By Mphatso Moses Kaufulu
Bio: Mphatso is a Malawian cultural and political sociologist. His interests are ethnographic research in sexuality and politics. He currently writes for iAffairsCanada on Southern African politics
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. Going further however, he mentioned also that he, personally, resonated with Killmonger – the character played by Michael P Jordan – in 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 Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, and so on. 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 the very best of African traditions and culture with a technological base built upon different foundations from those which characterize the Western sphere and indeed the rest of the world. For one, they do not use any hydrocarbons at all 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. They maintain strict border controls, deploying sophisticated technologies and very well equipped border guards to prevent and refuse entry into their land by anyone – Westerners and surrounding Africans alike. The moral conundrum 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 global peripheries, as minorities in the West and especially their technological disadvantage. If Wakanda were a real country, they 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, and closer to their borders, as Kenya struggled with heavy human losses to break free from their colonial masters. These are only a few instances from within the continent. And what of the plight of the displaced and enslaved Africans in South America, in the Caribbean islands and on the North American mainland (through periods of chattel slavery and its rampant rape culture, cultural erasure, reconstruction, the black codes, Jim Crow, segregation, the war on drugs and mass incarceration).
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 new patterns of oppression sanitized only by the black faces which orchestrated them. What of the civil wars. 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, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Dr. King and so on. 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 humanity.
At this juncture, the only thing which warrants the celebration of Wakanda and indeed the Black Panther, from my perspective, is the vision it presents in which one begins to imagine what an uncolonized, unslaved African society might look like. Seeing all the cultural wealth put on display in the movie from different African ethnicities from different countries and parts of the continent is quite overwhelming. The architecture too was quite moving – as was the African modernity the movie seemed to espouse in which gender itself seemed to have escaped the sort of Judeo-Christian heterosexual categories which are now reproduced throughout the African continent through churches and mosques. In the movie, the technology of Wakanda, supported by the array of African cultures, had facilitated their own concepts about what we might term maleness or femaleness and so on. The pictures of women living without permission or apology were by far the most moving aspect of the movie: there were no damsels in distress. The accents too, 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 economic and political union. But even here, the story of Haiti being denied membership of 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 of racial and cultural othering and oppression.) 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. The limited penetration of this too means that there are vast numbers of Africans who have no contact, even through the mediating effects of media, with African Americans at all. In many cases, most Africans have no political memory of African Americans as displaced and enslaved Africans. They, like Killmonger in Wakanda, would be classified by Africans as foreigners (Liberia’s story of repatriation and the competition that ensued between returnees and locals too comes to mind though it is fraught with its own particularities).
To compound this problem further, the intense focus on nationalism during anti-colonial struggle led unwittingly to a post-colonial identity formation of national groups of Africans who identified themselves in terms of the new nations formed at independence but which were nonetheless borders imposed by European powers at the Berlin Conference in the 1850s. So that after colonialism, the lack of memory 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 (gang affiliated, violent, lawless, tattooed, parentless, rapping, criminals and thugs with angry, loud, sexually loose women); and finally that African Americans are of another nation and of some other black ethnicity outside the colonially determined borders of the present African nations and outside prevailing ethnicities. In fairness, most Africans on this basis alone, are like T’Challa and his Wakandans. T’Challa and the rest of the political council, throughout the movie, fail to understand the anger, 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 have done well to avoid in their autark nation. 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 Black 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, and thus dropped into what feels like a never-ending struggle – thereby feeding into the images of Africa one finds readily within the African American imagination here in the states: of ideas of Kings and Queens, gold and minerals, healthy food, freedom, cultural embeddedness and the absence of oppression (images which are neither the signs of true engagement with Africa as it is now nor an engagement with the people who live in it). When I have attended Pan-African talks here in the States, Africa is sometimes depicted not as the place that exists today but as a vision of a place that would 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 any contact with each other beyond these historically determined and specified 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 an African American is a severely fraught and problematic one. 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 and 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 devaluing further the African American narrative as illegitimate and needlessly militaristic.
In Black Panther therefore, at least one thing is for sure, Africans – cast as an apolitical people because they live so far away on a large, previously occupied continent – are raised to a higher standard of respect than their counterparts in North America and perhaps Europe 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. Only for these purposes does the African 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.