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I am Wakandan: Black Panther brings ‘Nu Africa’ to the mainstream

“Imagine if all the rappers were to get with all the athletes or activists for a conference in Zaire to meet with all the ambassadors in the motherland, tell ‘em we comin’ back for her…. What if Jay and Bey bought some land in Egypt? Make Obama the president. His daddy from Kenya so that makes even better sense. In Nu Africa, Nu Africa, Nu Africa.”
– CyHi The Prync

Whoever said that black people could not make artwork that the masses would flock to is eating a lot of crow today. The box office debut of Marvel’s Black Panther over President’s Day weekend was more than just a wave. It was a paradigm shift in Hollywood that will impact filmmaking, and possibly television, for generations to come. Do not be surprised to see this film nominated for Best Picture and other awards at next year’s Oscars. Black Panther had the fifth biggest domestic opening in history, pulling in a cool $242 million. It scored the biggest opening weekend of any film in East and West Africa.

“Imagine queens who went to Spelman, swimming in the Red Sea. Backstroking off the strength of their degrees… Ain’t no self-hate, ain’t no slave trade, ain’t no niggas to catch. Gold flowing through our veins like water flowing before the Nile. Walking through Jerusalem in Yeezy Boosts before the exile. Image August Wilson sitting on the same throne as Mansa Musa. We’d all have money and stock, all own a piece of the rock, a piece of the land. As the original people, unified we’d all stand….Nu Africa.”
– Earnestine Johnson

The film had the highest grossing Saturday premiere in South African history with fans lining up at theaters in Kenya, Nigeria, and other parts of the African continent. “When you see the Black Panther as a young boy and he takes off his mask you think, ‘oh my God, he looks like me. He is African and I am African. Now we can look up to someone who is African,” says John Kani. Black Panther was the fifth highest grossing Western release in South Korea, and the highest grossing February release ever in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, and Paraguay. Europe and Canada were also caught up in Panther’s whirlwind. The film grossed $700 million worldwide in only two weeks, nullifying the myth that black films could not attract large foreign audiences.

Back in the U.S., black churches, Greek organizations, and schools rented out theaters. Jemele Hill, Chelsea Clinton, and Ellen Degeneres were among the celebrities to donate to #BlackPantherChallenge, an initiative that raised over $620,000, to buy movie Black Panther movie tickets for 23,000 kids in low income communities. Secondary educators have even begun developing Black Panther themed curriculums.

Ryan Coogler’s epic masterpiece, disguised as a comic book narrative, was heavily inspired by the Afrocentric graphic novel series, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gaye. Coogler also used the Black Panther comics written by Reginald Hudlin and Christopher Priest as his blueprint. The comic series was originally founded by Stan Lee in 1966. The film’s portrayal of this fictional African nation named Wakanda manifests what CyHi The Prync rapped about on his 2017 song “Nu Africa”. Black Panther’s Wakanda presents a new, revolutionary vision of Africa to the mainstream at a time when the continent is under siege.

On the eve of the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday Vice President Mike Pence paid a surprise visit to my church for Sunday service. This surprise visit came days after it was reported that President Donald Trump referenced African nations as “sh__hole countries” sending undesirable immigrants to America. Our pastor, with Pence seated on the front row, emphatically stated that African nations were not *expletive* countries. Trump’s recent and previous comments about “AIDS infested Nigerians living in huts” are representative of the destructive myths about Africa that date back to slavery. Over the years Hollywood has played a pivotal role in perpetuating these negative stereotypes. In this article I explore the significance of Black Panther in countering these stereotypes and establishing a Nu Africa.

Africa in Hollywood, 1918-1959
In his review of Black Panther Professor Jelani Cobb discusses early perceptions of Africa. “In 1753, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any complexion other than white.”

