Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played King T’Challa and the Black Panther, mentioned on a radio show that Black Panther had helped facilitate a conversation between African Americans and Africans to which the rest of the world could be privy. He also mentioned that he, personally, resonated with Killmonger – the character played by Michael B Jordan – and the urgency of his political mission.
Perhaps to provide background, Wakanda – a fictional Central-Eastern African country – is home to an African people who have never been enslaved or colonized in their entire history. All the African peoples around them however have – and these would be the surrounding countries of Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and DR Congo. Additionally, Wakanda sits upon a huge reserve of a very dynamic, strong, versatile metal called Vibranium which fell from the sky in the form of a meteorite. Out of this substance, the Wakandans developed a civilization: incorporating African traditions from their initial ethnicities and culture and a vibranium dependent technological base built upon different foundations from those which characterize the Western sphere and indeed the rest of the world. They, for example, do not use hydrocarbons for fuel even though they are rich in that resource as well.
But – in order to maintain this utopian civilization, the Wakandans have pursued a very determined policy of non-engagement and autarky, hiding themselves not only from the Western world (which they see as the world of the colonizer) but also from African nations around them (whom they regard as problematic for the Wakandans’ sense of civilizational superiority, ethno-national cohesion and who are less-than for their previously colonized status). They thus maintain strict border controls, deploying sophisticated technologies and very well equipped border guards to refuse entry into their land to anyone – Westerners and surrounding Africans alike. The moral eye-sore therefore is whether any of this is warranted in a world in which, Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora have seen their struggles for humanization impeded largely by their designated statuses as backward, exotic and pillaged populations on the peripheries of West’s highly guarded border-frontiers, and as marginalized, brutalized and viciously exploited minorities in the West.
What all this insularity amounts to, if Wakanda was a real country, is a callously shocking posture of non-engagement despite having the means to significantly do so. That is, Wakanda would have stood silently by as genocide happened in the Congo under Belgian occupation, as Apartheid ravaged Black South Africa and Namibia, as Cecil Rhodes tore through the middle of the continent in his Cape to Cairo vision – treating African human beings as parts of the wider African natural environment which needed to be hacked down like the trees and wild animals which stood in the path of his imperialistic vision. And closer to their own fictional borders, Wakanda would have allowed Kenya to struggle unassisted along with all the human losses to break free from their colonial masters, even as they watched, disinterestedly, as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere struggled to jumpstart his Ujama vision for Tanzania.
These are only a few instances from within the continent. And what of the plight of the displaced and formerly enslaved Africans in South America, in the Caribbean islands and on the North American mainland (through chattel slavery and its rampant rape culture, the years spend languishing in dreadful conditions on the plantations, and the cultural erasure and neverending wars on their human psyche that came with it; through reconstruction, the black codes, Jim Crow and segregation; the racialized war on drugs and mass incarceration; the countless acts of resistance, rebellions which were thwarted with extreme violence, as change so urgently needed only arrived over a protracted time with often marginal possibilities and heartwrenching setbacks)? The Wakandans would have sat back and idly, despite their great means, watched this too.
And then finally, what of the post-colonial period and the dictatorships which sprang up in different newly freed countries as colonial relics of state power morphed into classist formations largely in service of neocolonialist expectations whose patterns of oppression were and are sanitized only by the black faces which orchestrate them; the likes of Idi Amin of Uganda and Mobutu Seso Seko of Zaire (now DRC — a real country arguably wealthier than even fictional Wakanda, which is fully integrated as a functional ongoing misanthropic catastrophe into the global capitalist economy to enable the most vicious and extreme wealth extraction model today).
What of the civil wars — many of which are sustained by multinational companies to keep african countries and states fragile and unstable so as to keep their natural resources readily accessible to them? And what of the colossal evil of patriarchy – both pre and post colonialism – beneath which African women continue to labor unlike their Wakandan counterparts: a patriarchy which now finds a ready partner in impersonal global capitalism.
