“Black Panther” Rewrites the Moment of the Original Colonial Encounter with Africa

Culture Watch
tags: Black Panther, Afro pessimism, Afro defeatism

Moses Ochonu is Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in History and Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University.

The Marvel Comics movie, Black Panther, is more than a feel-good movie moment for Africans and people of African descent. It is a bold counterpoint to the intellectual and psychic violence of Afro-pessimism and Afro-defeatism.

Afro-pessimism advances a consistent bromide of Africa’s dysfunction, one that does not acknowledge, let alone fetishize the socioeconomic and political prospects of the continent.

Afro-defeatism is my coinage and is a lexical cousin to Afro-pessimism. The Afro-defeatist perspective on Africa refers to the view that it is futile and even counterproductive to resist invidious external forces. Better to cooperate with such external actors, even if they invade the continent with malicious intent than resist and risk losing it all. Afro-defeatism is about accepting defeat and then trying to extract concessions from powerful external forces in the interest of preserving the lives and dignities of African peoples.

Afro-defeatists can point to Africa’s history of unsuccessful attempts to shake off the yoke of colonialism, neocolonialism, external dependency, and other negative phenomena unleashed on the continent by external actors. The weight of historical evidence is on the side of Afro-defeatists, especially if one wants to cherry-pick African history to make the case.

African colonial history is a history of lost causes and defeated resistance movements. There are numerous examples to invoke.

In 1856, a 15 year old Xhosa girl by the name of Nongqawuse led a prophetic millenarian movement aimed at dislodging British colonial invaders who had, since at least the 1770s violently seized the land, cattle, independence of the Xhosa people while killing them and undermining their institutions. Influenced by a mix of Xhosa prophetic traditions, ancestral religious devotion, and Christianity, Nongqawuse proclaimed that the Xhosa dead would rise again, that the British colonizers would be defeated, and that Xhosa sovereignty restored if the people would do what was revealed to her in a dream when the spirit of one of her ancestors appeared to her. The Xhosa, she instructed, had to cease the cultivation of the land, slaughter their cattle, and build new houses, among other specific directives. Beleaguered and desperate for a reprieve from British oppression, the Xhosa people complied and engaged in the Xhosa cattle killing as it is now known in South African history.

The exercise failed spectacularly. Not only did the observance of these instructions fail to produce the promised deliverance from the British; it led to an acute famine and destitution, which made it easier for the British to decimate the Xhosa, seize the rest of their lands, and enslave the starving survivors of the catastrophe who threw themselves at the mercy of the colonizers as a last gambit of survival.

In 1903, after the British defeated the Sokoto Caliphate in what is today Northern Nigeria, diehard anti-British citizens of the caliphate, most of them motivated by an apocalyptic anti-colonial Islamic ideology known as Mahdism, reassembled in a small village called Satiru. There, they planned to launch a revolution to reclaim their land from the British and usher in the apocalypse and the arrival of the Mahdi. According to Islamic theology, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who would arrive at the end of time to replace the reign of evil, understood in that context to be British rule, with a just and righteous rule. In February 1906, the revolutionaries struck but the overwhelming firepower of the British occupation force took a deadly toll. The Satiru revolt was brutally crushed and thousands of the resisters were slaughtered in the West African Savannah.

Earlier, in the Sudan, a more intense, longer-lasting Mahdist revolution led by Ahmad Muhammad, who proclaimed himself the Mahdi in 1881, was crushed by the British. The Sudan Mahdist revolution lasted from 1881 to 1898 and showed flickers of promise, only to be brutally put down at the cost of thousands of African lives.

In the 1950s, many Kikuyu people, their lands confiscated and their livelihoods destroyed by British settlers’ land and labor hunger, launched a guerilla war against the British, seeking to both recover their land and sovereignty. Led by Dedan Kimathi and anchored on Kikuyu traditions of traditional religious oath taking, the Mau Mau uprising was crushed through a devastating combination of scorched earth military tactics, exemplary communal punishments, and concentration camp internments.

The list of lost causes and futile resistance struggles in Africa is long, tragic, and depressing. These tragedies caused humiliation to African peoples and rendered colonialism a fait accompli. Where African nationalists and Afrocentric thinkers see heroic resistance against colonialism and external machinations — a resistance undone by the ferocity of colonial greed and bloodlust, Afro-defeatism sees the futility of resistance and the wisdom of pragmatic compromise.

