“Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Unsurprisingly, I’ve been doing a ton of reading about Black Panther and Wakanda recently, and I wanted share some of the best things I’ve read on the subject so far.
Wakanda and World-Building
Indeed, like so many things, the reason U.S. cities lack Wakanda-level transit is for lack of political will. As CityLab’s Brentin Mock notes, the closed-door African monarchy of the Black Panther film and comic book promotes freedom, equality, and prosperity for all denizens. It is also a very urban place by necessity. To shield itself against colonialism and plunder, Wakanda poses on the world stage as a poor, arid backwater; this pushes dense development (with a conspicuous lack of private cars) to its hidden interior. The U.S. is urban too, with more than 80 percent of the population living in urban areas. But the distribution of political representation, and hence the dollars, favor rural areas.
Many transit systems are suffering accordingly, because of decades-long funding declines. More recently, the Trump administration has proposed setting aside a few billion for “transformative” projects (a couple inches of maglev, perhaps?). But its much-talked-about infrastructure plan is essentially biased against cities, in that it requires enormous local dollar matches for its proposed infrastructure grants.
The kingdom of Wakanda depicted in the film is, according to the movie’s director, Ryan Coogler, actually based on a real place: The African empire of Mutapa, which was a powerful trade center encompassing the present-day countries of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Zambia from the 1400s to late 1700s.
So Wakanda not only has buildings that are heavily inspired by traditional African architecture—“Timbuktu scaffolding and Mali pyramids”—it also features incredibly sophisticated urban technology. Wakanda’s economy is fueled by the mining of a valuable mineral, vibranium, and therefore is the most tech-savvy society in the world.
But instead of the typical tropes seen in cinematic cities of the future—sleek glass towers of uniform height—Wakanda shows not a master-planned, top-down metropolis but a type of grassroots urbanism where the residents have customized their structures and their communities to fit their needs.
Failing to depict the impoverishment of Africa as a key obstacle to Black Excellence is a deficiency to the otherwise strong narrative. I understand that the movie is about escapism, but there are creative ways the topic could have been approached. This is not speculation, by the way. Black Panther does after all unapologetically address a number of other obstacles to Black Excellence such as racism, colonialism, ethnic rivalry, and slavery without becoming too “heavy”. To be clear, Africa is a rich continent in itself, but widespread poverty is the most pressing issue it faces. It was a lost opportunity to include the eradication of poverty in Africa as a major aim of the Afrofuturist polemic.
The invisibility of poverty in Black Panther’s Wakanda also has a lot to do with differences between black people in the diaspora and those in the continent. In the diaspora, where the film was conceived, empowerment and resistance work focuses largely on racial identity whereas I’d argue that no thoughtful empowerment/resistance project in the continent can ignore poverty reduction. While these distinctions often intersect — black people everywhere are affected by both racial and financial oppression — as someone with a foot in both the diaspora and continent, I find that there is nevertheless a palpable difference in the discussions about major obstacles to prosperity.
African fashion has always been cosmopolitan, and Carter was careful not to depict it as frozen in the past. Contemporary designers across the continent are remixing tradition, creating innovative silhouettes and combining prints and textures. Carter and her team collaborated with several vanguard fashion houses to reflect the range of tailoring and textile production that animates the current African fashion scene. She was drawn to the impeccable Ghanaian-inspired tailoring of Ozwald Boateng, as well as Ikiré Jones’s florid textiles, which reimagine Nigerian culture through high Renaissance art. South Africa’s MaXhosa by Laduma, with its futuristic knitwear based on graphic Xhosa prints, and the peculiar silhouettes and color clashing of Duro Olowu—the Nigerian designer who dressed Michelle Obama—add an avant-garde edge. Together, the styles channel the dandified elegance of Congolese sapeurs and the transgressive spirit of the Afropunk festival to express the characters’ wide range of personalities.