Hume’s shade towards African nations and peoples was manifested in Hollywood’s disgusting characterizations. The silent film Tarzan of the Apes debuted on the big screen in 1918, and it’s success launched a franchise running from the 1930s through the 1960s. Tarzan was a fictional white man raised by the Mangani (great apes) of the African jungle. He was a noble savage who spoke broken English and swung from the trees like his ape brethren. When Tarzan first appeared in a 1912 novel, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only non-colonized African countries. “The portrayal of Africans as primitives justified colonial rule,” says Milton Allimadi, author of The Hearts of Darkness: How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa (2003). Tarzan supplanted actual black African heroes such as Samori Ture, who defeated French imperialists in the late 19th century—or Empress Taytu Betul of Ethiopia, who led Africans to defeat an Italian army of ten thousand in the 1896 Battle of Adowa.

“We look at Miss America we see white. We look at Miss World we see white. We look at Miss Universe we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white.”
– Muhammad Ali

Jay Z’s music video for “The Story of O.J.” (2017) satirizes the banned generation of racist cartoons produced by Walt Disney and Merrie Melodies, the predecessor to Looney Tunes. Jungle Jitters is one of those banned cartoons, which you can find on YouTube. The setting for the cartoon is a white man’s visit to an African jungle. Ape-like black men have visions of a turkey drumstick every time the white man walks by. The tribe captures, then places him in a pot of boiling of water. These savage natives sit at a large rectangular dinner table banging their silverware to the beat of conga drums. This children’s cartoon perpetuates the myth of Africa as a dark jungle where uncivilized tribes – needing to be enslaved or colonized – ate people.

Such stereotypes were also found in the television series Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954). My dad and his barber, Mr. Leroy, often reminisce about watching reruns as children. Ramar focused on a fictional white medicine man in Africa (where the episodes were filmed). I found an episode on YouTube which opens with zebras, lions, and giraffes roaming through the jungle. Two white fugitives from an American penitentiary somehow end up in Africa and are taken by a tribe to meet “the white goddess,” a European white woman stranded in the village that the natives treat like royalty. She speaks mumble jumble to them and orates in English with an exaggerated accent. She warns the men that if they try to flee from the village with her the Africans, or “fanatics” as she calls them, will not cease to hunt them down until they are dead. Ramar and his trusted companions arrive on the scene later in the episode. When the Africans come charging at Ramar’s entourage with their spears, he fires his shotgun. The Africans immediately turn around and run off in trepidation.

Paul Robeson, the lauded activist, athlete, and entertainer, made unsuccessful attempts to project a new image of Africa. He played an English concert singer who discovered he was the descendant of a West African queen in the film Song of Freedom (1936). He also starred in the film Sanders of the River (1935) under the impression he was playing a positive, multi-dimensional character uplifting to African culture. In fact, after he filmed all of his scenes the white directors went back and reshot alternative scenes. According to film historian Donald Bogle, the film ended up being a glorification of British colonial rule. In the revised version, Robeson’s character travels to Africa and tries to civilize the Africans. “Great Britain could not have asked for a more loyal subject,” says Bogle.

Malcolm, Black Power and Africa, 1965-1979
Malcolm X visited multiple African countries between 1959 and 1964. Ghana, Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, Liberia, and Ethiopia were among his stops. Malcolm, like W.E.B. Du Bois before him, grasped the significance of adopting a pan-African worldview. Malcolm was the inspiration for the Black Power Movement. Stokely Carmichael, a founder of the movement, would later change his name to Kwame Ture and relocate to Guinea with his South African wife. The highlight of the 1966 homecoming pageant at Howard University was the crowning of Robin Gregory as queen. Robin accepted her crown wearing an afro (or natural hairstyle) and traditional African attire. Students erupted in applause chanting “Ungawa. Black Power. Ungawa. Black Power”. A spirit of black power and Afrocentricity encompassed Howard’s campus in the late sixties.

