The Way of Wakanda and the Great Black Hope, By Chris Ngwodo
Wakanda is a metaphor for black beauty, black pride and black power but the first two have been more attainable than the third principle. Themes of black beauty, black pride and negritude, all aimed at restoring the dignity of blackness, have lingered since the 1960s and endure in fashion, popular culture and the arts.
The movie Black Panther has emerged as a popular culture phenomenon but it also carries a resonant sociopolitical message. The timing of its release was apt and not just because it premiered during Black History Month in the US. It is coming at a time when the ordeals of African-American young men at the hands of the American justice system have been brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter Movement and at a time when the US president, already demonstrably the world’s most powerful vendor of racist, xenophobic and bigoted rhetoric, is alleged to have described African nations in derogatory terms.
The centerpiece of Black Panther is the fabulous landscape of Wakanda – an idyllic, techno-utopia hidden in the heart of Africa, and shrouded from the rest of the world by advanced technology powered by a rare mineral, Vibranium. It is a monarchy protected by a lineage of warrior kings who are super-powered adepts of the Black Panther cult. Wakanda is a metaphor for a gloriously reimagined African past and present – an alternate reality that bids us to imagine a Congo that was never plundered by Leopold of Belgium or a South Africa that was never seized by Boers or what might have happened if the Benin Empire had not been invaded by the British.
Vibranium may be a fictional resource but Wakanda’s struggle to maintain sovereign control of its prized mineral is the story of Africa, from gold and diamonds in South Africa, coltan and cobalt in the Congo and oil in Nigeria.
The movie’s creative synthesis of elements from Africa’s diverse cultures (Nsibidi ideograms, Xhosa dialogue, Masai garments, Akan accessories) evokes the kind of creative sociopolitical engineering that we have yet to apply to maximising our gift of cultural diversity. Instead for far too long, the mismanagement of diversity has sustained strife across the continent.
Black Panther’s depiction of black genius has a twofold relevance to both Africans and Africans in the diaspora. It welds together the fractured consciousness of both peoples in what can only be described as a Pan-African cinematic fiesta. Classical Pan-Africanist thought, as essayed by generations of philosophers from Marcus Garvey and WEB DuBois and Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe revolved around the essential unity of black people and the fundamental oneness of the struggle against colonialism and for civil rights in the US. To Pan-Africanists, the struggle, regardless of its varied manifestations across the world, was against the different aspects of the same evil – white supremacy and imperialism and apartheid in South Africa as a particular resilient strain of this malady. Thus, there was no difference between Toussaint Loverture’s revolution in Haiti and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia resisting Italian invaders. Like Wakanda, Ethiopia was never colonised and its idealisation as the spiritual homeland of the global black community is a central tenet of Rastafarianism and Afro-Caribbean liberation theology.
Wakanda and the African Renaissance
The great Pan-Africanist scholar Ali Mazrui once contended that an African renaissance requires three major revolutions – “a revolution in skills, a revolution in values and a revolution in gender relations.” In Wakanda, the African renaissance is alive and well. The country’s technological splendour highlights Africa’s complicated odyssey of modernisation. Black Panther depicts a society leveraging the spiritual capital of its history and culture, while pursuing the mastery of science and technology. Wakanda calls us to both cultural recovery and technological aspiration. We have to restore elements of our culture that have been denigrated by colonialists and their native successors. This is however not a call to vacuous cultural nationalism or the fetishisation of retrograde practices. Too often, elites invoke cultural nationalism to mask and legitimise their leadership failure.
In one scene, Killmonger, the villain, inquires pointedly about the provenance of a Benin mask and other African artefacts in a British museum. “How do you think your ancestors got these?” he hisses at the museum attendant. Yet for all our braying about cultural appropriation and theft of indigenous artefacts, the fact is that we are shamefully inept stewards of our heritage. Under our watch, Benin’s famous moats are gone as are huge sections of the walls of Kano and other national monuments. Until we learn to value our history, those artefacts are safer in foreign museums.
Wakandan women are smart, beautiful and assertive personalities – a compelling vision of black femininity that subtly hints that contemporary interpretations of gender roles stem as much from the imposition of Victorian mores on the continent as from any African wells of patriarchy. The women of Wakanda are anything but appendages to male egos; they are fully realised persons rightfully confident in their own powers. The Dora Milaje, the all-female elite military guard, call to mind not only the female warriors of ancient Dahomey but also the presence of female combatants currently fighting a misogynistic terror group in North-Estern Nigeria.
