Making Sense of Black Panther: A Perspective

As originally seen on blackpraxis.com

Okay, so I’ll be honest. I was dreading the release of Black Panther at least as much as I was looking forward to it. As soon as somebody said “Africa,” I got that familiar clenched-jaw, knotted-stomach feeling I get when I’m anticipating having to politely explain to somebody that yes, what they just said was, in fact, xenophobic and racist, and that no, just because Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé have exploited images of the African continent for profit, doesn’t make it okay.

Put simply, I don’t trust Western media with African narratives.

I had weeks to hone my skepticism, getting more and more cynical by the day. By the time I went into the movie, surrounded by people overflowing with hype, I was indifferent at best. When I walked out of the theatre, however, blinking rapidly and decidedly overwhelmed, I remember not quite having the words to articulate how I felt. Did I like it? That was simple enough, I loved it – irrationally so. I was already plotting on how I could see it again. Did I think it was an objectively good movie? Well… Recently, Lupe Fiasco went on a mini-rant, saying that people are unable to critique Black Panther like they would other films because of its cultural value. Which is not a lie.

But for me and for many, I don’t think there’s an inability to critique the film (in a traditional film critic-y way) so much as a lack of interest in doing so. Major capitalist undertaking aside, Black Panther is so much more than just another film, and that became apparent as soon as we saw the cast. From the sub-storyline weaving through all the Marvel stuff, to the fact that the white characters were, at best, plot devices to help drive the narrative forward (lessons in white ‘allyship’? conversation for another day?), Ryan Coogler and his team were very intentional in cultivating the world of Wakanda. Black Panther was not like other films, at all. For better or worse, Black Panther was an ambitious exercise in representation.

Hearing isiXhosa in a superhero franchise of this magnitude was a peculiar kind of cognitive dissonance for me. The fact that the actors had taken the time to learn a real African language, rather than just making one up (looking at you, Tarzan), showed a respect for the continent that’s been lacking in Hollywood. Granted, most of the accents were… inconsistent, at best. But honestly, that meant very little in the grand scheme of things. Before I’d even had a chance to digest the language, mine ears detected the dulcet tones of “Wololo” and “Gobisiqolo” – two gqom mega-anthems that make people do foolish things on dance floors. I was torn between the sudden, bizarre threat of tears and the knee-jerk instinct to do the gwaragwara right there in my seat. Thankfully, I spared my friends the embarrassment and did neither, settling into an open-mouthed stance that I assumed for most of the rest of the film. Already, in those first few scenes, I became aware of what it feels like to see, and hear, yourself and your people reflected back to you in positive ways.

The sheer diversity of the ethnic groups that were represented, along with their nuances and mannerisms, was awe-striking. From the mountain-dwelling, snow-loving Jabari led by the fearsome (and infinitely hilarious) M’Baku, to W’Kabi’s rural Border Tribe, to Okoye and the fierce Dora Milaje warriors and all the beautiful Black brilliance in between; all the Wakandan tribes drew from existing African cultures – a refreshing counter-balance to the abundance of deliberately misrepresentative, stereotypical, reductive and essentialist views of the continent. It’s been said before, but the costume design team deserves ALL the awards. The attention to detail and the seamless blending of history and Afrofuturist themes showed how much time they must have spent doing their research. A Twitter user gave a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the cultures represented in Wakanda through fashion, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. To see this vision of an Africa untouched by colonisation, this imagining of a small piece of the continent that is brimming with wealth, allowed to develop into the picture of prosperity and harmony, was affirming in a way I didn’t know I needed.

And then came Killmonger.

Erik Killmonger is the embodiment of the lost brother. Folded into his character are the descendants of the Wakandan empire who don’t reside within its borders. The choices Coogler made in writing a mercenary so callous, so calculating, so violently punitive, and having him be the sole African-American character in the film is certainly questionable. It doesn’t lend itself to positive representations of African-Americans and, if digested uncritically, his character can be used to support people’s problematic biases, conscious or unexamined. It’s easy to feel strongly any one way about Killmonger. But to dismiss him as evil and power-hungry is to ignore the very real pain of being ripped from your people and what it means to never truly be able to return home, and to embrace him as a “Black revolutionary” is to embrace a version of Black justice that’s anti-Black woman and is wrapped up in using the white man’s tools for world domination.

The crux of unpacking the themes brought up by Killmonger’s arrival lie in the in-betweens.

