By Ade Ofunniyin
Are we truly returning “black” to the future? Who will direct this sojourn? What is the truth about this undertaking? While Disney and AMC Theatre’s motives may appear to be altruistic, I posit that they are capitalistic and misguided. The film Black Panther and its Afrofuturist imaginings demonstrate clearly the central role African women have played and continue to play in the protection and perpetuation of African families and kingdoms. King Ta’Chala is celebrated as the savior of Wakanda, while it was the women that saved the king’s life. A woman confiscated and preserved the magical plant that restored the Black Panther’s life and power. It was Shuri, the king’s young sister, who masterminded and returned the claw necklace to the awakened king. What lessons can this blockbuster film, animated with African esoterism, imagery, objects, rituals, technology and pageantry provide for the advancement of an Afrofuturist paradigm and agenda during this African history month?
When I asked my African American Studies students why they thought that Disney was promoting and showing Black Panther in 250 theatres for nearly a week for free, during “Black His-story Month,” most thought it was hype, another way to market the film through the merchandising of Black Panther products and a way to test the market for future products and the next feature film in the series. In addition to the accessibility of the film to viewers/consumers, Disney and AMC are generously donating a $1.5 million grant to support United Negro College Fund.
Most of my students claim to have seen Black Panther and many still do avow “Wakanda Forever.” However, most have settled back into their fraternities and sororities. I do not suggest that “Greek” life is not a collegial activity and an important rite for young students during campus life, but it pales in the face of what the Wakanda movement potentially represents. Disney and AMC clearly see what that potential is.
It took Black Panther 26 days (after the work of researchers, voluminous promotional hype, a savvy creative and production team, tremendous casting, costuming and incredible talent) to gross over $1 billion at the global box office. There have been 55 other movies released since 2000 that earned $1 billion or more globally. Those productions took an average of seven weeks to reach $1 billion, 88% longer than Black Panther. My students, friends and family represent some of the millions of ticket purchasers who stood in long lines, purchased special outfits to wear to the premieres and, after viewing and being in Wakanda for nearly ninety minutes, pledged their allegiance to Wakanda—forever.
My students recognize the hype in Disney’s venture. African American Studies and other courses I teach have demonstrate the fact that there are sheroes and heroes throughout the many stories about Africa and her people in the diaspora that are deserving of telling. My students, like those of many of my colleagues, are now poised to ask why Black Panther and not black pharaohs? Why Wakanda instead of Nubia or Timbuktu? Why Princess Shuri and not Imhotep, the true father of medicine and architect? Why not real stories about the truths embedded in the images represented in Black Panther and on display in galleries and museums globally? Why are the many stories that concern continental Africa, her people’s struggles, triumphs and development in the diaspora, still being concealed and/or erased?
Like the power of the ancient objects and rituals represented in the movie, the power of antiquity is bustling with tales of liberating potentials and legends that inform students of the greatness of African people and civilizations. Despite the tales of ruthless kings and despots, our students come to know that love of justice and peace abound in African culture. Many accounts tell of the great ancestors that were gifted far beyond human imagination. Our research and readings provide fables of young African queens and kings possessing God like abilities.
Students attending our classes leave knowing that the potential of Wakanda existed in Kush and was silenced along with the 25th dynasty. They leave knowing that, rather than super heroes there have always been African super beings who have performed heroic deeds stored in wondrous legends; leaders from every path in life, farmers, priests, saints, gods and tyrants. They leave knowing the potential that thrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Florida, and countless other towns, communities and kingdoms, that were built with the technology, labor, and love of African people and their descendants around the world. They leave knowing the truth about how these flourishing communities were routinely disrupted and destroyed by envious and murderous mobs of Europeans and their descendants.
Our students wonder about the flaws inherent in integrating black and white communities and realize that segregation and self-reliance made sense; that the movement for equity in education was co-opted by media and the powers that be so that the focus shifted toward integration. In class, we witness the trauma resulting from the hatred and violence produced through white supremacist ideals, practices and propaganda. Yes, we watch towns being bombed and burned to the ground and black people gunned down for simply existing in the presence of any white person! We see broken bodies hanging from ropes, families displaced from homes and communities empty handed with nowhere to go. Through all of the travail and pain we search for and find hope and wisdom.
The Black Panther phenom ushers in and marks a transformative time in American culture and cinematic history—Afrofuturism on film. It is, in fact, another milestone moment for black folk in the US. Once again we demonstrate our potential to outdo and show that we truly can be uppity, even kings and queens living in a palace and ruling a kingdom. Being uppity, i.e., aspiring toward upward social and economic mobility, has often been considered a privilege reserved for whites only.