Not all aspects of the Wakandan fantasy cohere with the African dream. Across the continent, hereditary succession has been rejected and is presently dying a slow death in its last strongholds like Togo. Ritual combat as a means of leadership succession has been largely forsworn, although some might argue that chronic electoral violence is our own modern day variant…
Black Panther has been hailed as a watershed moment in the history of Hollywood’s portrayal of Africa and Africans. We have come a long way from the Blaxploitation films. A pertinent concern must be the extent to which Nollywood, the world’s third largest film industry, has promoted Blaxploitation by perpetuating stereotypes of Africa as a place of bucolic atavism and superstitious idiocies. It is fair to say that Nollywood’s film makers have not always approached their craft with a sense of artistic responsibility. A continent long caricatured by Western story tellers cannot place its hopes of realistic depiction on an improbable epiphany in Hollywood. Thankfully, there are gratifying signs that a new generation of Nigerian filmmakers is hungry to take on more nuanced portrayals of a complex continent.
Not all aspects of the Wakandan fantasy cohere with the African dream. Across the continent, hereditary succession has been rejected and is presently dying a slow death in its last strongholds like Togo. Ritual combat as a means of leadership succession has been largely forsworn, although some might argue that chronic electoral violence is our own modern day variant of the practice. And a technological utopia would surely have evolved a less bloodcurdling means of leadership selection and certainly avoid being potentially seized by a tyrant.
Wakanda’s policy of insularity, even from fellow African nations, seems a rebuttal of African solidarity. Her resolute indifference to her neighbours is Trumpian and as Daniel Kaluuya’s character notes, accepting refugees would mean accepting their problems. Wakanda abjures any notion of responsibility to the black world. This is the sort of genteel xenophobia that recalls attacks on black Africans in South Africa or Nigeria’s expulsion of Ghanaian migrants in the 1980s. Wakanda does not participate in international trade or accept foreign aid. Although, autarky is simply unrealistic in a globalised world, the notion of an African country that is proudly non-reliant on aid is quite compelling.
Killmonger seeks to use Wakandan technology to foment a global black uprising against white supremacy and the newly crowned King, T’Challa, must navigate between retaining his country’s policy of isolation and embarking on military adventurism to right the wrongs of the global racial power structure. The conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger symbolises the seemingly longstanding binary tensions within the global African community on how to respond to the crimes of white supremacist imperialism.
At independence, African nations were split between the radical Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a united states of Africa and Nigeria’s placid anglophile prime minister, Tafawa Balewa whose moderate reserve was always at variance with the more radical orientation of Nigeria’s civil society. This schism resulted in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), rather than Nkrumah’s envisioned continental federation.
This schism manifests in the African diaspora as the tension between black nationalists, as represented by Marcus Garvey, and integrationists as symbolised by Frederick Douglass; between the militancy of Malcolm X and the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr; between the serene realism of Nelson Mandela and the wrathful radicalism of black militants, whose desire was to build a new South Africa on the carcasses of their erstwhile white overlords. We cannot hold too rigidly or simplistically to these binaries. After all, Mandela once headed the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress and Malcolm X evolved beyond black radicalism to apprehend the possibilities of a more multiracial approach to confronting white supremacy.
Confronted by a choice between isolationism and imperialism, T’Challa opts for a third way – an engagement with the world focused on spreading knowledge with Wakanda’s first outreach centre sited in the neighbourhood in which the villain grew up. This outreach is effectively the Wakandan version of the British Council but is also reminiscent of the kind of international activism Bolaji Akinyemi had in mind when he conceived Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps to provide critical manpower and development assistance to African and Afro-Caribbean nations. In this age of disillusion, it might seem difficult to accept that Nigeria once saw herself as a giver rather than a recipient of aid.
Black Beauty, Black Pride and Black Power
Wakanda is a metaphor for black beauty, black pride and black power but the first two have been more attainable than the third principle. Themes of black beauty, black pride and negritude, all aimed at restoring the dignity of blackness, have lingered since the 1960s and endure in fashion, popular culture and the arts. Black power has been an altogether more difficult proposition, whether we interpret it to mean the sense of a lack of control over personal and collective destinies that wracks African-American communities or the even more galling absence of functional African nations. Botswana is a rare example of an African nation that works but she is too small and lacking in geostrategic influence to serve as a global exemplar of black genius. The same might be said of Rwanda.