In a context like that, Killmonger – the African American character portrayed in the unfortunate but usual stereotypical manner of unparented rage and a thirst for an unwarranted revolution – would find himself in a highly esteemed class of leaders and thinkers who were similarly disparaged like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Steve Biko, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Winnie Mandela, Malcolm X, Dr. King and so on. These people were not perfect but their imperfections, we have only come to know and criticize because they dared to be engaged. T’Challa (the Black Panther) on the other hand would be irrelevant to the African (continental and diasporic) cause or indeed any other cause for a better African future and humanity.
At this juncture, what warrants the celebration of Wakanda and indeed the Black Panther, from my perspective, is the vision it presents of what an uncolonized, unslaved African society might look like assuming Wakanda was a type of Unified African State. In this frame, all the cultural wealth put on display in the movie from different African ethnicities and parts of the continent is quite overwhelming. The architecture too was quite moving – as was the African modernity the movie seemed to espouse particularly on the matter of gender: There is an important point which is that without colonialism certain heterosexual and gender norms which are now held as fixed throughout the African continent due to Middle Eastern religions (namely, Islam and Christianity) may have been avoided. Subsequent technological, political, cultural and economic advances even without vibranium could have sustained concepts about gender quite distinct from the ones we have now.
The pictures of women living without permission or apology, unbothered by caricatures of one-dimensional black males as we are accustomed to enduring were by far the most moving aspect of the movie especially for pushing this possibility further: there were no damsels in distress waiting on knights in armor. Moreover, the accents too (including Killmonger’s African-in-the-diaspora accent), in their Afro-diversity, were terrific.
But going a little bit further, T’Challa’s (Black Panther) mindset is not all that removed from the general African mindset as it pertains to perceptions about African Americans. First and foremost, African Americans enter into the African intellectual imagination at the level of Pan-Africanism which is an esoteric realm occupied by certain African political and academic elites. (This is gaining ground especially through the efforts of the African Union as an integral strategy of African cultural, economic and political unification. But even here, the story of Haiti being denied membership to the African Union in May of 2016 by the same Pan-African organization reveals the extent to which the idea of Africa remains confined to the narrow definition of geographical locality as opposed to a kind of being which resonates among a people who share a particular history arising out of an imposed racial classification as a basis for global and national social stratification: The blackening of Africans.) Beneath this realm, African Americans also enter the African imagination, to the extent that it is able to pervade the African cultural landscape, at the level of popular culture through music, arts and movies, and especially spectacle-oriented sports which involve explosive displays of energy (running, jumping, batting, throwing, etc).
The limited penetration of this too means that there are vast numbers of Africans who have no contact, even through the propagating effects of media, with African Americans at all. In many cases, most Africans have no political or cultural memory of African Americans as displaced and formerly enslaved Africans. African Americans, like Killmonger in Wakanda, would be classified by continental Africans as foreigners (Liberia’s story of repatriation and the brutal competition that ensued between returnees and locals too comes to mind though it is fraught with its own particularities). Similarly, television ads and Hollywood movies like Coming To America have done their best to ensure that similar misapprehensions are also widespread among our African American cousins and elsewhere in the African diaspora.
To compound this problem further, the intense focus on nationalism during anti-colonial struggle led unwittingly to the formation of African nationalist identities which see themselves in terms of the new nations formed at independence which were nonetheless built within the borders imposed by European powers by the Berlin Conference in the 1850s. So that after colonialism, the lack of political and cultural memory among Africans of African Americans and its resultant othering, compounded with a nationalistic othering at the level of these artificial national borders (which themselves then intersected with what are now political identities motivated by the need for state recognition at the subnational or intra-national levels: namely, ethnic consciousness).
With these factors in play, one can see how Africans fail to sympathize with the African American experience, being that: African Americans are discussed seriously only in the ivory towers of political and intellectual elites; African Americans only enter the African imagination at the level of popular culture where they are often portrayed in stereotypical ways (as highly physical, cultureless, gang affiliated, violent, lawless and poor, tattooed, parentless, rapping, criminals and thugs with angry, loud, sexually loose women); and finally as foreigners outside the colonially determined borders of the present African nations and their prevailing ethnicities. In fairness, most Africans on this basis alone, are like T’Challa and his Wakandans — only without the wealth and the technological basis by which they might enact these sentiments whose antecedence are found both within colonial and postcolonialist frameworks.