Women and Feminism
Black Panther’s kid sister Shuri is like the Robin to his Batman, but don’t call her a sidekick. At a fairly young age, Shuri (Letitia Wright) is already Wakanda’s Chief Technology Expert, and girl, does she know how to slay some code! In an uncharted move, Shuri gives a face to STEM, and does so in a truly melanated fashion.
Thanks to her skills, Shuri not only creates some of the best inventions and protection for big brother-Panther, but from time to time when he’s on the field, she keeps eyes on him from the headquarters, and flawlessly narrates his next move. Proving that studies are correct, men should listen to women more.
In Black Panther, black people are represented with an empowering narrative which breaks stereotypes and changes perspectives. For those of us who have struggled to find multi-faceted representations of ourselves, this is it. The dark-skinned female superhero finally looks like me, my sister, my mother, my friends. Female suffering is not used as a narrative device — instead women are the best spies Wakanda has to offer, fearless warriors and scientific genius responsible for the nation’s technological advancements.
Coogler’s version of this story uses black women to show us the morality of the world in a way that Christopher Priest’s seminalBlack Panther comics, as beautifully rendered as they were, did not. Priest created the Dora Milaje, the fearless warriors of Wakanda, but he also created Nakia as, unfortunately, an antithesis to respect for black women. The Nakia of the comics is a woman so obsessed with T’Challa that she attempts to kill the other women in his life and aligns herself with Killmonger, an enemy of Wakanda. In the film, however, Nakia is a woman who wants to save the world and reluctantly fights alongside the Dora Milaje to save her country. She doesn’t run away because her feelings for a man drive her into Fatal Attraction territory.
Yes, Killmonger makes some really good points. But as Coogler shows, we ought to look toward black women for morality in this world. And I can’t root for a villain who has no respect for them.
N’Jadaka and Villainy
Killmonger’s pain, abandonment and generational trauma touch on the rawest parts of being African American. Sure, the imprint of the continent our ancestors hailed from is embedded in our gums, but our AncestryDNA results don’t exactly lead us into the open arms of our ancestral cousins. We are a homeless people, not welcomed anywhere. If Wakanda is the Black Promised Land, then we are its forgotten children, sold away, left behind, rejected, condescended to.
Swirling in constant reminders of worthlessness, of the specific anti-Black-American toxicity experienced by Black folk in the U.S.A., Killmonger is angry—not just at white supremacist oppressors or systemic racism, but also the Black Elite who left him behind. And he has every right to want vengeance.
In a sense, Killmonger’s story is an allegory for a certain generation of Black men, born into communities where fathers were all to often absent, incarcerated, or dead. Each of us knows a boy like N’Jadaka who grew into their own Killmonger, scarred in body, if not psyche, unable to love in healthy ways because they’d either long forgotten or never learned. But these aren’t people equipped to govern movements; often times they’re struggling to govern their own emotions. Killmonger spouts statements about honouring the noble self-sacrifice of his ancestors, and yet he wouldn’t have spared a thought before snuffing the life out of the smartest Black child that ever lived. Because to Killmonger’s thinking, Shuri “brought that on herself.” A broken child grown into a man without mercy for children, who later pleads mercy in the only way he can be comforted: to rest with kin whose lineage likely ended at the bottom of the ocean with them.
Black Panther might just be a film, but there’s enough subtext available to sustain these discussions for years. And one discussion we definitely have time for as a community, is what it means when men we know to be predators occupy positions of power, and we fail their victims because those predators are deemed by the community to be too useful. They’re the men who bring down churches, taint political offices, and ruptured one of the most powerful Black nationalist movements the world has ever seen because the safety of Black women - even those who were pillars of the community - was less important than assuaging the male ego.
“You want to see us become just like the people you hate so much,” T’Challa tells Killmonger during their climactic battle. “I learn from my enemies,” Killmonger retorts. “You have become them,” T’Challa responds. That the climactic battle in Black Panther is a bloodbath between Wakandan factions is no accident; it is Killmonger putting the never-colonized Wakanda through a taste of colonialism in microcosm. In one of many sly references to the Black Panther Party, it is Wakanda’s women—Nakia, Danai Gurira’s General Okoye, Letitia Wright’s Princess Shuri, Angela Bassett’s Queen-Mother Ramonda—who sustain Wakanda through its darkest moments. Where T’Challa cannot survive or triumph without Okoye, Shuri, or Ramonda, Killmonger is alone. His African American mother is absent from the story; Killmonger kills his own lover the moment her body stands between him and his ideological ambitions.