“Around lunchtime people would show up on the yard and start playing the Congo drums. Soon there would be a large gathering around the drummers. Students would dance. If you had an Afro that symbolized that you were “woke”. You’d have dancers from the Fine Arts dept., notably Debbie Allen, who would come out and dance to the rhythms of the drum.”
– Tom Jones, Howard class of 1969

Howard was at the forefront of pushing for the creation of a college curriculum that legitimized courses on African history, African culture, and the African diaspora. 1,200 students staged a four-day takeover of the administration building to demand these changes be made. The college curriculum was just one example of an embrace of Africa. Other examples included the creation of Kwanzaa, the popularization of Kente cloth and African garb, and African-Americans adopting new African names. Experimental schools founded by the Black Panther Party and the 1973 Oceanhill-Brownsville group taught students to appreciate their African heritage. Hollywood and black entertainers followed suit in the 1970s. The Blaxploitation cinema explosion gave us Shaft in Africa on June 14, 1973. The next day the sequel to Blaxploitation classic Super Fly was released in theaters. Super Fly T.N.T took Harlem’s retired dope dealer, Priest, to Africa to help revolutionaries defeat European colonizers. Neither Shaft nor Super Fly was Wakanda, but they were not demeaning like past films. The ABC miniseries Roots (1977) gave a large mainstream audience a glimpse of Africa on its first episode. It depicted a beautiful land with civilized families full of culture and tradition prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade. From Roots viewers learned about the Rites of Passage ceremonies that took place when boys entered manhood. Roots was the impetus inspiring countless black families in America to research their genealogies and learn their African heritage. No longer was Africa viewed with shame.

“While I was there (Kenya), something inside of me said, ‘Look around you, Richard. What do you see? I saw people. African people…but I didn’t see any niggers. I didn’t see any there because there were no niggers in Africa.”
– Richard Pryor

Welcome to Zamunda
As a kid I ignorantly pictured Africa to be a place like Zamunda. Zamunda was the mythical African kingdom introduced in the comedic film Coming to America (1988). Eddie Murphy played the fictional African Prince Akeem, son of King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aeoleon Joffer (Madge Sinclair). He leaves Africa to escape an arranged marriage and find his queeeeen to be in New York City. On the surface Zumanda appeared to be a pretty cool place in my young eyes. Akeem had a pet elephant that roamed through the grass. His wedding party was complemented by beautiful black people wearing beautiful African attire. The movie’s famous dance routine has been copied by several black entertainers, including Busta Rhymes (see video for “Put Hands Where My Eyes Can See”). Jay and Queen Bey – the 2018 version of black royalty – also dressed like characters from the film for their 2014 Halloween party.

Yet, Zumunda represented many of the negative stereotypes about Africa. “It is old-style Hollywood fakery. During the lavish ceremonial sequence, the troupe of black dancers cavorting across the screen are reminiscent of the Ethiopian contingency in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments,” says Bogle. The treatment of black women in Zamunda was especially appalling. A trio of young women wake Prince Akeem in the morning, brush his teeth, bathe him in the nude, and drop rose petals at his feet while he walks. Upon meeting his arranged bride Imani (Vanessa Bell Calloway), she tells him that ever since she was born she was bred to serve him.

Prince Akeem: Anything I say, you’ll do?
Imani: Yes, your highness
Prince Akeem: Bark like a dog.
Imani: Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf!
Prince Akeem: A big dog.
Imani: Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!
Prince Akeem: Hop on one leg.
Imani: (hops on one leg) Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!
Prince Akeem: Make a noise like an orangutan.
Imani: (still hoping on one leg) Oo! Oo! Oo! Oo!

Bye, Zamunda! Hello Wakanda!
Ironically, the same year Coming to America celebrated its 30th anniversary and prepared for a sequel to be written by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, we get Hollywood’s best depiction of Africa to date: Black Panther’s world of Wakanda. Wakanda is a fictional East African country located near Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. Chadwick Boseman, who plays Wakandan King T’Challa and the Black Panther, provides this quizzical description of the nation: “How does this nation exist and it’s never been conquered, colonized, or enslaved. And while that was happening, what were they doing?”

