.” – Nahed Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016)

“I love Canada – it’s my second home after Palestine. It’s the country that made me feel my sense of dignity, my pride, my freedom, my humanity, and my rights as an individual.” – Anwar Al-Halees (Collecting Stories of Exile, 2016; audio unedited)

Nahed and Anwar share how the occupation (and its intangible conditions, e.g. lack of freedom) forced them and their family to leave Palestine. They both embrace Canada as their second home, yet they still maintain that home to them is Palestine first and foremost. In this way, these narratives of oral history historicize the current realities of Palestinians facing exile (occupation), thereby situating them in a particular geographic context (i.e. exile). This cultural form of resistance then allows Palestinians to cultivate their personal and collective identity through their connections with and understandings of the following: (a) their conceptualized ideas of home, (b) the historic circumstances that forced their exile from their homeland (occupation), and (c) their specific geographic location or place of exile. More importantly, by claiming home as both Palestine and the Diaspora in which they live, Palestinians engage resistance by refusing to give up Palestine as their homeland, while conceptualizing their place of exile as home as well. Overall, oral history epitomizes a way for Palestinians to reconfigure place, space, and identity, and in turn, to conceptualize their own ideas of where they belong and what home means to them. 

All things considered, oral history serves a number of purposes for Palestinian cultural resistance. It not only underscores how Palestinians living in exile come to shape their sense of identity, but it also enables them to reconfigure and make sense of place, space, and violence in their everyday lives. In essence, this paper demonstrates how oral history is utilized for advancing theoretical understandings of occupation, exile, and in turn, the significance it has in mobilizing and fostering cultural resistance. By employing the politics of refusal as a general entry point into the discourse, I argue that oral history can generate sites for education, solidarity, counter-narratives of violence and representation, and finally, for making sense of space and place in view of conceptualized ideas of home and belonging. In due course, I offer a richly nuanced account of Palestinian exile in hopes that it will present new possibilities for the greater global community, namely for Palestinians and their allies. This is especially important when one considers how the significance of oral history is often overlooked in resistance culture, particularly in the production of art, literature, and scholarly discourses. It follows then that art-based, culture-based, and oral-based knowledge production is foundational to Palestinian resistance. Therefore, we must root resistance-based knowledge in Indigenous epistemologies. This is central to cultural resistance practices such as oral history because they re-imagine solidarity and resistance in a way that does not reconcile, dismiss, nor excuse complicity in settler colonial projects. Instead, it works from the vantage point of knowledge sharing rooted in Indigenous practices. Ultimately, it is this very vantage point that makes oral history an especially powerful tool for Palestinian resistance, and as such, must be embraced if we seek to establish a meaningful and complete understanding of resistance culture in our everyday lives.

‘Black Panther’: Why Representation Matters

Growing up, seeing people who looked like me – especially in mainstream media – certainly wasn’t the norm. Today, not much has changed. Muslim and Arab representations still depict us as a savage, barbaric people driven by terrorist motives to ruthlessly kill. We have been treated to film after film in which we are reduced to playing the part of terrorist, evil villain, sinister billionaire and, of course, silenced women. Think about how such images would impact your sense of self-worth. And, worse, think about how that makes others see you and your community. If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless. Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mainstream media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. If you are a minority, it’s challenging to not be angry with Hollywood for the irresponsibly negative ways it has depicted Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs and other minority groups – all in the pursuit of making millions, if not billions, of dollars. 

So, a movie like Black Panther comes along – taking in nearly $200 million dollars across North American theatres its opening weekend – and I’m left feeling more inspired and hopeful than ever before. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger. It is an authentic and honest delivery on imagining a world of alternative possibilities. Representations are both complex and nuanced. It illuminates the vast diversity of African cultures and histories. It honours the significant ties to ancestral struggle and sacrifice. And for the first time in Hollywood’s history, Black people, particularly Black women, embody a powerful spirit of agency. A story is finally being told on the big screen without care or concern to appease a white audience. For far too long, Hollywood has set a low standard for incredibly talented Black actors and artists in the industry. Limited by stereotypical roles – the slave, the criminal thug, the poor ghetto kid –  Black people have been expected to play characters only serving to support the leading role of white actors – the saviour, the hero, the saint. That, or they are instantly killed off, usually within the first few minutes of the opening credits. Black Panther is a film that refuses to settle, and pushes back with a great force of tenacity and ambition nevertheless. Played by a mostly Black cast, Black people here are unapologetically their own agents of change. They’re heroes leading their own destinies with a great sense of triumph and inner strength. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely humour, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colours.

Above all else, it’s a movie about what it means to be Black in both America and Africa – and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day Black life. It challenges racist, colonial ideologies by dispelling myths of current-day political and social realities. The U.S. loses its credibility as an imperial power, and Africa is no longer depicted as a starving, barren land dependent upon foreign aid for survival. Instead, these alternative representations serve to interrupt stereotypical ways of thinking of Africa and its people in relation to the rest of the world. It provides an uncontested space to speak truths by completely reimagining the possibilities. It asks of us to consider African states as sovereign, wealthy, and technologically advanced, with an unyielding will for self-determination. This too is coming from an assumed connection to the historical implications that colonialism – the theft of land, resources, and human capital by European colonizers – and racism – the history of slavery in the Americas and the Jim Crow era –  has had and continues to have on African states and Black people everywhere. Essentially, Black Panther makes us contemplate the what ifs if you will. After the Obama era, perhaps none of this should feel groundbreaking. But it does. In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge systemic racism (e.g. police brutality and mass incarceration), its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on Black life and tradition.

Throughout the entirety of the film, Black Panther offers counter narratives of cultural resistance to impartial, untrue, and problematic representations of Black people and other communities of colour. It’s a reclamation of stories – a movement towards reinventing the public perception of who we are and where we come from. It’s a retelling of lived experiences from the eyes of those of us who have historically been marginalized and shunned from the dominant sphere. Black Panther also places a striking emphasis on the nuances of home. It doesn’t shy away from the painful realities of exile and diaspora most commonly experienced by many living in the West. While it focused primarily on the experiences of African Americans, this is something that deeply resonates with me. As a child of immigrants, self-discovery and identity formation in context of the question of home has always been a struggle. Coming to terms with my identity and my place in the world has resulted in a difficult, and ongoing process of reconciling the void between here and there. That is, the relationship between my birthplace and place of origin is complicated. Here, never Canadian enough to belong – there, never considered Arab or Muslim enough to fit in. Deemed an outsider within, my Canadian, Arab, and Muslim identities are at once rejected. Seen as one or the another, but never all together. They are at odds with one another, wrestling the notorious battle that aspires to cultivate a sense of purpose, belonging, and inner peace. I’ve learned that acceptance of this beautifully agonizing predicament is necessary. It’s a way of being and becoming, but also vital to my very existence. In the same way, Black Panther is telling of a similar account rooted in longing for someplace else.

Black Panther is a history-in-the-making kind of film. It’s a milestone worthy of celebration for many reasons. But for me, Black Panther is a big deal particularly because it gives me – and people of other minority groups – the freedom to dream of one day seeing our own superheroes. I look forward to the day when my community can be this excited to see a movie that showcases one of us as a superhero. What a contrast it would be to how cruelly Hollywood has depicted Muslims and Arabs in both television and films for decades. Black Panther has already broken box-office records, which means that we’ll hopefully continue to see dynamically complex Black characters and captivatingly compelling stories of communities of colour both on and off screen. And here’s hoping that Black Panther’s popularity translates into other minority groups finally getting a chance to see someone who looks like them save the world.

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