I walked into the Manhyia Palace Museum, in Ghana, West Africa and the tour guide greeted my group with this message:
“In our society we believe in a democratic form of leadership in which we always have two leaders—a man and a woman—who share leadership responsibilities. You see, the man can understand the needs and issues of men, and the woman can understand the needs and issues of women.”
Thus, the tour guide began our exploration of what Osei Kwado calls the two highest leadership roles in the Asante kingdom, the King and the Queen Mother.[i] That was over a decade ago, and I’ve been intrigued by the leadership role of the Queen Mother ever since.
In addition to traditional African societies, the Queen Mother is a leadership role that was found in other ancient societies, including ancient near eastern cultures, such as Hittite, Ugaritic, neo-Assyrian, pre-Islam Arabic societies, and in ancient Israel during the Monarchial period[ii].
In these ancient cultures, the Queen Mother was typically a mature relative of the king. Most Queen Mothers were the birth mother of the King, but in some cultures, she could have been his senior wife, his grandmother, or another female relative. The Queen Mother was no longer in childbearing years yet exerted “great influence over the princes and princesses” in the royal court. The Queen Mother wielded power in the royal court as supervisor of the royal household, and publicly, the Queen Mother had earned the respect of the nation as its “corporate” mother.[iii]
As I watched the Black Panther movie I was particularly struck by the leadership of Ramonda, the Queen Mother of Wakanda. Each of the women leaders in the movie are motivating and inspiring, yet I noted six lessons from the Queen Mother’s leadership that inform women’s leadership today–especially Black women’ leadership.
**SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you’ll want to come back to this section after you’ve seen it. By now, though, I’m hoping all followers on this site have seen the movie at least once.
We Must Be Present.
As T’Challa returns home after the death of his father, the King, the Queen Mother of Wakanda greets him. Her very presence in this film as well as in ancient cultures was to ensure dynastic stability during times of transition. In both traditional cultures of Africa and the Ancient Near East, the Queen Mother was a symbol of a particular type of leadership. Serving not just as a figurehead, she signified continuity for the kingdom, wisdom, and the insurance of the perspective of a woman at the highest levels of the kingdom. Women today who lead according to the Queen Mother motif must ever be aware of the importance of our presence to the institutions and communities of which we are a part at every level. Sisters, because of our distinct history and experiences, we must show up and speak up. Especially in these times of turmoil and cultural shifts, we must remember our presence is crucial to the entire global community.
We Must Be Strategic.
Whether T’Challa was fully ready for his ascension to the throne or not, it was the Queen Mother who encouraged him. “My son, it is your time.” Queen Mothers were sensitive to the strategic timing and preparation of the next King. Her role was to ensure the successful transfer of power from one leader of the dynasty to the next. She reflected the values, assumptions and practices of the culture, and in her role became protector of the culture. As women leaders today know we must be strategic in our causes, as we fight for justice—especially for members of our cultural groups. We know that timing is everything and must take advantage of the opportune seasons for our work. We must strategically prepare the next generation to remember our history and take up the mantle of our cause for freedom. This is our time.
We Must Be Visionary.
Though grieving the loss of her own husband the Queen Mother of Wakanda had to see beyond the the present and look to the future. She could see her son on the throne and encouraged him to see it also. In a humorous scene the Queen Mother of Wakanda showed us another type of vision. Like so many mothers who seem to have eyes in the back of their head when it comes to their children, so Queen Ramonda could “see” Shuri teasingly flick the bird to her brother. We must remember that being a woman of vision is about seeing the long-term needs and possibilities of our institutions and communities. Yet, being a woman of vision is also about being able to see the people under our care—to know their temperament, their tendencies—and to lovingly lead.
We Must Be Clear on Our Identity.
In Wakanda, before the new King could ascend to the throne, he had to take part in a ritual ceremony which all the tribal leaders and members served as witnesses. Facilitated by the priest, Zuri, and the keepers of the “heart-shaped herb”, any person of royal blood could challenge the up and coming King. M’baku, leader of the Jabari tribe not only challenged T’Challa, but at one point began to overpower T’Challa. At his lowest point, he heard the rallying cry from the Queen Mother: “T’Challa, tell him who you are!” And then garnering every ounce of strength from the very core of his being, T’Challa goes on to defeat M’Baku. Women who lead like Queen Mothers must know who we are and remind the people we serve and care for who they are. Our cultural heritage is full of women who knew who they were and we are their legacy. There is power in knowing who you really are and not falling for the lies of the dominant culture meant to diminish our humanity and weaken our resolve and agency. Sisters, we must tell the world who we are and rise up in the strength of our identity!
We Must Be Wise.
When Killmonger assumes the kingship and title Black Panther our beloved Queen Mother is stripped of her position. But title or not, the regal white-haired woman, along with Shuri and Nakia, start on a journey to save Wakanda. Queen Ramonda’s crown of white locs signify for us that she is a woman of experience and wisdom, walking with Nakia, the young activist, into the mountainous region of the Jabari. Crafting out and even debating their next step, Queen Ramonda even encourages Nakia to drink the vibranium to take over leadership of Wakanda. Women today who will lead according to a Queen Mother motif, must continually walk in wisdom—the wisdom of the Spirit and of our ancestors. Wise is the woman leader who receives counsel from others and partners inter-generationally. Wise women leaders support other women leaders. Wise women leaders seek solutions for problems and, if need be, become the very solutions we seek.
We Must Be Influencers.
When Nakia offers the vibranium to M’Baku, he has a surprise for the trio of royal women that ultimately leads to the restoration of T’Challa. T’Challa regains life and his super powers. He implores M’Baku to join him in the battle to regain the kingdom. M’Baku declines, but promises to keep the Queen Mother safe while T’Challa is off fighting his battle. At first, I grimaced at the need for the Queen Mother to be “taken care of.” But then upon further reflection on the Queen Mother leadership motif, it occurred to me. Who do you think influenced M’Baku to change his mind and enter the fray to help T’Challa’s fight? The Queen Mother, of course! I can see it now. The Queen Mother leveraging her experience, respect and devotion to Wakanda, to convince M’Baku to get out off the mountain and get involved in the fight to save Wakanda. Behind the scenes, out of sight—she wielded the power that made all the difference. Any woman who leads today, regardless of title, visibility or rank, can influence for the good of all. And truth be told, hasn’t that really been the essence of our leadership down through the ages?
The women of Wakanda rock! From the warrior women of the Dora Milaje to the technological genius of Shuri; from the justice-seeking activist Nakia to the wise Queen Ramonda, the women of Wakonda embodied powerful leadership motifs for all women to witness and celebrate, but especially Black women. The Queen Mother of Wakonda cements this ancient leadership image into our hearts and minds.
Black women leaders have for generations known that what we do flows from who we are. Often omitted from dominant cultural models of leadership, each generation of Black women have looked to our own for models, motifs and images of leadership. The fictionalized Wakanda provides another set of visual images for illustrating and venerating Black women’s leadership. Though Wakanda is fictionalized, the power of Black Women’s leadership in this era is no myth. And all women and men can and must glean from our leadership.