America’s Wakanda

Still from Black Panther.

The African American entertainment industry is one of the things I’m most proud of as an American. I grew up in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, and as the child of an African immigrant, the “black culture” I was exposed to at home was different than that of most of my peers. So, African American popular culture, such as hip hop and the blaxploitation films of the day, became centers for the formation of my American identity. Movies like Do The Right Thing, New Jack City or Juice were cultural touchstones that I could enjoy with friends who shared in the not always positive experience of growing up as a black youth in America.

However, I also remember being called out as ethnic other by African American peers for my Sierra Leonean cultural background. I was called “African booty scratcher” and asked if my relatives lived in trees, had my first name constantly butchered and was asked whether or not I was a prince where my family had come from. Hip hop did celebrate afrocentricity and older movements like the Black Panthers and Black Power made positive connections to the continent. Nevertheless, I found the haphazard employment of the dashiki, djembe drums, Kente cloth and Kwanzaa, by some African Americans awkward in the absence of a more complex understanding of the contemporary realities “back home.” (This period happened to coincide with Sierra Leone’s devastating 10 year civil war, which was almost never acknowledged outside of my family and our community of exiles and immigrants.)

My experience is not that unique as any immigrant to the US might be able to tell you. And save for some embarrassment as an adolescent, I came out okay in the end (some have had it tougher, see: hereherehere). However, all these experiences have informed my work as a musician and cultural critic, and for the past decade or so, I have been dedicated to pushing a more diverse representation of the black American experience into the popular cultural sphere.

With the arrival of Black Panther, we are witnessing a resurgence of an unbridled enthusiasm for Africa in black America, and it dovetails perfectly with the Afrofuturist moment that comes to occupy the space that Afrocentricity did 25 years ago. The moment at which the film arrives is also a moment in which Africans and black immigrants have become common at the center of the American entertainment industry. Top billed actors in the film like Lupita Nyongo (whose father was a government minister in Kenya), Daniel Kaluuya (who grew up working class in London, the son of Ugandan immigrants) and Danai Gurira (Zimbabwean-American, born and raised in Iowa) are proof of that. Afropop, topping the charts in the UK, is popping up in the ambit of North American pop stars like Drake. And, American rappers of African immigrant background like Wale and French Montana are finally making the connections to their homelands public and explicit.

That’s not to say that the children of distant homelands are always being welcomed with open arms. Just last year, Samuel Jackson caused a stir when he insisted Kaluuya was the wrong person to play the lead in “Get Out” because he didn’t live the African American experience.

It’s too soon to tell if this specific cultural moment has done anything to bring African Americans closer to Africans on the continent and its many other diasporas. It doesn’t help that Black Panther’s depiction of the actual African continent is not any more complex than any other in the history of Hollywood. True, in the film African cultures are represented and depicted positively. We have come a long way from Birth of a Nation. However, those cultures are also used piecemeal, cut-and-paste and without context. The only time we see the Wakandans visit another African country it is of course to fight militant Islamists who are kidnapping children. The Africa of Wakanda resembles more an undifferentiated African stew, its parts floating in the red, black and green universe somewhere between Kwanza and Kente.

Black Panther fans will counter that African immigrants in the West, black Latin Americans and even Africans on the continent are caught up in the Black Panther hype. But that may be less a consequence of political Pan-Africanism, than an inflection of local identity politics and an expanding global middle class — a byproduct of the flattening of global popular culture via shiny new shopping malls and cable television.

The United States does an excellent job at exporting cultural blackness (for various purposes), and African American culture today is like a global cultural currency, employed to do everything from ensuring dictators stay in power in Angola or Gabon to fighting racial discrimination in Brazil. Anybody with access to Facebook or Youtube can connect to and feel empowered by a cultural blackness that transcends history, geography and language. And it is not just black people. Korean teenagers are tapping into American blackness just as much as black youth in Johannesburg, Paris, Lagos and São Paulo.

The thing about Black Panther though, is that it, more than any other film that I can think of in recent times, has become a vehicle through which to imagine a community of blackness.

At its best, Black Panther fever is inspiring a new generation of Africans from all nations to feel proud of their heritage, and learn more about the place that heritage comes from. In a context where black people’s lives are denigrated, this should be celebrated. At its worst, the Black Panther fever emboldens the divisiveness or isolationism that are at the center of conflict in the film.

All the contradictions within the characters of Black Panther have parallels in black history. Like Wakanda, we may revere the political and economic autonomy of historic black communities like the Jamaican Maroons or Buffalo Soldiers. We should also try to understand their contradictory need to collaborate with slave owners or carry out genocide on behalf of an imperialist state. Like Killmonger, we may revere the anti imperialist stance of a Fidel Castro or Robert Mugabe. We must also understand that their authoritarian rule was at the expense of what most in the West consider basic human rights. For me, the metaphorical borders of an isolationist Wakanda work best when applied to all different forms of privilege, whether it be class, gender, geography, access to resources or technology. But, it is important to not ever forget the shifting borders of privilege when we are empowered to enact social change. That is ultimately what brought Killmonger, and almost every revolutionary movement of the past 100 years to their demise.

So what’s at stake? This is after all just a movie, right?

Black Panther’s success itself is proof that African Americans have the largest economic footprint of any black population in the world, and a significant political influence in the most powerful country in the world. But it is a complicated and compromised power. It is still a community that faces the contradictions of any oppressed community, manifest in the need to proclaim “black lives matter” while being able to put a president that looks like you into power. Being told to “shut up and dribble” on the same weekend that a mainstream Hollywood studio is catering to your cultural preferences.

The arrival of Black Panther arrives at a time when black America is diversifying. But it also happens to be a time where the US itself is becoming more isolationist. I know from personal experience that it is not beyond many in the African American community to reflect nativist tendencies. In private conversations, I have heard African Americans say things like “The Muslim-ban protest isn’t my fight” or “What does DACA have to do with me?”

In a perfect world, Black Panther fever would lead more African Americans down a path of knowledge that would inform them that African migrants are crossing oceans, deserts and jungles on foot to get in to the US. That Haitians and African migrants are flooding the Canadian border out of fear of being deported by a xenophobic Trump administration. That Black Lives Matter applies to a mudslide in Sierra Leone or miners killed by police in South Africa. That there is a real life ethno-nationalist, technologically advanced isolationist dictatorship, in Paul Kagame’s Rwanda. That their tax dollars are going to build a giant drone base in Niger. That this knowledge would help open them to a Pan-African political project.

But alas, it’s just a movie, after all.

Further Reading