I remember the moment I first heard of “the nod.” I was about five or six and walking through the supermarket with my mom. As we made our way through the store, she inclined her head or smiled at multiple black individuals that I had never seen nor met before. Finally, when we were alone in the car I asked her how she seemed to know so many people in the supermarket today. She told me that she had never met any of those individuals before. I was overcome. Everything that I had been taught was not to talk to nor interact with strangers; however, this was an entirely different situation my mom explained. We were part of a shared community and that has endured many hardships in order to shop at a mainstream. By nodding at those other black strangers, we were acknowledging where we were and how far we’ve come. I was astounded that all of that meaning could come from that simple gesture.
A lot of ink has been spilled and many parodies have been made regarding “the nod.” It is a personification of what it means to be black and I have come to find it fascinatingly comforting. In a world that is not always kind to people of the melanin gifted, we can communicate our community membership and black personhood through a simple tilt of the head and a quick smile. Where did this come from and why so subtle? I hypothesize that this secretive gesture originated from a need to be just that. Throughout history, being black was an identity shunted to the fringes and kept in the shadows; activities that were considered black or “urban” were not part of the mainstream culture. In order to join the mainstream, black people had to quiet themselves, sit down, and be humble. Hence the need for the nod. A little spark of civil disobedience that would not rock the boat or upset the social order.
Much like Wakanda, the fictitious, highly advanced African society which is home to Black Panther, a society hiding in plain sight in the African jungle, so too were blacks communicating their identity without saying a thing. However, much like in the end of the film, King T-Challa (Black Panther) led his people to join mainstream society in order to positively benefit the modern world. With the box office success of the film and its entry into the cultural zeitgeist, blacks found a new way to define their community: the phrase “Wakanda Forever” and accompanying arm motions. Everything about this phrase and movement, the nod is not; it is bombastic and instantly recognizable, not subtle nor secretive. It is showy and fierce in a way that is quite stirring. Also, it is completely allowed in mainstream culture, there is no need to hide it. Everyone at once knows where it came from and who it belongs to. The question that I have recently been grappling with, is that such a good thing?
About a month ago, I found myself at a music festival in Palm Springs. I was having a great time bopping along to a nameless DJ when a felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked over and a black man, a little younger than me, stood beside me. I thought there was a problem, but he was simply saying hello. We exchanged greetings and, as I was turning back to the music, he said “Wakanda Forever” with a conspiratory grin. I didn’t really know what to do. My confusion stemmed from the fact that I didn’t feel we needed to exchange such a gesture. We were in this beautiful space where nothing mattered and we could just celebrate great music as one people. One love and all that. However, after we parted ways, I started to really look around at our surroundings. We were some of the few black people at the festival and maybe he felt that we needed to unify. I felt that if that was the case, the nod would have sufficed instead of a phrase from a movie.
I realized then that, for me, the nod was not for the world as much as it was for me; it made me feel like I was part of a community connected by shared struggle. It spoke volumes in ways that I couldn’t put into words. It was my way of giving the world a middle finger that only certain people would understand. I didn’t want everyone looking at me and knowing what I was doing, that defeated the point. The nod is a classy and subversive way to keep the dream alive, not hokey or clumsy like Wakanda Forever. Even Chadwick Boseman, the living embodiment of Black Panther, tired of the phrase throughout his long press tour for that film and The Avengers Infinity War. The other side of the coin is the nod does not divide as much as it unites. It’s not loud and dismissive of other people’s struggles. If a person of any other race were to say Wakanda Forever, they would get an immediate sanction from the court of public opinion. The nod is something that is here one day and gone the next, like an exclusive food pop-up that only certain people know about. And I love being in the know.