Wakanda is the personification of black excellence. It is a land free of racism, classism, sexism, poverty, disease, and political corruption that has plagued far too many African nations. These problems are common for African-Americans. Wakanda’s existence intimates that blacks can dominate in STEM fields. It is the most technologically advanced place on the planet. The Wakandan computer system is immune from hackers and its technological advances far surpass anything found in Asia, Europe, or America. Wakanda’s technology and economy runs on vibranium, a fictional sonic power metal alloy. T’Challa’s father, the late King T’Chaka, discovered vibranium and adopted it as the nation’s official power source. In order to protect this precious resource, he isolated the country from the rest of the world. As a result, Wakanda is shielded from the evils and isms of the outside world. In the eyes of outsiders like the villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who symbolizes the white colonist, the land’s mineral wealth is ripe for the taking. Wakanda portrays Africans as creators and scientific geniuses devoid of the white man’s tutelage. To ensure that the film got the STEM aspects correct the film’s black executive producer, Nate Moore, made use of Marvel Studios’ Science and Entertainment Exchange, an outreach program of the National Academy of Sciences. Wakanda is the definitive example of an afrofuturist paradise. Afrofuturism reimagines the future and science fiction through a black lens rooted in the African Diaspora.

George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic introduced Afrofuturism to the mainstream with their Mothership and the Afronauts back in the mid-1970s. Wakand’s wealth and technological advances may be fictional, but they represent Africa’s rich history. It was the ancient Egyptians that invented mathematics, astronomy, hieroglyphic writing, and the construction of the pyramids. The Mali Empire, under the rule of Mansa Musa (c 1312-1337), was the world’s largest producer of gold.

Wakanda is a country consisting of five tribes and multiple religions. The most notable tribes are the Panther tribe and the Jabari tribe. Wakanda was traditionally a hunter-warrior society that was ruled by its supreme warrior. Members of the Panther tribe embraced the technological advancements of vibrarium. The alloy is used to power the king’s Black Panther suit, weapons, and automobiles. Members of the tribe pray to the Panther goddess, Bast, a deity inspired by the Egyptian deity Bastet. The Jabari reject the rule of the Black Panther. They pray to the Ghekre, the gorilla god. The Jabari exist outside of the mainstream culture. They believe that the best way for the country to move forward culturally, socially, economically, and politically is through a clear adherence to the past. Their dress is more traditional garb and they reside in the mountains. They reject the use of vibranium. They are led by the physically imposing M’Baku, who unsuccessfully challenges T’Challa for his crown. Winston Duke, a relatively unknown actor from Trinidad and Tobago, plays M’Baku in the film. In the original Black Panther comic book series from the 1960s, M’Baku was nicknamed Man-Ape. The film’s 31-year-old African-American director, Ryan Coogler, eliminated all culturally offensive characteristics from the film. In fact, he satirizes these past stereotypes about “savage” African tribes in one memorable scene. When Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent, comes to Wakanda and is captured by the Jabari, M’Baku says that he will feed him to his children. A second later he cracks a smile and reveals that his people are vegetarians.

During an interview on WQHT HOT 97’s Ebro in the Morning, Coogler told the cast that his goal in making this film was to make Wakanda feel tactile and answer the question: “What does it mean to be African?” In order to answer that question, Coogler took his first trip to Africa before filming commenced. He spent weeks in South Africa and Kenya. While he was in South Africa he spent a considerable amount of time in Lesotho, a small enclave. He described Lesotho as a region, surrounded by massive mountains that made it impossible for Europeans to colonize it. Consequently, it became an isolated part of the world. Hmmm, sound familiar? Unlike Wakanda, Lesotho is a very poor place. But the culture is rich. Coogler used South Africa’s Xhosa to shape Wakanda’s dialect. Xhosa is a Nguni Bantu language with click consonants. He witnessed tribal rituals and broke bread with the people. Despite being on another continent he found many similarities within African-American culture. “We are the lost tribe, but African-Americans are very African,” said Coogler. HOT 97 host Paul Rosenberg described Coogler’s trip to Africa as the manifestation of Nas’ fantasy in Belly (1998). Coogler is a native of Oakland, California, but many of the film’s cast members have direct African connections. Letitia Wright (Shuri) is a Guyanese-born British actress. Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia) is the daughter of a Kenyan politician. Danai Guria (Okoye) is the daughter of immigrants from Zimbabwe. Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi) is the son of Ugandan immigrants. John Kani (King T’Chaka) is a South African actor and playwright. Kani mentored Coogler on the proper use of Xhosa.

