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: