Wakanda: Black Asgard

BlackAsgard

Wakanda: Black Asgard by Professor A.L.I.

I am a fanboy. I am also an Afro-centric historian, and therein lies the disconnect I experience when watching Black Panther. I bought my tickets, action figures and other paraphernalia well in advance, and even tried 3D printing a Kilmonger Mask to no avail before I watched the film on opening night. As an owner of every single issue of the character, from his Fantastic Four debut, the Jungle Action run, through his involvement as a key Avenger, and the now-iconic runs by Priest and Hundlin, I’ve been a Black Panther stan. Therefore, I was prepared to channel my Frantz Fanon and engage in cognitive dissonance as I knew the film would be unable to escape the one critique that my inner-historian had, because the source material is born of ignorance to Africa, and what it entails.

Africa is not a country. It is a continent so large that it encompasses one of the longest stretches human beings can travel by land traversing two hemispheres. It is also the most linguistically diverse places on the planet. Nigeria, a single country, a little larger than Texas boasts over 520 languages spoken and thousands of dialects in addition. This is the story throughout Africa, and with linguistic diversity comes cultural, religious, political and social diversity as well. Africa is so much, and as such, it is too much for simple minds to comprehend, and therefore it is reduced to the size and persona of a singular nation, in order to diminish it for the intellectual palatability of ignoramuses. This is homogenous Africa present in the source material that gives birth to Wakanda and the Black Panther.

My dear ustad, Edward Said should be turning in his grave-since Wakanda represents as Orientalist a depiction as the classical paintings of Gerome. Wakanda is the other, as envisioned by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and as the other, it helps to elucidate what the West is in opposition. It was a tribal space, constructed with savage norms, like battles for succession, the mythology that depicted numerous deities, which wove Orishas (from West Africa) with Kemetic (Egyptian) beings in a new-pantheon. Its heroes and villains were bestial-invoking animalistic qualities, and the worst of these was literally named Man-Ape. This setting was created only 20 years after phrenologists and Aryan supremacists argued the racist, fallacious notions of the intellectual inferiority of Africans.

This was the source material, and over the years other writers and artists would revise the depictions. In particular Black authors tried to re-envision what the Black Panther represented and used the writer for social critique. Christopher Priest and Reginald Hundlin did so in relative obscurity, while Ta-Nehisi Coates has built his exposition in the era of the marketing around the film and around his own following and has tried to dig into some of the constructions of this character. The challenge for them is that T’Challa, was originally constructed as a b-list character; and if we used the metric that heroes are defined by their villains, then the Jungle Action series, which introduced Black Panther, gives us a spectrum of villainy from the Man-Ape on one side to the actual Ku Klux Klan (KKK) on the other! T’Challa never had an A-list villain in his early run, with only the Klaw being significant, but even he was an after-thought for the great heroes that Lee and Kirby had constructed.

T’Challa has in recent years fought Dr. Doom, Namor, and Morlun, but these characters, despite being significant in their gravitas, are not the Black Panther’s villains. The one reoccurring character and foil of significance for Panther was Kilmonger, and for avid readers of the Black Panther, it was always frustrating that this character could defeat T’Challa over and over again. The film brilliantly retcons (reconstructs) Kilmonger, in such a way and in such opposition that it elevates T’Challa in the process. The film also helps reduce some of the bestial elements of M’Baku, aka Man-Ape, but retains the animalistic totems that the source material is based on.

Yet, the film draws a line in the sand between east and west. T’Challa and Kilmonger represent two polarized black experiences. T’Challa represents a bloodline that has never been colonized, and Kilmonger is raised in the diaspora. This adds an element of social critique and draws from the best Black Marvel writers, who have used the character to critique the social fabric in which we live.

While all this was good, the cognitive dissonance had to be employed while the film took me to Wakanda. A place that wove Hausa with Swahili and disparate cultural traditions, and the aforementioned bestial depictions. Mythology compounded, and an exotified landscape which draws the best of all of modern Africa, and its numerous biomes into one mythic place. This was the one things I hated. It reaffirmed homogenous Africa that the source material spoke to-but then, my inner fanboy began a debate with the historian within. The debate took me from Wakanda to Asgard, and questioned why, as a historian and one who has taught Viking history in detail that I did not have the same issue with how the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) dealt with European (Germanic, Nordic, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic, etc.) narratives in the same manner? I think I did, but to me, it did not matter in the same way this is when the third voice from within spoke.

