Wakanda and Black Feminist Political Imagination
*This post is part of our new blog series on The World of the Black Panther. This series, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason, examines the Black Panther and the narrative world linked to the character in comics, animation, and film.
In 1902, Pauline Hopkins imagined the fictional discovery of Telassar, a hidden Ethiopian kingdom that remained occluded from white view in Northern Africa. Her novel Of One Blood featured gorgeous dark skinned Black women, warriors, advanced technology, a bloodline King, and spies sent out to bring back news of the world outside of the fantastic Blackness Telassar maintained in secrecy over the years of white colonialism and targeted anti-Blackness. Sound familiar? Hopkins created a world like Black Panther’s Wakanda, a fantasy and spectacle of what we’ve taken to calling Black excellence in the face of the crushing defeats of the post-Reconstruction era.
At the turn of the century, Hopkins creates her Wakanda not out of thin air, but as a response to the intersecting narratives of progress dominating the period: medical and biological advances, often under the guise of racist comparative anatomy; nascent anthropology serving as an offshoot of such study and of the so-called natural sciences, this time focused on social organization and pathology; and archeological “discovery” of ancient civilizations. Drawing on these fascinations of the time, Hopkins turns each on its head in her novel. The main character Reuel is a medical genius and innovator who figures out how to bring the dead back to life. As a passing doctor, Reuel is a Black man hiding in the midst of white supremacist logic. Through rumors of his Blackness spread by his scheming white half-brother, Reuel is literally black-balled from his profession and must take a position on an expedition headed to “explore” Africa for its past. While on the ship, Reuel (still passing) makes clear that the work of “uncovering” the continent is just as likely to uncover Black excellence and hence to disprove white supremacist reasons undergirding such missions that fix Africa and Blackness in the temporal and developmental past. During the expedition Reuel stumbles upon Telassar and finds himself their true blood king. He abandons the West to live and reproduce the Ethiopian line, even as he himself is the issue of the white sexual violence of chattel enslavement.
Hopkins’s Telassar is the precursor to the world of Wakanda. Instead of merely celebrating the unheralded connection, this piece thinks about the specific context that brought about Telassar and about the way political worlds are imagined and created by other Black women artists and writers that might inform and challenge the way we understand Wakanda. Coming at a time when Ethiopia had recently defeated Italian armies (1896), Hopkins’s African imaginary was both presentist, as Ethiopia remained the only “sovereign” country on the continent in the Scramble for Africa, and cloaked in a mythic, early Afro-centric past that was to be repeated by many of her Harlem Renaissance peers. Like the creators of Wakanda, the mythic African country had to remain pure, untouched by the ravages of white colonialism and exploitation. Ethiopia, of course, had no such history or luxury, nor did the rest of the continent that for centuries evolved within the complex time of contact and modernity. Why the attraction, then, to this mythic African anachronistic vision?
As many have already pointed out, the dream of Blackness untouched and unscathed by white violence is one that makes emotional sense for the modern diaspora. The geographic distance from Africa as an actual place seems to license this fantasy of freedom to exist for African Americans in Africa itself, frozen in time. African imaginaries don’t have the luxury of this geographic, recast as temporal, gap, this dream of a homeland of utopic blackness that never existed, this projection. But Hopkins is ingenious in her twist of the temporalities of white supremacy that always cast whiteness as the vanguard and the future—the ongoing and inevitable pinnacle of society and science. Instead of staging a White civilization ready to be inclusive of “Black excellence,” Hopkins stages the extraordinarily deep and wide history of the African continent, including the specters of lost possibility through the war capitalism of chattel slavery, imperialism, and settler colonialism, through a Black feminist political imagination. Like the shadow of so many political worlds including Wakanda, the sexual politics of reproduction and the problem of blood undergird the enterprises of white supremacy and of continuing Black life in the novel. In Hopkins’s difficult, imagined world this intertwining is the inescapable ground for imagining a Black future.
Other spectacular political worlds exist across Black women’s literature. The usual suspects Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nnedi Okorafor should be name-checked here as the queens of Black science fiction. But I’m also thinking of the ordinary/extraordinary, fraught worlds of Lorraine Hansberry’s domestic interiors (1959), Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997), the psychic space of trans-historical political belonging in Erna Brodber’s Louisiana (1994), Julie Dash’s haunting history of the Gullah islands in her film Daughters of the Dust (1991), or the epistolary world of Mariama Ba’s post-independence Senegal in So Long a Letter (1979), to name just five sites of the many contemplations of what the political can mean and can look like in a Black feminist framing. If Wakanda is placed squarely within the recognizable geo-politics of politics as we know them, how might we, following Robyn Spencer’s thoughtful feminist questioning of the film in Medium, trace a genealogy of the political worlds imagined by Black feminist writers and artists that engage with the difficult, uneven histories of the global Black diaspora in forms and sites that might not be recognized as such because of their proximity to women and women’s worlds?
As a current Twitter trend suggests in asking if those going to Wakanda might also “show up” for Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, we might think of Black political imagination creatively rendered through women’s imaginations as delivering us something and somewhere other than traditional political visions and venues. DuVernay’s film is already marked not as “Black” but as “multiracial,” even in its understanding of family, science, and imagination. In a recent New York Times feature, the film is also, astoundingly, marked as “girly” because of frequent costume changes. Imagine this characterization being levied at Black Panther, even as much attention has been paid to the costuming of, in particular, the female characters of the film. Sporting a younger Shuri-like main character, A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg is a physics genius. Meg is not trying explicitly to solve the world’s (here, the universe’s) problems on a public stage, but instead turns the interior to the exterior in a search for her (white) father. Will we look for political allegory in this film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel? How will we look for it? And what might Meg’s journey and DuVernay’s vision translate into as an imagined Black political world whose very foundation is loss, mourning, and impossibility?
Even in Black Panther, like in Of One Blood, there are multiple vectors to seek out the political other than the teleology of the main plot. Shuri, teen tech genius who creates weapons as well as revolutionary medical techniques, does indeed get assigned STEM education while smirking behind her brother at the United Nations (as Chris Lebron and others have noted). But as talk brews of Shuri getting her own spinoff within the Marvel Universe, her future and her plot remain unfixed and difficult. Her relationship to war, to the pleasures of capitalism, and to the white boys who need her to fix them stand uneasily alongside her genius, her confidence, her humor, and her place in the literal interior of her Wakandan lab. For Hopkins, the fleshed out heroine Dianthe in her Gothic romance novel follows the plot of problematic objectification and violence. Dianthe dies and is brought back to life only to marry her brother Reuel, then to be kidnapped and assaulted by her other brother Aubrey, the white son of her rapist father. Her presence animates the difficult and violent history of Black women’s relationship to power. In 2018, we are looking to Black Panther to contain the debates of what Black political futures can and should look like, an impossible task for any film (as discussed in the lovely and nuanced Paris Review piece on the film by Clint Smith). But we might also look to the world that Hopkins created in 1902 to imagine the ways that the Black feminist imagination has constructed possibilities where we are least likely to recognize them – with the geopolitical brokered in and through spaces of intimacy and specters of loss – rather than politics as we already know them.1
- The author would like to thank Soyica Colbert and Britt Rusert for their invaluable support in writing this piece. ↩