T’Challa and the rest of the political council, throughout the movie, fail to understand the frustration and sense of urgency in Killmonger: to them, he is filled with an irrational anger. They dismiss this anger, in their cyclical reasoning, as some sort of manifestation of the oppression they themselves did well to avoid by separating themselves from the “colonized Africans” inside their autark nation, and the “enslaved Africans” beyond their continent in the Americas and elsewhere. A border guard rather pathetically mentions to T’Challa during a conversation by a cattle kraal, that should Wakanda reveal itself to the outside world and especially to the Africans around them, that it too will become as dysfunctional and backward as the other Black nations.
Here, Marvel pushes once more the image of African Americans as needlessly angry and thereby continues the age old process of dismissing the catastrophic experience of African Americans in the United States while erecting this wedge between these two communities which have been taught the estrangement of each other.
In sum, the movie would leave an African like me watching in an African cinema somewhere on the continent feeling recognized and perhaps empowered within my post-colonial nationalistic filters without realizing the extent to which it furthers my alienation from African peoples in the diaspora. To the African American, the movie plays on what they could be if they had never been displaced and enslaved by relying upon the images of Africa one finds readily within the African American imagination in the states: of ideas of Kings and Queens, gold and minerals, culture and languages, freedom, cultural embeddedness, Afro-spirituality and the absence of oppression (images which might neither be the result of a deep engagement with Africa as it is now nor of an interactive engagement with the people who presently live in it). When I have attended Pan-African talks in the States, Africa can sometimes be depicted not as the place that it is today but rather as a place that might be suitable for African Americans once unbounded from the United States and its experience. In this way, Africans and African Americans would have watched the same movie and gone away having missed much contact with each other beyond these historically determined and locally specific realms of imagination. Please note that even at their best, the two Pan-African traditions of the continent and of the North American diaspora rarely speak directly to each other beyond generating ideas which challenge context specific issues.
Rather curiously though, a CIA agent brought into the movie both as a spy for the American government and as a focus for anti-colonial jokes, is granted redemption by helping the Wakandans to undermine Killmonger’s plan. The idea that the CIA has more integrity than the African American experience leaves one aghast. Some of the historical obstacles encountered by African freedom fighters on the African continent were brought about by CIA intervention – here again, the Congo, as Patrice Lumumba attempted to propagate a new vision of national cohesion for that country, is a great example. Similar interferences happened in Angola, Namibia and Mozambique during the cold war as Western and Eastern powers maneuvered to bring African states into their ideological enclaves. The Soviet Union, seeking to upend Western control of the continent, supported several of the movements for decolonization which attracted countermeasures by Western intelligence agencies, among them, the CIA. Back in America, the infiltration of FBI informants into civil rights groups during the 1950s and 1960s is well documented. Here, supposed African civility sanitizes a very checkered government agency while at the same time dismissing the African American narrative as illegitimate and needlessly militaristic.
In Black Panther therefore, at least one thing is for sure, Africans are cast conveniently as an apolitical people. They are raised to a higher standard of respect than their counterparts in North America for a simple reason: it is those counterparts whose political agitations for equality matter the most because they live within the West as part of its citizenry and as a constant reminder of the West’s past. Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates repeats this point time and time again: that African Americans remain problematic to the United States because they make it impossible for that country to forget its past, in its determination to maintain the grand myth of its supposed historical exceptionalism and global moral leadership. Claims which instantly collapse against the most cursory of examinations of its history.
Under these circumstances, the African is permitted to escape the standard trope of the helpless, sickly, hungry and backward savage. Africans in the diaspora carry the most potent impacts upon the West should they all acquire and manifest collectively the mentality of an Angela Davis, a Cornel West, a Michelle Alexander, an Erica Garner – or a Killmonger, more so than the above depicted African. African civility in Black Panther therefore serves as a ranking criteria and a basis for the delegitimation of the political struggle and civil activism of African American and other diasporic Africans in the Western enclave.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
Image courtesy of AntMan3001
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.