Wakanda may be a Black Asgard, but, I was a man of color, a global Black man, a part of a larger diaspora, and so much of me was in the film. M’Baku’s quote “praise be to Hanuman,” to the East African garb, the ancestral worship, the mythology, the ritual-too much of who I am was woven into the film. The Jabari clan (the Arabic) the rescue from Boko Haram earlier in the film-all were touching on my faith as well. These were the complex layers I was navigating, even as and parts of me were in conflict with Kilmonger’s methods, while others championed his goals. C. Everett Ross as a hero figure despite being a CIA agent, and the dubious depiction that is, in light of the involvement of this organization in the destabilization of Africa, was not lost upon me either-nor was it that Kilmonger was constructed in a Malcolmesque way, while T’Challa was like MLK or Mandelan in his depiction.

In the end, the film is a must see-an all-Black cast, a Black director who shows love to the Town (Oakland) and Black Executive in Marvel who has championed this project since the very beginning. Analyze it, discuss it, and understand its critique of our world. Know that the source material is problematic but that the film tries to rise above, and at worst, it depicts a mythological space that is no more than a Black Asgard.

***

As always, I find the best way to deconstruct homogeneity and broach the bridge of Africa with the Diaspora is through music.  Enjoy this limited release EP entitled Black Seed that dovetails nicely with Black Panther and touches on these very themes:

blackseed

 

 

Advertisements

Dear Mama: Remembering Afeni and 2pac

Afeni2pacThis piece is dedicated to the Shakur tribe, on this occasion, which would have been Tupac Shakur’s birthday, we commemorate his soul and that of his recently departed mother, Afeni Shakur as well.

The news of Afeni Shakur’s passing was abrupt and sudden, just days before Mother’s Day, Dear Mama had left us and as a product of the Bay, an extension of the Panther legacy and a cultivator of Hip-Hop, I felt personally affected, even though I had never been blessed to have met Afeni in life.  I immediately contacted Sheikh Hashim Alauddeen, who had known 2pac, and had seen Afeni before, to share the heartbreaking news; and when he, who is usually loquacious, had no words save remorse, it furthered my heartbreak.  We were both dumbstruck and I didn’t know what else to do but to pray for her soul, and the soul of Tupac, as I also prayed for Sekyiwa and her children, Mopreme, Mutulu, Zayd, Assata and Jasmine Guy, who had purposefully helped me connect with Afeni through her writing.  To all those to whom Afeni was linked and to everyone she touched via her impact on social justice and through her children, I say and said inna lillahi inna ilayhi rajioon, “we are created and unto the creator do we return.”  Peace and Blessings.

Tamils_Love_2pac

Motherhood Besieged

Mother’s Day in America has many narratives, though all are of struggle; this is due to the fact that all mothers in America are born under the yolk of patriarchy, and the fact that there is no physical or metaphysical equivalent comparison for carrying a human being to term for up to nine months.  However, there is one matriarchal narrative that is so steeped in oppression that it stands apart from the others; this is of the mother whose child is stripped away from them as chattel and sold.  This narrative is of the captive mother, and it echoes from the skeleton closet of our nation’s history and it continues to reverberate in recent times.  The two most infamous examples of this oppression is manifest in the wombs of two women, held in captivity, who navigated their motherhood while they fought for their freedom; both women took on the surname Shakur.

Shakur in Arabic means to be thankful, which seems a word at odds with the adopted surname of a mother who was imprisoned for a crime for which she was eventually acquitted while she was pregnant—and the name seems especially ironic in that the Shakur tribe bore this oppression because America feared what was in their wombs, far more than any other force.  Sadly, this is not hyperbole, but the sad truth regarding the maneuverings of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which fought actively to prevent any Black Messiah figure from emerging and that included being born; COINTELPRO was directly utilized under Hoover’s guidance to snuff out any leadership of this type.  The irrational fear of a black messiah directly led to circumstances that found the government involved with or having knowledge of the assassinations of Fred Hampton, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  So it is unsurprising that this gripping phobia also led to the scrutiny of the wombs of black activists since the goal of phobic was to prevent a Black Superman from uplifting “the people” a.k.a black folk and pulling a modern day Moses routine on the machinations of a modern day Pharaoh.

Assata Shakur explicates this fear in her Autobiography, which shows in her descriptive prose capturing the reactions of the prison guards and government officials when they come to learn that she became pregnant while they held her captive in gross violation of numerous rights she should have been afforded.  She perfectly breaks down the state of oppression that consumed her being, as one that was so complete that those imprisoned didn’t realize that their perceptions of freedom were but a façade; Assata stated that “in AmeriKKKa she [had] always been in prison” and the only difference then, when she had been placed in a cell was that now she could see and feel the bars.  This is a type of consciousness that was born in the teachings of Malcolm X and both members of the Shakur tribe, Afeni and Assata would argue that their motherhood pales in comparison to that of Betty Shabazz, who carried her twins to term, while held captive to the assassination of their father, Malcolm X.  It was Malcolm’s inspiration that birthed the Black Panther Party and it was this organization that helped awaken consciousness in both Afeni and Assata, though they both would transcend its socialist construction and find spirituality in Islam and in New Afrikan identity.

FRONTPAGE_malcomx

The Tribe of Shabazz and the Tribe of Shakur

Sheikh Hashim likes to tell the story of when he was with Tupac and ‘Pac was using a label maker to punch labels out on sticky tape and place them underneath pictures he had pinned to his bedroom wall.  One of the photos was of Malcolm X, and under it Tupac had labeled “Original Gangsta.”  It makes me chuckle inside when people label Tupac a Gangsta Rapper, since they are unaware to which “Gang”, Tupac truly belonged.  Tupac was a member of the Shakur tribe, and learned lessons that shaped his consciousness under the tutelage of Mutulu Shakur, and took inspiration from Assata and his mother Afeni.  Young Tupac Shakur, renamed after the Incan emperor and revolutionary, spent his gestation in limbo, as his mother Afeni stood trial as part of the Panther 21.  She was acquitted and Tupac would be born a free child—however Assata, another member of the Shakur tribe did not fare as well and gestated her daughter in prison.  So his cousin Kikuya (Assata’s daughter) came into this world with the unenviable circumstance of being born in captivity—a circumstance that hearkens back to the matriarchal narrative of so called slaves.

Afeni passed away on May 2nd, one week before the third anniversary of the passing young Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of Malcolm X, who was our close friend and whose death and funeral consumed much of our spirit and community energy.  I was one of the few brothers called on to wash his body, as per Islamic ritual, and the memory of the lukewarm water running over the cold skin of his empty shell, the smell of camphor and the circumstances of the murder that put the lifeless form of my brother in front of me will haunt me till the day of my own death.  Afeni’s passing, was another blow to the tribe of Shakur, just as Malcolm’s was to the tribe of Shabazz.  These two families while distinct, remain connected in my mind via the conduits of affinity they had with Islam, celebratory blackness and an unapologetic adherence to social justice; and because of these things, there was a fourth connection, which was of trial—where members of both tribes experienced the inner workings of criminal “justice” system and domestic intelligence organizations for challenging the status quo on issues of faith, race and social justice and for having the tribal capacity to birth and train and black messianic figure.

2pac

2pac in Tamil pays homage to Afeni directly with the lines “reincarnated in Afeni’s womb”, and references to the Panther 21 case.  The song pays homage to Afeni as the conscious matriarch of Hip-Hop, which is to take nothing away from the contributions of other powerful women in Hip-Hop, but to give credit Afeni because she imbued one of the greatest, if not greatest M.C. in Hip-Hop history with the legacy of the Panthers, which in and of itself was a legacy of Malcolm, thereby inextricably linking Hip-Hop with the two tribes, Shabazz and Shakur.

2pac would have been 45 today, but we will be forever deprived of the wisdom he would impart as his experience grew.  In his later years, some have critiqued that 2pac was a slave to the music industry, and that the more popular he became the stronger the shackles did as well.  Yet these shackles, which came with a related shift in this self-professed feminist and socialist’s lyrics to misogynistic themes and capitalist lyrical content, seem to show a dramatic shift in an artist, who was perhaps Hip-Hop’s first male feminist lyricist up until he was shackled this way.  Songs like Brenda, Keep Ya Head Up and Dear Mama dedicated to Afeni Shakur, stand in sharp contrast to Wonder Why Bitch, but 2pac remained astute enough, Panther enough and truly hip enough to insert coded lyrics, like the captives of old did when they sang codes into negro spirituals, so that even songs with seemingly sexist lyrics carry secret messages to those in the know, see Me and My Girlfriend as an example—a song which deep sexual imagery that is constructed as an ode to libertarian values and the ownership of a gun.

2pac was a panther cub, and for those who don’t know Afeni or the Panther 21, understand that, it was as if Assata or Angela Davis had a child and that child retained the consciousness of the mother in his voice to/for the people.  Tupac was a conscious artist, and even when his music was not conscious, and constructed for popular construction it was still coded with consciousness for the people.  “The people” are the global black community and it is why 2pac is an icon for the continent of Africa, along with Bob Marley and Lucky Dube; it is why 2pac t-shirts sell in the bazaars of the Middle East and why in Latin America and South East Asia his visage is an icon reminiscent of Che or Ho Chi Minh.  2pac Shakur brought the voice of the tribe of Shakur to join with that of Shabazz, by the enduring connection elucidated earlier to speak to global issue of injustice.  He was taken from us, long before many knew what he represented and with the recent death of Afeni, it would seem that the strength of the tribe is waning—but like Malcolm’s words, Tupac’s songs live on and like Malcolm continue to inspire each generation that stands up to oppression everywhere on this planet!

2pac_Is_A_Global_IconShout out to the City of Oakland (#BayPride) for making today Tupac Shakur Day.