In Wakanda our students (and audiences worldwide) witnessed the type of imagery of African pageantry and championship that is too often missing in European stories and interpretations of black history. African narratives live in ancient text and/or oral traditions and, the frightening truth is, most people do not know about or have access to such texts/wisdom in terms of culture, linguistics, or geographic proximity. Even more frightening still is the condition that most of the writings are in. Many have been stored in damaging environments and are in dire need of archival treatment. However, the guardians of the ancient papers and objects have become much more vigilant about the influence and interference of outsiders, often preferring to see the papers wither into disrepair than fall into the wrong hands. What secrets and truths do the ancient texts hold? How might the wisdom that is contained within them influence the future of humanity?
In the predominantly white institution where I teach students are recognizing the weight and disgust of the past as it has been presented to them. Some now realize that many truths about critical happenings in world history have either been deleted or misrepresented. Certainly, that realization is not viral. Some see the urgency of the present moment and the potential and power of the future, but sit in silence because they have been socially conditioned to do so. I remind students that it is not their fault and that shame and guilt are not theirs to bear. When they power down their electronic devices and the quiet erupts they find their voices and blame the media, the educational system and sometimes their home environment for their lack of truth and understanding about themselves, their families, ancestors, heritage, country, city and even communities where some have spent their entire lives.
Some started the semester dismayed and others expressed anger because they are “just now learning about this history” and other representations of the Black Panther spirit. They are clear that in many spaces, it is still unsafe to be black and panthers are only celebrated as mascots. In the face of truth I watch my students lose their ignorance and shed some of their fears about facing not only themselves, but our reality in the US as well. Many attest that the future is now and that they intend to be agents of change. I bare witness as they embrace and put on the armor of truth and broaden their view of the role that Africa plays in world history and contemporary affairs.
I watch and listen as they learn of women warriors like Assata Shakur, Angela Y. Davis, Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba, Queen Amina of Zaria, West Africa and Makeda the famed Ethiopian Biblical Queen of Sheba. They become empathetic and courageous after learning about Denmark Vesey, Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, Tubman, Piankhi and Taharka. They marvel at what Marcus Garvey was able to accomplish despite his limited formal education and him being pursued by US investigative agencies and disparaged by many black leaders of his time. Students move from not knowing Malcolm X to wanting to be like him. They acknowledge that he and Garvey, both used the dictionary to learn the meaning of words, which gave them voice and power to direct and influence revolutionary change. They see the panther in revolutionary leaders. They come to know that revolution and resistance are the hand-tools of freedom.
Students come to class and sit like young deer in the night frightened and waiting to cross the roads of life with no flashing neon signs or street lights to warn them. In the limited time and space that we have to engage in our classroom, we affirm to ourselves—knowledge is power! Discovery of truth is liberating. In truth we learned why Haiti is poor and why their people are so undereducated. In truth we learned why a white archaeologist allowed his racist views to influence his report on his discovery of statues of black pharaohs during an excavation in Egypt. In truth we see how misrepresentations, propaganda, erasures and lies have been deeply embedded into our cultural conscience. In truth we learn that white supremacy and its systems of oppression are ensnaring traps that endanger all of humanity and threaten the entire planet.
As the warrior women, led by General Okoye, fight to protect the kingdom and the throne, General W’kabi, the leading man in charge of guarding Wakanda’s borders, betrays the kingdom to join Erik Killmonger’s scheme of retaliation against the colonizers. Is that a sublimated message about black men and their abilities to protect their families and borders? Is the message about manhood and abandonment? What became of young Erik Killmonger’s reality when he was abandoned as a child? Okoye made it clear when she quickly responded to General W’kabi’s question, “would you kill me my love?” She replied, “for Wakanda, without question!” Her message was clear, for my people, I will kill you!
Did King T’Chaka have to kill his younger brother, Prince N’Jobu? Did King T’Challa have to let his cousin Killmonger die after he defeated him in battle? Is this also a message about betrayal of black people by black men? Is this a message about black men murdering each other? Who is directing this storytelling? What is the truth about this undertaking? We have seen this type of stereotyping and propaganda used throughout history.
Who created and controls these images? Media outlets and networks like Disney and AMC are all owned and controlled by people that hold values similar to those people who created and profited from films like Birth of Nation, a 1915 American silent movie by D.W. Griffith that propagated ideals the Ku Klux Klan and long-lasting stereotypes about Africa and African descended people, all of which remain pervasive in US culture today.
In Black Panther the closing question posed by a colonizer at the United Nations hearing was, “what can a nation of farmers offer the rest of the world?” In other words, what can Africa offer the rest of the world? What can Haiti offer the rest of the world? What questions did the creators of the film ask in their boardrooms when they determined to launch the Black History Month campaign? Did anyone ask what has the world taken away from such places?
How many black children viewing the film will want to grow up and be like the Black Panther? Will America have that black of a future? What color will Disney and AMC paint Afrofuturism? Is the past the future?
Space is the place. Who remembers Sun Ra? “The future never comes…it is always here…just when you think that you are near it…you look and its over there…Now is what you have… make with it what you will… Remember, it is your choice… is the glass half empty…or is the glass half filled?”
Wakanda—let’s make it real!