African culture permeates throughout the film’s fashion and soundtrack. Ruth Carter, the film’s costume designer, was inspired to dispel myths that African culture was homogenous. She pulled from the diverse cultures in East Africa, West Africa, South Africa, and North Africa. For example, the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female security, wore red in the graphic novels. Carter used the primary red colors and beads worn by women in Kenya’s Turkana tribe. The women of the Himba tribe in northern Namibia rub oxidized clay soil and shea butter all over their skin and clothes, giving them a bold red color, to protect themselves from the sun’s radiation in their Sub-Saharan climate.

The giant copper and brass rings worn around the necks of the Dora Milaje were adopted from the South African Ndebele tribe. The rings, or Idzila, symbolize the woman’s bond to her husband. The more rings she wore meant that her husband was wealthy. The rings were also thought to possess special powers. Lupita Nyong’o’s costumes and face paint came from the Suri tribe in southwestern Ethiopia. The girls in that tribe use white clay paint on their faces and body parts. The paint often appears in dots. The stunning hat worn by Angela Bassett, who plays Wakanda’s Queen Mother Romonda comes from the hats or izicolo worn by South African married women of the Zulu tribe. Forrest Whitaker’s character wears an Agbada robe worn by people in West and North Africa. Daniel Kaluuya wears a Basotho blanket. Coogler learned of these blankets while visiting Lesotho. Extras in the film don Igbo masks worn in Nigeria and Surma lip plates found in Ethiopia. Finally, T’Challa’s panther suit is “symbolic of Africa as a whole.” Carter used what she called the Okavango pattern based upon the continent’s sacred geometry or triangle to stylize the suit. This pattern runs throughout the suit to signify that he is African royalty.

Coogler chose Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop’s top emcee at the moment, and Top Dawg Entertainment’s (TDE) founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith to blend elements of rap, R&B, Afrobeat, and the sound of instruments found on the continent for Black Panther’s soundtrack. Kendrick Lamar has been arguably the most “woke” rapper in the music industry and visited Cape Town and Johannesburg just before recording his sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). The music video for the soundtrack’s lead single, “All The Stars,” featuring Kendrick Lamar and SZA is dripping with blackness and a celebration of African excellence. The video has the same Afrofuturist look as the film, and as it concludes, SZA’s hair design transforms into the shape of the African continent.

The Women of Wakanda
Black Panther’s characterization of women is a far cry from what we found in Coming to America 30 years ago. They are not only beautiful, but fully clothed, independent, intelligent, and walking manifestations of agency. Even though they have different viewpoints they are not in competition with each other. They are fierce and feminine at the same time. From the mighty warriors of the Dora Milaje, with their shaved heads, who move in unison with T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, there is not one weak woman on the screen. Nakia is a born warrior and a spy. She reminds me a lot of Harriet Tubman who was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. T’Challa’s teenage sister Shuri is said to be the smartest person on the planet (imagine Taraji P. Henson’s Hidden Figures character, Katherine Johnson on mental steroids). Shuri actually replaces T’Challa as the ruler and the Black Panther in the comic series. The Queen Mother provides not only nurture but also leadership. T’Challa is a strong, articulate black man who speaks multiple languages and has the best schooling. He is the king, yet he does not believe in patriarchy. “He respects all women. He respects his mother, he respects his general (Okoye), and the lady he is pursuing, knowing she has her own career,” says Panther’s Letitia Wright of T’Challa. “It’s a nation that respects and reveres women,” says Angela Bassett.