Wakanda is a rebuttal to the racist tropes that infected the fields of anthropology and the pseudo-scientific notions of racial hierarchy that informed imperialism and colonialism but we must not forget that for at least half a century the primary challenge of Africa has not been white supremacy but black-on-black colonialism essayed by vampire states run by vulture elites.
In 1973, Newsweek dubbed Nigeria “the first black power.” Her size and wealth of human and natural resources have always strongly suggested that she is burdened with glorious purpose or as Achebe put it “a nation favoured by providence” and “commandeered by history to facilitate mankind’s advancement.” To many Africans and Africans in diaspora, Nigeria was the great black hope. Malcolm X recalled the pride he had felt when on visiting Nigeria in 1963 he saw “black men operating their own communications agencies,” radio and television stations. It was much like a foreign visitor might marvel at black achievement on display in Wakanda. Desmond Tutu tells a story about his reaction of shock, disbelief, panic and pride when he first boarded a plane flown by a black man. Conditioned by apartheid to apotheosise white mastery, the great cleric was genuinely befuddled by the idea of black achievement. The black pilot was a Nigerian.
To say that Nigeria has fallen short of her calling is an understatement.
It is a matter of some regret that Killmonger’s grand plan fails, so we are denied the opportunity to witness what would have been a glorious if bloody insurgence of black power against the status quo. Black pacifism triumphs over vengeful militarism. The achievements of figures like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela has further fortified the narrative of African moral might as a righteous redemptive riposte to the crimes of western imperialism. (Significantly, Wakandans speak Xhosa, Mandela’s mother tongue). Some critics see this as a poor man’s compensation for military weakness.
In 1979, Mazrui called for Nigeria to emulate Brazil, China and India and acquire nuclear weapons as a means of bringing racial equality to the club of nuclear-armed nations and thereby drag Africa from the periphery of global power politics to its mainstream. It is significant that on the eve of its transition to multiracial democracy, South Africa dismantled the nuclear arsenal that had been developed by the apartheid state. Some have suggested that the world order was simply not ready to accept a nuclear-armed black government. In an age in which nuclear nationalism has become the only insurance against Euro-American vigilantism, Africa is alarmingly militarily vulnerable.
Mazrui argued that when Christian pacifism supplanted African traditional religions, it also replaced the virtue of valour with that of forgiveness. African gods rewarded the warriors, while the Christian God canonised martyrs. African warrior ethos of courage, endurance and purposeful ruthlessness were displaced by the Christian virtues of love, tenderness, gentleness, patience and forgiveness in ways that enhanced the pacification of Africa and hastened its submission to imperialism. From the 1970s, the urgency of the liberation struggle in Southern Africa meant that the virtues of turning the other cheek, humility and forgiveness were balanced by the revival of the warrior spirit and the doctrine of “using the other fist.” This shift was encouraged by the activism of communism, which seemed to be the only force interested in confronting imperialism, white supremacy and apartheid. Africa’s geostrategic irrelevance, military marginality and economic emasculation are among the sadder facts of the 21st century.
Wakanda is a rebuttal to the racist tropes that infected the fields of anthropology and the pseudo-scientific notions of racial hierarchy that informed imperialism and colonialism but we must not forget that for at least half a century the primary challenge of Africa has not been white supremacy but black-on-black colonialism essayed by vampire states run by vulture elites. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon warned that “the native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor.” The African story may be that foreign exploitation has been replaced by native tyranny. And nowhere perhaps has this drama of post-colonial self-subversion been more acute than in Nigeria.
An early scene in Black Panther is in Nigeria where T’Challa and his allies intervene to stop the abduction of girls by terrorists in Sambisa Forest. It is a measure of that scene’s realism that only days after the movie’s premiere, terrorists kidnapped over a hundred school girls in North-East Nigeria – a reflection of the dysfunction and degeneracy of the Nigerian state and the delinquency of her political elites. In 1982, The Economist described Nigeria as “the place where Africans have their chance and are chucking it away.” The report observed that Nigerian regimes have had the money, the resources and the will to accomplish its dream of being a beacon for Africa but “what they did not have, at any level, was the competence to carry their fine ambitions through.” This indictment still rings true, except that the sense of ambition and geostrategic mission is gone, and replaced by the petty squabbles of a parasitic rent-seeking elite. A new generation must now begin to dream and do again.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.