The Speech of The Colonizer

Around the lead up to Captain America: Civil War and again when Black Panther came out, there was some discussion online about T’Challa’s accent. The big question was how would the king speak? Popular thought posits that regality sounds ‘proper,’ and that ‘proper’ would be an English-tinged accent. When we, in pop-culture, think of kings and royals it’s the English monarch we often consider as the modern epitome of it.

In Black Panther, there was a conscious decision for T’Challa to not have a British (or American) accent. Rather, his diction has a distinct African flair (specifically, that of the Xhosa in South Africa and Zimbabwe). Wakanda exists as an epic utopia, and it does so without the undercurrent of western — that is to say white — supremacy.

There exists a notion in the popular consciousness, borne out of generations of white-washed history, that it’s been ‘Western Civilization’ that has gifted the world its arts and culture. The Greeks and the Romans, the English and the French, and now the Americans; they have been the ones who wrote the classics that form the foundation of any cultured education. To say nothing of the Chinese development of printing, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system in use today, or even the complex coding that was the Andean quipu; anything of relevance comes from the (often white, and mostly male) west.

Wakanda has none of that. Within the Marvel mythos, the country was never colonized and so never affected by western influences thus they wouldn’t have British accents, nor even American. Thus Black Panther pushes back on the idea that non-British/American accents are ‘lesser’ or backwards.

That’s a big deal.

Accents are tied in many ways to presumed intelligence. The better you speak, the more educated you are. The fancier your accent, particularly if it’s English, the better (a trope Arrested Development had a great deal of fun in its Mr. F arc). Black Panther didn’t just rebuke this idea, it flipped the script, taking an accent oft relegated to the newly immigrated or the uncivilized and positioning it a position of regal dignity. It seems such a small thing, but it’s a blatant statement that you don’t need to speak with some variant of Received Pronunciation of the Transatlantic Accent to sound dignified.

This is something I’ve been thinking about in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s death. I talk a lot on this blog about representation and all that. For me, a kid who grew up in a former colony and later learnt in the US that the way people from there spoke was ‘funny’ and ‘wrong,’ it so much to have been told in a major movie that, hey, it’s okay. And it’s pretty cool. To say nothing of what else Boseman did, that little impact on accents and the perception of speakers, that’s a legacy.

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