Diaspora Noise: Black Panther And Me
Loved by millions across the diaspora, Black Panther is a sociopolitical study on being Black in the 21st century.
When Marvel Studios released Black Panther little did we know it would go on to capture imaginations, inspiring a people to put on Wakanda-themed spoken word nights (yes, it happened), go to see the film in African attire in a pride and more. Black Panther is loved by billions of Black people across the world — Europe, the Caribbean and Africa, as well as other ethnic groups. On its release it was loved by all — black, white, you name it. And the critics. Since, I’ve seen a revival of Pan-Africanism, and Caribbean renaissance — food, dance, music, Black History… in the landscapes of red, gold and green. From its cast to its score, there are numerous factors drawn from the continent and its diaspora, And Wakanda is a technologically-advanced utopia, a showcase of what Africa could have been had it been allowed to realise itself. It’s a place untainted by slavery, the crimes of colonialism and the whims of empires that consumed the lives of millions.
During the days of Christendom, Africa was not seen as “The Savage Land.” Not how works of Victorian literature (propaganda) depicted it, not how H. Rider Haggard (She) or Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) wrote about it. Beyond Christianity, Africa was seen as exotic, a place of imagined tribes, and mythical beasts like mandrakes, not too dissimilar to how the Calormens and Telmarines saw Narnia in The Horse and His Boy and Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis. But it was a place of intelligence and wisdom. Christianity reached Ethiopia in the early 4th century and by the time the English drew the Mappa Mundi, Africa was in its stride. Here, Africa is as beautiful as Europe and Asia; they would go on to embody the three Wise Men in The Christmas Story.
Many say Black Panther is a film primarily for Black Americans. However, I think it’s for the African diaspora in the UK and the European continent too. It’s equally aimed at Black Britons, the Black Dutch, the Black French and so forth, as much as those in the USA. We all have been consumed in the same cultural question mark of colonialism, a period of history that’s responsible for the existence of so many families in Europe and the Americas today through mass displacement, via slavery and postwar migration, the Second World War giving a glimpse of what a postcolonial society would look like.
Whilst American slavery was on American soil (slaves’ descendants stayed there and made roots), Britain was engulfed in an immigration boom post-WW2 (well-depicted in books like Small Island). That said, there’s millions in America and Canada of African-Caribbean extraction. I’m only emphasising there weren’t slave plantations in Britain, but you would find house slaves. And the Black History of Britain does not begin with slavery!
In the UK, post-1948, men and women from Commonwealth nations exercised their rights to move to Britain under the Nationality Act (1948), what was then donned as an open-door policy. People like my grandparents moved from Grenada and Jamaica in the early 1960s; Ireland, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh and more were part of this. Those who built Britain were taught to be British learning its history, culture and traditions above their own. And the Windrush Generation were deceived by false myths of streets paved with gold. People of my grandparents generation were told they were British, only to be mocked with racist insults, even assaulted.
Black Panther is an attempt to add clarity to why so many Black people feel like they don’t belong. The Transatlantic Slave Trade is responsible for so much loss of life, and so many pivotal court battles, including the Zong Case (1781), as depicted in Amma Asante’s Belle. Yesterday’s normalities are today’s freedoms. What we now call human rights (1998 legislation). Growing up under West Indian grandparents, I’ve always felt in the middle of three peoples — the Africans, the West Indians and the British. Too Caribbean for the Africans, too British for the West Indians and too black for Britain. It’s a lose lose, no matter what angle you approach it from.
Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) talks about that struggle, of Black British people trying to find their identity in a land that has a history of showing its disdain for immigrants and people who look like them (people with non-English accents and / or different coloured skin). Now, we call that otherness. Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga takes us through the historical context of what Hirsch talks about.
The same logic can be applied to America. Are you African or American? Some people don’t like the African-American label. Are you American-Jamaican? Are you just American? In the UK, perhaps you are British-Guyanese, British-Nigerian, etc. In mainland Europe, are you Dutch- Curaçaoan? Are you French-Ghanaian? Or do you identify as Black Other?
There are so many different peoples in the African diaspora, within Europe and the Americas. Black Panther attempts to unpack the void of non-identity felt within our souls worldwide. Places like Elmina Castle in Ghana and Bunce Island on the Sierra Leone River are examples of where some historians say the British slave trade began. Gorée Island in Sénégal is home to ‘The Door of No Return’, a house of horror which was the last thing many slaves saw before being shipped off to the Americas and the West Indies.
The void of identity in a postcolonial world is what created Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the “villain” but Pan-Africanism is at the centre of this story, an ideology that no matter how far we are away from each other, no matter our struggles, we are duty-bound to help one another escape our oppression. Killmonger asks, if Wakanda existed, with its vibranium, riches, and technology, how could they remain silent in times of slavery whilst their fellow people were in bondage? Even in times of Jim Crow Laws and Apartheid, when Black people across the world were hunted by police, how could they remain quiet? Even today where there’s a need for Black Lives Matter. How?
“Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all. Where was Wakanda?”
Indeed, where was Wakanda? Erik may be the villain but he’s asking some relevant questions, and this recurs throughout the film. Killmonger came to the kingdom as a conqueror or liberator (depending on your point of view).
Years earlier, his father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) aimed to arm the African diaspora worldwide with vibranium against their oppressors, who Shuri jests as “Mr Coloniser.” N’Jobu is executed by King T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani) for his attempt to put Wakanda onto the world stage after centuries of isolation (not too different to DC’s Themiscyra) that kept the kingdom safe. Killmonger is left an orphan, metaphorically and physically, seeing Wakanda as a chance to avenge the millions of Black people who died under the colonial regime and those who still suffer in the present postcolonial climate today.
His purpose, to free Black people everywhere and what could be so bad about Black Freedom, right? But that’s not his true goal, as we see him interact with the other characters. In our current environment of police brutality, structural racism and misogynoir , T’Challa must fight his cousin Erik in order to stop what one could call a White Holocaust — very much spurred on by his bitterness towards the sins of his history and collective Black History.
“The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire.”
The British donned their empire as the place where the sun never set and the cap fits. Many viewers have taken the “liberation” idea at face value with no thought towards the “empire” part. When the British were collecting countries, they called it an empire, certainly, but they also believed that the peoples of Africa and Asia were savages, and by ruling them, they were liberating them, giving civilisation. “Empire” and “liberation” are equally important, almost satirising Bush Jr’s foreign policy. And the antics of the Wakanda elders pokes at the US constitution — dated, archaic, with bits maybe obsolete but the makers are stuck in a deep fear of modern values. Can a equilibrium be agreed between tradition and adapting (common sense)?
Erik’s assault starts with three cities: London, New York and Hong Kong, coincidentally all with sanctums (see Doctor Strange) but more importantly, ties to the British — London being England’s capital, with New York and Hong Kong formerly under British rule.
At the start of the film, Nakia is seen freeing captives from a Boko Haram-esque militia, later telling T’Challa (Boseman) to help refugees; he declines in favour of that so-loved isolationism. Killmonger seeks hegemony which is almost dystopian in the landscapes of this science fiction film. T’Challa and Erik are two sides of the same coin. Had T’Challa been left and orphaned in Oakland, California (birthplace of The Black Panthers) and not Erik, he may well have been as radical as his cousin.
They exchange some lines during their final battle. A bloodbath has ensued between the factions. Is this coincidence? No, I don’t think so. This is Erik thinking logically; he is putting Wakanda through a microcosm of colonialism the Wakandans had avoided for hundreds of years due to their isolation tactics. He is showing them what the colonisers did.
Much akin to the Black Panther Party, it is the Wakandan women that prop up the establishment — Nakia, General Okoye (Danai Gurira), Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and and Queen-Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Black women are at the centre of this film too, often talking sense to Black men, “a congregation of women in the business of saving” says poet Ashlee Haze in her poem ‘Hymn.’ Hear! Hear!
Killmonger is a man who kills because it’s fun and goes mad with power. With the reign of T’Challa, that means the reign of the family as well. Like the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008, it wasn’t just about having a Black president. It was about his wife Michelle and the children. In essence, the presidency of Obama was about the presidency of the Black family.
Black Panther does not force moral judgements on us. It does not say violence is wrong, it simply says that there’s a time and a place. However, it does state that imperialism is not a tool that can be used for the freedom of others. The tools of colonisers cannot be used to liberate the colonised. Once the cow has been milked, there is no use trying to squirt the milk back up her udder.
Killmonger’s “evil plan” is recognised by the plight of Black people everywhere. I empathised with him. I cared for him but I did not want him to succeed. Yet, I mourned him. And he has one of the best finishing lines in any blockbuster ever…
“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.”
Even in his last moments, as homicidal madman, a lot of what he says makes sense. He’s just an impulsive murderer that I couldn’t help but empathise with because of the narrative I have experienced as a person of African heritage living as a Black person in a White country.
His introduction is just as excellent, educating the White museum clerk. And it’s no coincidence that I recently came across articles that said the Victoria & Albert Museum are willing to loan artefacts back to Ethiopia, items that were looted by the British centuries ago. What about the British Museum? Yes, the writers have honed in on White guilt here as well, or lack of.
When Killmonger sees his father in the spirit world, he is alone. When T’Challa goes, he is surrounded by his ancestors. I guess that epitomises the legacy of the Slave Trade. We were nobodies, just dollars and cents, pounds and pence, to be sold in the slave markets of London and Bristol City, and the confederate states of The South. Black people, whose ancestors were slaves have every reason to hate the White Man. However, we don’t become Killmonger or N’Jobu, radicalised killers.
We are alone in this fight and Black Panther shows the ins and outs in the right way — commenting on things like: whitewashed history, colourism, intersectional feminism, transgenerational trauma, afrofuturism, cultural appropriation and more, as the colonial mentality is still alive and kicking.
Meanwhile, Black Panther has received a Best Picture nomination for the Oscars 2019 and I couldn’t be happier.
Who ever said cultural significance, political and / or social importance wasn’t grounds for winning Best Picture? Every biopic ever nominated says hi!