Killmonger lays bare the very deep chasms that exist among Black people in and of the diaspora. He is a destructive machine, but not entirely of his own making – let’s not forget that the white supremacy designs and uses Killmongers for its own imperialist, capitalist gains. His story is fueled by a sense of retribution for his abandonment, but is also an example of what happens when Black people don’t talk to each other, choosing instead to make assumptions about each other’s realities, motives and intentions from opposite ends of the room. Undoubtedly, there has been fault on all sides. But it’s dangerous to talk about power in this film and conflate worlds. I’ve seen people slip into false parallels, talking of an Africa overflowing with resources that’s abandoned African-Americans, and using Killmonger’s rhetoric to justify their disdain for Africans. To be abundantly clear, the overwhelming majority of African countries do not even have control over their own resources, and it seems silly but necessary to emphasise that Wakanda is not Africa. That said, the conversations sparked by Killmonger’s character introduce impossible questions – questions about what we owe each other. How do we begin to complicate the privileges of being African and having connections to our land and our roots, when African-Americans so often don’t want to address the privileges and implications of holding an American passport? How do we extend a hand of invitation to learn and share in each other’s cultures when we have watched each other use and abuse them, on all sides, for profit and good times?

We all know Wakanda is an ideal. It’s easy to love. And one could argue that the Black Pantherenterprise is a call for some version of Pan-African unity. But how do we begin to move towards whatever kind of Pan-Africa we’re going for when, so far, it’s only been possible in the realm of a fictional, ahistoric world? #WakandaForever is great and all, but where do you all disappear to when it comes to #AfricaNow? One critic invited us to “consider that the news of a fictional country resisting colonialism has spread faster and further than the real news of ongoing political turmoil in the only real country in Africa that managed to do so… Why is it easier to develop a Black Panther curriculum for young people in the United States than to do the same with Ethiopia, a real place with real people that did successfully resist colonialism but is now dealing with the fall out of indigenous imperialism?” Where is this level of showing up and showing out when it’s time to mobilise around contemporary African issues, or when African students at your schools are trying to make their needs as international students heard within Black communities? Really ask yourself: when the hype around this film dies – admittedly, in the somewhat distant future – will you be as passionate, as invested in the real Africa as you were in Coogler’s fictional one?

ancient scripture

how do we exhume the stories
that have died
under our mothers’ tongues

the veiled accusations in each i love you
the pleas behind every what time will you be home

i’ve watched grandmothers love their men
and learned to listen for the whispers between the lines

i’ve learned that this
[black] love we worship
so often relies on some kinds of lies

wrapped up in the circles that
[black] grandfathers form
with their brothers and their sons

stitched carefully into the lining of
[black] grandmothers’ coats
passed from sisters to daughters

scratched forcefully into the
[black] palms blistering open
over dry stubborn land

tucked into the calloused
[black] hands folded
on soft [black] laps

giving the only kind of love
they know how to give

can it not only be magic
how much a [black] woman’s love
can conceal?

things

i could write pages and pages
of poetry
to capture the breadth of
this thing
talk of what we spar and laugh about
for hours
on hours on hours on hours
i suppose
i could soliloquise about
this thing
about the depths of learning and
unlearning
and with that i could say
just how
light and heady and dizzy and steady
this thing
how your mind is like a galaxy
and i
lose myself in the velvety depths
of course
i could sing things about
this thing
that would
that
would
no
never mind
that

– but –

i won’t
because
you know

this thing
is
a thing
for
the ages.

le cul entre deux chaises

the thing that hits you first is the smell
a thickness
i don’t know whether it’s the trees
the collective breath of insects
the alchemy of the Sun and Its people
what i do know is it’s different here
on cue my bones are denser
my skin browns and sizzles
my lips fuller
glistening
home becomes more difficult to define the longer you are away
now intangible
fleeting.
and when it visits – for It chooses and not you –
i breathe and i breathe and i breathe
it is not the where
though the where is like a calabash and
how can you drink without your container?
it is who it is why and most often it is when.
when you are at your most transparent
and when you are at your most full
when you and your special love go and just Be
it settles in your teeth.
when you are furthest it breaks bread and reeks of your sweat
when you are cradled
child-like
and that smell –
it is that smell alone that is your heritage.

photo: swazi landscape

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted: Why It’s Not Enough To Talk The Talk

Throwback Thursday? Originally published on The Odyssey on October 10th 2016.

Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Steve Biko and Huey P. Newton. Robert Sobukwe and Malcolm X. African liberation movements and the American civil rights movement, and their corollary of Black Consciousness have mirrored and borrowed from each other for years, forging connections between the US and the continent that most people either aren’t aware of or choose to ignore. Kwame Nkrumah, in his vision for Ghana’s independence, borrowed a lot from Marcus Garvey’s thoughts on Pan-Africanism, which were in turn taken on by many African countries in their independence movements. Over time, however, Pan-Africanism has been diluted and taken on multiple meanings. Politicians like Thabo Mbeki called for “economic Pan-Africanism,” leaders like Robert Mugabe and the late Muammar Gaddafi sought “political Pan-Africanism” and the proponents of the Negritude movement engaged in what one could call an “intellectual Pan-Africanism.” The point is, ideals of Pan-Africanism have intertwined black people everywhere for a long time, and this has not always been for the better.

In our day, social media has become a platform for the sharing of content, ideas and movements. There’s a new kind of black experience, where we – via Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and the like – are connecting with each other, and with this hyper-exposure we’ve been forced to grapple with ideas about what it really means to be black. Siyanda Mohutsiwa in her TedTalk coined the term “social Pan-Africanism” to indicate this sense of interconnectedness, particularly on the interwebs. And although she meant it in a distinctly positive sense, the flip-side is that “Africa” ceases to be a real place with real people, and instead becomes a romanticised, exoticized entity.

We latch onto this new version of Pan-Africanism without stopping to think about its implications. Festivals like Afropunk try to cash in on this new sense of shared identity, and artists like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar embrace it in their music videos and performances, all the while refusing to tour on the continent or really try to gain an understanding of all the symbolism they like to employ. This has often erupted in heated debates such as the whole debacle about Black Americans appropriating African culture sparked by Zipporah Gene, which tend to spiral unnecessarily into Oppression Olympics. Most recently, however, this issue has been apparent in the parallels between the #BlackLivesMatter movement and movements on the continent like #ThisFlag.

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#BlackLivesMatter has been a force to be reckoned with for a while now. Sparked by outrage at the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, the movement has been bringing awareness to and resisting the modern day genocide against black people in the United States. Protests against police brutality and systemic racism have gained so much traction that #BlackLivesMatter has received solidarity from all over the place – including the continent.

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Ryan Lenora Brown interviewed South African students for an article in the CS Monitor, and wrote about a student activist who said “We are lamenting the same pain we are feeling with them. We are here to send the message that black lives matter everywhere in the world.” Africans have taken on the Black Lives Matter movement, in the spirit – I would argue – of the social Pan-Africanism that Siyanda Mohutsiwa speaks of. The problem, however, is a profound lack of reciprocity.

The #ThisFlag movement of Zimbabwe was born in much the same way #BlackLivesMatter was – it’s a movement of the people, protesting unjust systems that have been in place for too long. Pastor Evan Mawarire, “through his social media movement… has been backing a stay-away campaign this month to protest about perceived corruption and economic mismanagement” (BBC News). When police arrested him on trumped-up charges and he was likely to disappear mysteriously into the bowels of the judicial system, when police were beating old women in the streets for carrying their flags, when people were assaulted for staying home from work in protest, Zim Twitter’s outrage spilled into the streets and held the justice system accountable for its actions, ultimately resulting in Pastor Evan’s release.

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Africans all over the continent, frightened for loved ones and angry at the state of affairs, jumped onto the hashtag, raising a complete ruckus. But there was a blanket of silence from African Americans. In the week of the climax of the #ThisFlag movement, I would scroll through my Twitter TL and nobody outside of people directly affected was talking about it. Ditto with Facebook. Ditto with Tumblr. I was perplexed. Where was this Pan-Africanism that African-Americans were so defensive of in the cultural appropriation conversation? In the Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar conversation? In the Afropunk conversations? In the wake of all the solidarity received for the Black Lives Matter movement, where was the solidarity for Zimbabwe?

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Pan-Africanism is about more than just wearing kente headwraps and knowing a couple of words of Swahili. Pan-Africanism is about more than just the intellectual traditions of the 50s and 60s. Pan-Africanism is about more than just lip service. And while it’s spiralled into so many different tributaries and taken on many different meanings that we’re all still trying to figure out, showing up for each other is the first step.

So if you’re willing to talk the talk, please be willing to take the first step with us.

Cover photo from http://trueafrica.co/article/student-leader-sell-fees-must-fall-protests-split-two/