Aisha Harris, a writer for Slate says of the film:

“As moving as it was to see so many little girls and women dressing up as Wonder Woman last year, the fact that Black Panther has a wider variety of Wakandan women to identify with – are you insanely smart and tech savvy like Shuri, or a do-gooder with maternal instincts like Nakia? – it is a crucial step toward truly progressive feminism on screen.”

Another powerful feature of the film is the fact that a majority of the women (and men) are dark- skinned. For years Hollywood has been guilty of perpetuating colorism and making “dark girls” feel ugly and unappreciated. Today you have girls and women around the world looking up to these women as role models.

The Blacker the Berry
Black Panther is probably the closest thing to an Afrofuturist version of The Cosby Show. I say that because it presents a revolutionary brand of nearly pristine black excellence not seen since the Huxtables were dominating primetime television. But here is the catch. The Cosby Show was not perfect. At times the Huxtables came across as though they were living on an island isolated from the mass of black people in America and abroad. A parallel can be drawn with Wakanda. In fact this is the major source of conflict within the film. The film’s protagonist is T’Challa and his primary antagonist is N’Jadaka, better known as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. The dreadlocked Killmonger is a descendant of Wakanda who grew up in the ghettos of Oakland, California. Killmonger has been completely westernized and has grown up with little knowledge of his native land. He returns to Wakanda to snatch the crown from T’Challa, though he lacks the sense of community, respect for tradition, and respect for women that T’Challa possesses. In spite of his flaws, he points out Wakanda’s chief shortcoming. He asks how this nation can hoard its vast resources while other black people around the world suffer due to racism and social inequality. Killmonger, who embodies the frustration and rage of the black masses who lack knowledge of self and genealogy, has a pan-Africanist ideology. He wants all black people to live as well as his brethren in Wakanda, but he goes about it the wrong way. This inner conflict between the philosophies of T’Challa and Killmonger is symbolic of debates we have seen in black America over the decades: Booker T. Washington v. W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey v. Du Bois, Martin King v. Malcolm X, or Cornel West v. Barack Obama. The conflict also represents the discord between many African-Americans and Africans. I have experienced this conflict first hand on HBCU campuses and growing up in the cosmopolitan Washington, DC, Metropolitan area.

The Wakanda Effect
I owe much of my knowledge of African history and culture to my graduate professors at Howard University (Chadwick Boseman’s alma mater), notably Drs. Jeanne Toungara and Aziz Batran. I must also pay homage to Dr. Elizabeth Schmidt (Loyola University) and the writings of Chinua Achebe and Walter Rodney. I also spent two weeks in Ghana in 2013 with Sankofa International, Inc.

I remember stepping off the plane and kissing the holy ground of the motherland. Ghana is not Wakanda but the country has beautiful areas (like Coconut Grove). The people are amazing and the culture is rich. I felt like I was meeting a plethora of new cousins. Ghana also has areas of extreme poverty, such as the villages we visited in the Ashanti and Eastern regions. We went to a school that had no plumbing or electricity. The kids were overjoyed to receive the books, school supplies, and soccer balls we brought from Washington, D.C. The Elmina Slave Castle left some folks in my group in tears. I still remember the smell from inside the slave quarters and seeing the infamous door of no return. The beauty of Wakanda is that it allows us to imagine African nations like Ghana without the scars of the Atlantic Slave Trade and British colonialism.

I saw Black Panther during its opening weekend at the Magic Johnson Theater in a majority black Maryland neighborhood. I have never experienced anything like this moment. Black families, couples, college students, and little kids filled the lines at the theater. I took photos of the happy moviegoers dressed in Dashikis, African dresses, African head wraps, and African jewelry. Similar scenes were repeated at other theaters across the country and overseas. The closest thing that I can compare this experience to was my attending the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture or President Obama’s first inauguration. This was something that generations of black folk had been waiting for their entire lives. As we revel in this moment of #blackgirlmagic, #blackboyjoy, and #wakandaforever, we can only hope that the self-affirmation and excellence displayed in this fantasy will eventually be the reality of all black people across the Diaspora. Long Live Wakanda! Long Live Nu Africa!

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.