There are two types of misconceptions Black folks in the Americas have of Africa–that it is filled of countries of the shithole-variety like the current POTUS characterized and decades of US entertainment/media coverage has promoted or the mythological, fantasy of an ancient African past in which everyone was a great Queen or King of whom we are all descended. Although there are undoubtedly more, those two misconceptions have led to a rejection/denial of anything African on the part of Black folks who view Africa as a continent of trees, huts, disease, untamed wilderness, and flies flying around starving children’s mouths. Or among nascent Afrocentrists, a nostalgia for some idealized African past that paralyzes the dreamer in a pleasing coma of a majesty once held and contemporary rage and despair.
These two systems of belief in Black thought form the psychic background of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film. The character, Black Panther, and his homeland, Wakanda, were originally the creations of Marvel Comics editor-writer Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby, two European-American men, as part of the Marvel Universe. But African-Americans including Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Roxane Gay, have been among several writers who have contributed to the creation of Wakanda and its king, T’Challa aka the Black Panther.
Coogler’s Black Panther, a film adaptation of the comic, opened this weekend and Black folks packed every seat not occupied by anyone else. The Black response to Black Panther has been reminiscent of when every Black household tuned into the mini-series, Roots, or went to the theatre to see Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X. From the social media frenzy to the premier night pageantry of stars in African or African inspired garb walking the red carpet, this film is FUBU by any and all accounts. So what that most of the clothing was by non-Black designers, right? That’s the nature of being a colonized and stolen people–Dubois’ double consciousness. Sometimes, oftentimes, we reach for our African-ness through European imagination and interpretations of what African is. Fanon used the image of Black skin covered by a white mask to consider the ways in which colonization can mediate/buffer/disrupt/inform a colonized Black person’s relationship to themselves, their history/legacy, and their ancestral home on the continent of Africa.
Black Panther is FUBU in another important way. It is one among many ways the descendants of enslaved Africans have reached across the middle passage and Black Atlantic to their continental cousins to ask some pretty painful questions: Why did you sell us into slavery to these soul-less, genocidal, people who cannibalize any and everything they can? Why did you never come look for us to see what had happened and why we never returned? Why did you never come to retrieve us? It is the latter two questions that preoccupy Coogler’s film.
Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole have created a tension embodied in the competing, guiding philosophies of three important diads: N’Jobu/T’Chaka, Nakai/T’Challa, and N’Jadaka/T’Challa. N’Jobu, Nakai, and N’Jadaka want to use the technological power of Wakanda to help other people of African descent. Wakanda’s power is based upon their ingenuity and industriousness in exploiting a resource, vibranium, that landed in their community on a meteorite before the European invasions of Africa. The combination of their technological knowledge and its application in the manipulation of vibranium has kept their communities protected from the cultural disruption and underdevelopment that European empires imposed upon most other African communities.
T’Chaka and T’Challa represent African leaders and rulers, past and present, in relation to the African Diaspora. Black Panther asks them attend to the African American problem–we are a displaced people who have never and will never be home in imperialist white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy. It is the collective voice of Black America in the form of a Marvel/Disney movie asking a very serious and painful question. Just like T’Chaka and T’Challa represent African leaders, N’Jadaka represents Black America, the ones who were abandoned to survive in the most inhuman of sociocultural environments.
Abandoned by his uncle/King to survive in the United States and live with the murder of his father, N’Jadaka became a death dealer filled with rage and a thirst for vengeance that made him an enemy of his continental family. His vision, and that of his father, reparations and the dismantling of the system of oppression that has kept Black people outside of Wakanda in bondage. N’Jadaka is Kunta Kinte is reincarnated with the bone knowledge of the brutality of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchy and a passion to stop the its violence with the power of Wakandan might. His articulation of his ancestral name in the throne room of the Wakandan King speaks back in time to the moment the overseer stripped Kunta Kinte of his flesh and ancestral name.
Like many of the Diasporic Africans who return home to the continent, N’Jadaka does not return to the land of his ancestors unmarked. He suffers something akin to post traumatic slave syndrome. He has made decisions to survive in a racist society that have cost him dearly and he is unaware of the damage even as he advances a just mission. Coogler’s depiction of N’Jadaka’s ascent to the Wakandan throne is a word of caution to African Americans who return to the continent as entrepreneurs or become enstooled as Chiefs/Queen Mothers. How does the double consciousness of colonization affect someone when they are in those positions of power?