In post-colonial times, Africa’s long history of defeats has engendered a narrative of dystopia and fatalism, which has been countered by a discourse of nationalist restoration, pan-African reclamation, and historical re-imagining in which defeats and conquests are rewritten as heroic nationalist resistance.

Black Panther sidesteps this debate altogether. It remakes and rewrites the moment of the original colonial encounter. Wakanda, we are told, preserved its independence by repelling a foreign invasion. Wakanda represents an Africa in which the colonial project came to naught or the resistance measures of Africans succeeded in defeating the colonial invasion, preserving African sovereignty. This interpretation does not correspond to much of African history, but its obvious Afro-futurism is powerful and relies on a fantastical retelling of the past.

Black Panther is African history imagined radically differently. It is a counterfactual history that ignores the tendency of historians to write the past backwards from the present rather than begin from the moment that the story began and then imagine what could have happened—the various roads not taken and the possible trajectories that fizzled out. Black Panther asks: what if the aforementioned anti-colonial resistance movements had succeeded? What kind of present and future would Africa have? Wakanda is the emphatic answer to this question. In other words, Black Panther answers its own question.

Wakanda is also a rejection of the Afro-pessimist notion of Africa as a charity case — as an aid-dependent, war-ravaged, diseased, and destitute backwater.

The state of Wakanda is not only self-reliant; it exports aid and is capable of making investments and acquisitions in the world’s best-known bastion of capitalism — the United States.

Wakanda also rebuts the Afropessimist discourse of despair, which perhaps finds its most strident manifestation in dystopian portraits of the conditions of African Americans and other African diasporas. As a synecdochical reference to Africa, Wakanda is not the ancestral source that offers no hope to its suffering, oppressed diaspora, or that itself needs redemption. It is the opposite of that—a developed, confident, and capable cradle. A source of pride. A place to return to.

There is a long tradition in the African diaspora of return movements. In the nineteenth century several African American emigration movements flourished and in the twentieth Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association captured the imagination of African Americans and West Indians with its back-to-Africa project. These movements saw themselves as both return and civilizing missions.

In addition to seeking individual and group freedom in Africa, the emigrationists wanted to leverage their exposure and education to uplift a “backward,” “heathen” continent incapable of developing itself without external help from those possessing the civilizational aptitudes of Christianity and post-Enlightenment modernity. They echoed the writings of diaspora intellectuals such as Edward Wilmot Blyden and Alexander Crummell, who saw themselves as black civilizers of Africa.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as African Americans became suffocated by racism, segregation, discrimination, and racialized violence, the civilizing mission to Africa morphed into a longing for a new kind of Africa, an Africa that would not only be a refuge from the anti-black racism of America but would also assist African Americans in defeating this racism. In Black Panther, Eric Killmonger laments what he sees as the unwillingness of Wakanda, an African superpower, to come to the aid of African Americans despite enjoying peace and prosperity and possessing the capacity to intervene in the predicament of African Americans. This is an inversion of the Afro-pessimist template, which casts Africa as needing the assistance of its diasporas but not the other way around.

As if to respond to Killmonger, in the last scene of the movie, T’chala goes to America, specifically to black America, to try to rejuvenate it. Wakanda becomes a giver of foreign aid, a dispenser of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), not a recipient of it.

There is ambivalence and debate in Black Panther on whether and how Wakanda should relate with the West — with fellow world powers — partly because it fears that extensive and unguarded interactions with peers would expose its most valuable resource, vibranium, to rapacious schemes. Unmediated openness would render Wakanda vulnerable to the envious, aggrandizing maneuvers of other countries — a familiar gesture toward the rape of Africa’s natural resources by outside forces pretending to be friends.

In Black Panther, the question of how Wakanda should manage and preserve its greatness against the malicious intentions of other countries remains up in the air. The question is unresolved partly because it is not an easy issue of engaging with or disengaging from the world but rather one of finding a beneficial but safe equilibrium between engagement and self-insulation. Nonetheless, Wakanda seems capable of controlling its destiny, as well as the terms upon which it would engage with the world. It is in no hurry to open itself up to marauding external forces.

This Wakandan posture is premised on leverage and self-sufficiency and it negates the Afro-pessimist paradigm of an Africa incapable of literally and figuratively protecting itself against the ravages of malevolent external — mostly Western — forces.

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