The following distinction is crucial: Black Panther does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation—to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated. It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
There is a fundamental dissonance in the term “African-American,” two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen. That dissonance—a hyphen standing in for the brutal history that intervened between Africa and America—is the subject of “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler’s brilliant first installment of the story of Marvel Comics’ landmark black character. “I have a lot of pain inside me,” Coogler told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on Wednesday night. “We were taught that we lost the things that made us African. We lost our culture, and now we have to make do with scraps.” Black America is constituted overwhelmingly by the descendants of people who were not only brought to the country against their will but were later inducted into an ambivalent form of citizenship without their input. The Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all those born here, supposedly resolved the question of the status of ex-slaves, though those four million individuals were not consulted in its ratification. The unspoken yield of this history is the possibility that the words “African” and “American” should not be joined by a hyphen but separated by an ellipsis.
“Black Panther” is a Hollywood movie, and Wakanda is a fictional nation. But coming when they do, from a director like Coogler, they must also function as a place for multiple generations of black Americans to store some of our most deeply held aspirations. We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence. From Paul Cuffee’s attempts in 1811 to repatriate blacks to Sierra Leone and Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa Black Star shipping line to the Afrocentric movements of the ’60s and ’70s, black people have populated the Africa of our imagination with our most yearning attempts at self-realization. In my earliest memories, the Africa of my family was a warm fever dream, seen on the record covers I stared at alone, the sun setting over glowing, haloed Afros, the smell of incense and oils at the homes of my father’s friends — a beauty so pure as to make the world outside, one of car commercials and blond sitcom families, feel empty and perverse in comparison. As I grew into adolescence, I began to see these romantic visions as just another irrelevant habit of the older folks, like a folk remedy or a warning to wear a jacket on a breezy day. But by then my generation was building its own African dreamscape, populated by KRS-One, Public Enemy and Poor Righteous Teachers; we were indoctrinating ourselves into a prideful militancy about our worth. By the end of the century, “Black Star” was not just the name of Garvey’s shipping line but also one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made.
Never mind that most of us had never been to Africa. The point was not verisimilitude or a precise accounting of Africa’s reality. It was the envisioning of a free self. Nina Simone once described freedom as the absence of fear, and as with all humans, the attempt of black Americans to picture a homeland, whether real or mythical, was an attempt to picture a place where there was no fear. This is why it doesn’t matter that Wakanda was an idea from a comic book, created by two Jewish artists. No one knows colonization better than the colonized, and black folks wasted no time in recolonizing Wakanda. No genocide or takeover of land was required. Wakanda is ours now. We do with it as we please.
Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass 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. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it. […]
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 institutional bias, its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on black life and tradition. The fact that Black Panther is excellent only helps.
In 2018, enters Marvel’s Black Panther. It’s a film that has the audacity to feature a black male protagonist T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who’s a king to boot. His African kingdom, Wakanda, has the nerve to be technologically advanced without an ounce of culture stripped from its afro-future grounds. His co-stars, have the spunk to be black women and men with a normalized sense of agency and power. Its director, Ryan Coogler, has the brass to be Oakland born, with an accent that’s Oakland bred. Its Kendrick-led soundtrack; daring in its blacker than black themes. And then there’s the villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has the gall to not be demonized with a “hood” shtick, but instead reflect a valid frustration around the identity and survival that many black folks wrestle with. Whiteness isn’t necessary to tell a damn thing about this story.
It isn’t so much that black boys and girls have a superhero that they can look up to, it’s that they can have it without the “white” to make it great. With all the unapologetically black fellowship that this film displays, excellence can still be achieved with just that.