By raising these questions, Coogler’s Black Panther does more than mere entertainment. It provides significant food for thought for Black folks at a time when the savage nature of white supremacy as both ideology and structural power is most apparent–due in part of white backlash in response to the Obama Presidency and the emergence of the Trump regime. But the metaphor of Wakanda only goes so far with respect to Africa’s relationship with the Diaspora. As early as the 1900s, African leaders have sought connections between diasporic and continental Africans and vice versa. In 1900, the first Pan African Congress was convened to develop a global commitment of solidarity between African people all over the world in their shared interest to end European imperialism and white supremacy. It was at a meeting of the PAC’s successor organization, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) that Malcolm X shared a statement as an observer to the event on behalf of “22 million African-Americans whose human rights are being violated daily by the racism of American imperialists.” In the statement, Malcolm/Kunta Kinte/N’Jadaka chided the African leaders in attendance:
Since the 22 million of us were originally Africans, who are now in America, not by choice but only by a cruel accident in our history, we strongly believe that African problems are our problems and our problems are African problems…. Some African leaders at this conference have implied that they have enough problems here on the mother continent without adding the Afro-American problem…. We in America are your long-lost brothers and sisters, and I am here only to remind you that our problems are your problems. As the African-Americans “awaken” today, we find ourselves in a strange land that has rejected us, and, like the prodigal son, we are turning to our elder brothers for help. We pray our pleas will not fall upon deaf ears.
We were taken forcibly in chains from this mother continent and have now spent over three hundred years in America, suffering the most inhuman forms of physical and psychological tortures imaginable.
During the past ten years the entire world has witnessed our men, women, and children being attacked and bitten by vicious police dogs, brutally beaten by police clubs, and washed down the sewers by high-pressure water hoses that would rip the clothes from our bodies and the flesh from our limbs.
And all of these inhuman atrocities have been inflicted upon us by the American governmental authorities, the police themselves, for no reason other than that we seek the recognition and respect granted other human beings in America.
The American Government is either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of your 22 million African-American brothers and sisters. We stand defenseless, at the mercy of American racists who murder us at will for no reason other than we are black and of African descent….
Our problems are your problems. We have lived for over three hundred years in that American den of racist wolves in constant fear of losing life and limb….
Your problems will never be fully solved until and unless ours are solved. You will never be fully respected until and unless we are also respected. You will never be recognized as free human beings until and unless we are also recognized and treated as human beings.
Our problem is your problem. It is not a Negro problem, nor an American problem. This is a world problem, a problem for humanity. It is not a problem of civil rights, it is a problem of human rights.
We pray that our African brothers have not freed themselves of European colonialism only to be overcome and held in check now by American dollarism. Don’t let American racism be “legalized” by American dollarism….
We beseech independent African states to help us bring our problem before the United Nations, on the grounds that the United States Government is morally incapable of protecting the lives and the property of 22 million African-Americans. And on the grounds that our deteriorating plight is definitely becoming a threat to world peace.
Out of frustration and hopelessness our young people have reached the point of no return. We no longer endorse patience and turning the other cheek. We assert the right of self-defense by whatever means necessary, and reserve the right of maximum retaliation against our racist oppressors, no matter what the odds against us are.
We are well aware that our future efforts to defend ourselves by retaliating- by meeting violence with violence, eye for eye and tooth for tooth-could create the type of racial conflict in America that could easily escalate into a violent, worldwide, bloody race war.
In the interests of world peace and security, we beseech the heads of the independent African states to recommend an immediate investigation into our problem by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
One last word, my beloved brothers at this African Summit: “No one knows the master better than his servant.” We have been servants in America for over three hundred years. We have a thorough inside knowledge of this man who calls himself “Uncle Sam.” Therefore, you must heed our warning. Don’t escape from European colonialism only to become even more enslaved by deceitful,”friendly” American dollarism.
In the imaginary world of Coogler’s Wakanda, a community of continental Africans have the technological power to end European neocolonialism and global white supremacy by force and choose not to do so. Instead, they do what respectable Black folks who are beholden to imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchy do–they contribute to the expansion of the non-profit industrial complex by setting up social welfare and educational programs. This strategy is worthwhile when you believe that the problems of African Americans is intrinsic to them and you haven’t an understanding of white supremacist responses to Black excellence e.g., Black Wall Street and Rosewood. But when you know that the problems of African people, whether on the continent or in the Diaspora has been and continues to be the imposition of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchy on our ability to live, learn, grown, love, and develop, then you realize that T’Challa’s answer to the problem is just as much a betrayal of African people as N’Jadaka’s.
Thankfully, Black film has provided us with alternative possibilities. To consider them, you can watch Jordan Peele’s brilliant film, Get Out, which is back in theaters (in select places for free today) and the film adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s amazing novel, The Spook who Sat by the Door: