“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”

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This is the Reason Why Europe and the USA Have an Immigrant Problem

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“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”

18 Feb

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“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”

18 Feb

From The New Yorker

(Following this article is: Terry Crews’ article: From racist black characters to ‘Black Panther,’ we’ve come so far) 

The Maison des Esclaves stands on the rocky shore of Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, like a great red tomb.

During the years of its operation, the building served as a rendezvous point for slavers trafficking in a seemingly inexhaustible resource: Africans, whose very bodies became the wealth of white men.

A portal known as the “Door of No Return,” leading to the slave ships, offered the forlorn captives a last glimpse of home, before they were sown to the wind and sold in the West.

For nearly four centuries, this traffic continued, seeding the populations of the Caribbean, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Central and North America, and draining societies of their prime populations while fomenting civil conflict among them in order to more effectively cull their people.

On the high seas, the vessels jettisoned bodies in such terrible numbers that the poet Amiri Baraka once wrote, “At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones.”

I visited Gorée Island in 2003, with a group of black academics, just days after George W. Bush had come to the island and offered platitudes about the cruelties of human history, while stopping short of apologizing for the United States’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Residents of the island greeted us in the markets like long-lost kin. We repeatedly heard some version of “Welcome home, my black brothers and sisters!”

But, later, over dinner, a Senegalese guide casually informed us that we were neither their siblings nor even distant kin to Africa, implying that the greetings in the market had been merely a clever sales tactic directed at gullible black Americans who travel to the continent in search of roots, as if they were abused foster kids futilely seeking their birth parents.

“You are Americans. That is all,” she said.

This exchange took place fifteen years ago, but I can still recall the way her words hung in the air, like a “guilty” verdict. The policy of “No Return,” she suggested, applied to distant descendants, too.

There is a fundamental dissonance in the term “African-American,” two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen. That dissonance—a hyphen standing in for the brutal history that intervened between Africa and America—is the subject of “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler’s brilliant first installment of the story of Marvel Comics’ landmark black character.

“I have a lot of pain inside me,” Coogler told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on Wednesday night. “We were taught that we lost the things that made us African. We lost our culture, and now we have to make do with scraps.”

Black America is constituted overwhelmingly by the descendants of people who were not only brought to the country against their will but were later inducted into an ambivalent form of citizenship without their input.

The Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all those born here, supposedly resolved the question of the status of ex-slaves, though those four million individuals were not consulted in its ratification.

The unspoken yield of this history is the possibility that the words “African” and “American” should not be joined by a hyphen but separated by an ellipsis.

Our sensibilities are accustomed to Marvel films offering clear lines of heroism and villainy, but “Black Panther” dispatches with it putative villain, Ulysses Klaue, a white South Africa-based arms dealer, halfway through the film.

Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, the Black Panther and the king of Wakanda, confronts, Erik Killmonger, a black American mercenary, played by Michael B. Jordan, as a rival, but the two characters are essentially duelling responses to five centuries of African exploitation at the hands of the West.

The villain, to the extent that the term applies, is history itself.

Wakanda is a technologically advanced kingdom in Central Africa that was never colonized by any Western power. T’Challa, the noble leader of an unvanquished people, upholds the isolationism that has always kept the kingdom safe; Killmonger, driven by the horrors that befell those who were stolen from the continent, envisions a world revolution, led by Wakanda, to upend the status quo.

When Killmonger arrives there, after the death of King T’Chaka (the father of T’Challa), he sets in motion a reckoning not only with his rival but with broader questions of legitimacy, lineage, and connection.

Black Panther, as Ryan Coogler pointed out in Brooklyn, has been an inherently political character since his inception, during the Black Power era of the nineteen-sixties. He is a refutation of the image of the lazy and false African, promulgated in the white world and subscribed to even by many in the black one.

Coogler told Marvel upfront that his version of the story would remain true to those political elements. It is shot through with the sense of longing and romance common to the way that people of a diaspora envision their distant homeland.

Like the comics on which they are based, the Marvel movies, in general, have not shied away from political concerns. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” released in 2014, grapples with ideas of preëmptive warfare, drones, and the surveillance state, as elements of the war on terror.

The first “Iron Man” film, from 2008, addressed war profiteering and arms contractors at a time when the United States was still heavily involved in Iraq.

Yet nothing in Marvel’s collection of films is or could be political in the same way as “Black Panther,” because, in those other stories, we were at least clear about where the lines of fantasy departed from reality.

“Captain America” is a fantastic riff on the nation’s idealism, filtered through the lens of the Second World War, a historic event whose particulars, however horrific and grandly inhumane, are not in dispute.

“Black Panther,” however, exists in an invented nation in Africa, a continent that has been grappling with invented versions of itself ever since white men first declared it the “dark continent,” and set about plundering its people and its resources.

This fantasy of Africa as a place bereft of history was politically useful, justifying imperialism. It found expression in the highest echelons of Western thought, and took on the contours of truth.

In 1748, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and all other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any complexion other than white.”

Two centuries later, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote, “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa.”

Africa—or, rather, “Africa”—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth.

No such nation as Wakanda exists on the map of the continent, but that is entirely beside the point. Wakanda is no more or less imaginary than the Africa conjured by Hume or Trevor-Roper, or the one canonized in such Hollywood offerings as “Tarzan.”

It is a redemptive counter-mythology.

Most filmmakers start by asking their audiences to suspend their disbelief. But, with Africa, Coogler begins with a subject about which the world had suspended its disbelief four centuries before he was born.

The film is a nearly seamless dramatic chronicle of the threat created when Killmonger travels to the African nation he descends from. Yet some of the most compelling points in the story are those where the stitching is most apparent.

Killmonger is a native of Oakland, California, where the Black Panther Party was born. (In an early scene, a poster of Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Party, hangs on a wall, next to a Public Enemy poster.)

In an impeccably choreographed fight sequence, T’Challa with General Okoye, the leader of Wakanda’s all-female militia, brilliantly played by Danai Gurira, and Nakia, a wily Wakandan spy played by Lupita Nyong’o, confront a Boko Haram-like team of kidnappers.

At the same time, it is all but impossible not to notice that Coogler has cast a black American, a Zimbabwean-American, and a Kenyan as a commando team in a film about African redemption.

The cast also includes Winston Duke, who is West Indian, Daniel Kaluuya, a black Brit, and Florence Kasumba, a black woman from Germany.

The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants.

Coogler said as much in Brooklyn, when he talked about a trip that he took to South Africa, as research for the film, and, after discovering cultural elements that reminded him of black communities in the United States, concluded, “There’s no way they could wipe out what we were for thousands of years. We’re African.”

There is a great deal more that differentiates “Black Panther” from other efforts in the superhero genre.

The film is not about world domination by an alien invasion or a mad cabal of villains but about the implications of a version of Western domination that has been with us so long that it has become as ambient as the air.

When Shuri, Wakanda’s chief of technology and the irreverent younger sister of T’Challa, is startled by a white C.I.A. agent, she says, “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”

When I saw the movie, the audience howled at the inversion, “colonizer” deployed as an epithet rather than a badge of cultural superiority.

In addition, Marvel has been criticized for failing to center a film on any of its female characters, but it is the female characters in “Black Panther” whose ideas and determinations dictate the terms on which the rivalry between the male protagonists plays out.

T’Challa engages with his female counterparts as equals; Killmonger kills two women and assaults a third. Their political positions may be equally compelling; their ideas about gender are not.

Coogler’s commentary on the literal tribalism of the African diaspora, his devotion to a glorious vision of Africa, and, most provocatively, his visceral telling of the pain of existing as an orphan of history—as seen in the story of Killmonger, whose separation from Africa is not simply historical but also paternal—is striking but not unique.

The narrative of Africa as a tragic tabula rasa in world history exists in dialogue with another version, equally imaginary, but idealized and, authored by descendants of those Africans who passed through the Maison des Esclaves and the other structures like it.

In 1896, after Ethiopian forces defeated an invading Italian army in the Battle of Adwa, black people across the globe celebrated the country as the last preserve on the continent free from the yoke of colonialism, and a sign of hope for the black world—the Wakanda of its day.

In the nineteen-thirties, after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, Depression-era black Americans and West Indians scraped together pennies to send to a country they had never visited to fund the resistance.

In the late nineteenth century, the West Indian educator and diplomat Edward Wilmot Blyden envisioned and promoted a kind of black Zionism, in which people of African descent in the West would return to work on behalf of African redemption.

What Blyden, and what Marcus Garvey—a Jamaican who, in the nineteen-twenties, organized a global pan-Africanist effort to end European colonialism—and what the organizer Audley Moore and the scholar John Henrik Clarke, and what the entire lineage of that pan-African tradition insisted on was a kind of democracy of the imagination.

If the subordination of Africa had begun in the minds of white people, its reclamation, they reasoned, would begin in the minds of black ones.

I understand this story intuitively and personally.

In my twenties, I consumed volumes of African history and histories of the slave trade, seeking out answers to the same questions that Coogler asked in South Africa, a fugitive from the idea that I descend from a place with no discernible past.

I dropped my given middle name and replaced it with an African one, in an effort to make transparent that sense of connection.

On Gorée Island, I patiently listened to the guide’s argument, before pointing out to her that we were conducting our conversation in English, in a building constructed by the French, in a country that had been a colony of France, and that the issue was not whether black Americans retained any connection to Africa, but whether history had left anyone on the continent still in a position to pass judgment on that question.

Superheroes are seldom tasked with this kind of existential lifting, but that work is inescapable in the questions surrounding Wakanda and the politics of even imagining such a place.

Marvel has made a great many entertaining movies in the past decade, but Ryan Coogler has made a profound one.

Jelani Cobb has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2012, and became a staff writer in 2015. He writes frequently about race, politics, history, and culture. His most recent book is “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.” He’s a professor of journalism at Columbia University. He won the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, for his columns on race, the police, and injustice.

Terry Crews: From racist black characters to ‘Black Panther,’ we’ve come so far

 AP 2018 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL - "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU" PORTRAIT SESSION A ENT USA UT

In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation (originally titled The Clansmen) was the first American motion picture screened at the White House.

The film featured a romanticized, heroic view of the Ku Klux Klan, while blacks, in particular, were presented as evil, conniving, violent rapists.

Portrayed with righteous fervor by white actors, some in blackface, the film was enthusiastically praised by President Woodrow Wilson, who is reported to have gushed, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Review: Rousing, representative ‘Black Panther’ is one spectacular superhero

More: 5 ways that ‘Black Panther’ celebrates and elevates black women

I’ve often said that history doesn’t give a damn if it’s true or not, what matters is who’s telling it. The same goes for mythology.

The first modern comic book, Action Comics, featuring Superman, was created in 1938, smack dab in the middle of American segregation, and popular myths created by these books were never kind to blacks.

Read and consumed by children, these books infected the culture of the day with racist black characters like Ebony White, Whitewash Jones and Steamboat.

T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik

T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) fight it out for the throne in ‘Black Panther.’ (Photo: Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios) 

Which brings us to Marvel’s Black Panther, an unapologetically black superhero movie depicting an African warrior/king from the fictional country of Wakanda.

There have been successful films characterizing black superheroes before, notably Blade with Wesley Snipes, but none with a mostly black cast, black director and, amazingly, a black writer.

 Even the soundtrack is executive produced by a black record label.

Related: How Michael B. Jordan got mean and massive for ‘Black Panther’

Also: ‘Black Panther’ breakout Letitia Wright is a new kind of Disney princess

It doesn’t disappoint, tackling action, humor and intense drama that finally, to my relief, wasn’t race-related.

It was extremely satisfying to witness African-themed costumes, technology and warfare, but most of all, to see black people onscreen as full-fledged human beings, not just a sidekick or comic relief until the real hero shows up.

Also, the film’s empowerment of its fierce female heroes rivals last year’s ground-breaking Wonder Woman, handling two sides of the typically marginalized coin with polished grace.

As a black man growing up in the comic-book era, I remember seeing Christopher Reeve as Superman in 1978 and how happy I was to see a hero from those pages on the silver screen for the first time. “You will believe a man can fly” was the movie’s marketing tagline, and I was hooked.

One by one, I showed up for them all — Batman, Captain America, X-Men, Spider-Man— but I wondered, “How can black people be included in any of these movies, especially since their presence in the comic books that created them was so minimal?”

When I was a teen, the main ones — Captain America’s sidekick The Falcon, Luke Cage and Black Panther — weren’t getting their own movie anytime soon.

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa/Black

Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) don’t see eye to eye on Wakanda’s future in ‘Black Panther.’ (Photo: Matt Kennedy) 

I made do for years with black sports and music stars fulfilling the roles that were left out of the comics.

My favorite book was Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, in which Ali actually beats Superman in a fair fight because Superman loses his superpowers.

I had posters of Michael Jordan flying through the air, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook.

In a knowledgeable nod to my experience as a teen, the poster of the album cover to Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is prominently featured several times in Black Panther. 

I could not hold back a smile, as I had that poster in my room as a teen and it even hangs in my office today. These men became our superheroes.

Seeing Black Panther in all its glory fulfills so many hopes and dreams I had as child. Adding this experience to things I wondered if I would ever see, like America having a black president, I smile again. 

Change may be slow and hard-fought, but as long as we never give up, it is inevitable.

Terry Crews is an actor and activist.

WE ARE GIVING CAUCASIANS PSYCHOLOGICAL POWER OVER OURSELVES WHEN WE CALL THEM WHITE.

SEEING THEMSELVES AS THE “WHITE RACE,” IS ONE OF THE REASONS WHY MANY CAUCASIANS CONTINUE TO BELIEVE, THAT THEY ARE A SUPERIOR RACE.

AND:

WHY DOES SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICANS, STILL HAVE A DISLIKE FOR AFRICA?

Many of our people refuse to be called African American because it is not a term that was invented and used first by Caucasians. 

 It was created by our own people as a respectable identification for us. 

It was Marcus Garvey who first, consistently used the term Afro-Americans in reference to the indigenous people of African descent who lived in America.” 

Click below to ‘read’ the article. 

Thanks.

https://chiniquy.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/why-many-african-americans-still-have-a-dislike-for-africa/


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