“Black Panther,” already the biggest February movie release in the history of Hollywood, is not a story about superheroes. It is not really a story about black and white race relations, either. At its heart, “Black Panther” is the story of the unique relationship between a people and their land.
Wakanda, the fictional black utopia that Black Panther rules as king, is so majestic on the big screen as to steal many scenes in the film. The kingdom occupies a central role, almost playing supporting actor to the brilliant leading cast of Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan.
This is no accident. Wakanda is the spiritual core of the Black Panther story and always has been.
The hope of a bountiful, independent black land has fueled the aspirations of many in the African diaspora for at least the past 500 years, as historian Nathan Connolly recently pointed out. The Haitian Revolution secured the Western hemisphere’s first independent black nation in 1804, despite considerable military resistance from French colonizers and without any support from the hemisphere’s other democratic republic, the United States. Haitians envisioned the land as their means to overcome the legacy of colonial oppression, hoping to secure their political independence through economic self-sufficiency.
But Haiti was not the only place in the region where the hope for black independence thrived. Despite the nearly universal institution of slavery among Europeans in the Americas, runaway maroon communities and free black communities throughout the Western hemisphere acted as persistent beacons of both the desire and ability of black peoples to build their own prosperous, independent areas.
During the post-Civil War Reconstruction, scores of newly emancipated African Americans built new lives on parcels of reclaimed lands in areas like South Carolina’s Sea Islands (though President Andrew Johnson would soon reverse the plan). Booker T. Washington, himself formerly enslaved, opened his school in Tuskegee, Ala., to train young black men to secure their economic independence through working the land or building their own business communities.
Land mattered, because it meant economic, and therefore political, independence. In the 20th century, Marcus Garvey of the Universal Negro Improvement Association championed Pan-Africanism and possible migration back to Africa, a message that deeply resonated with Malcolm X’s father. Years later, X himself would lead a movement to secure both economic and political security for black Americans through the cultivation of a strong black identity and community ownership of both property and local political institutions. By the mid-1960s, the significance of securing a land of their own — whether through individual private property or in an independent state — was firmly established as a major component of the long civil rights movement.
It was not long after Malcolm X emerged as a national figure advocating for this vision that the comic Black Panther debuted, appearing in Fantastic Four No. 52 in June 1966. This was the same month that James Meredith was shot while marching to encourage African Americans in Mississippi to register to vote. It was also the same year that a political group in Oakland, Calif., would take up the mantle of the Black Panther Party — no direct correlation to the comic book character — in an effort to defend black control of their community and expand opportunities in their neighborhoods.
While Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were creating an exotic faux-African utopia for their predominantly young white male audience interested in anti-establishment postures, they largely ignored the specific hardships of contemporary civil rights activists who were struggling for the basic rights to express their political and economic needs without being beaten or killed.
This utopia — Wakanda — was the centerpiece of that first Black Panther story. As the Fantastic Four approached the kingdom from the air, a dense jungle obscured any view of civilization. “The jungle looks so primitive … so undeveloped,” puzzled Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards. He was certain they were in the wrong place. When their aircraft broke through the foliage, however, the superheroes could hardly believe their eyes. What they saw was a “world of sheer wonderment,” a miraculous, futuristic city hidden beneath the canopy.
As Marvel further developed the lore over the years, Wakanda was described as the most scientifically and technologically advanced civilization in the world — not to mention the wealthiest. The leader of this tremendously successful African nation was the brilliant, strong and mysterious warrior-king T’Challa, known as the Black Panther. Along the way he defeated the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and outclassed Mr. Fantastic as the smartest man in Marvel. Still, Black Panther and his glorious Wakanda were not much more than a pop culture novelty until just a couple of years ago.
Everything changed when National Book award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates signed a deal with Marvel Comics to write a new Black Panther comic series in 2016. Upon release, “Black Panther” immediately became the best-selling comic book of the year. Coates titled his first story arc in the series “A Nation Under Our Feet,” a nod to the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the same name by historian Steven Hahn, a book that recounted black political activism between the Civil War and World War I.
Coates’s title was apt for his story. Once again Wakanda was central, serving as the battleground for a monarch burdened by a difficult past and people no longer interested in serving a king. Coates made the connection between land and people explicit in a dreamlike sequence depicting a black father and daughter pleading for rain on sunbaked desert and then dancing in the downpour. “Once when I was tree,” the author wrote in poetic sequence, “African soil nourished my spirit.”
Ryan Coogler’s new “Black Panther” film, too, revolves around the intimate connection between Wakanda and the freedom it provides for its people. T’Challa’s voice opens the film asking his father to “tell me the story of home.” To cross over into the ancestral realm from which T’Challa derives the powers of the Black Panther he must be buried under the Wakandan soil.
Spirit and soil are inseparably united in this film. Wakanda is a land isolated from the world, disguised as another third-world agrarian nation, and this isolation serves as an allegory of the way that Wakandan leaders had shut off their hearts from the sufferings and struggles of the African diaspora. T’Challa is forced to choose whether to keep his people and land secluded or to let the soil of Wakanda nourish the black world.
In a political moment where the president of the United States uses profane language to describe countries like Haiti or the nations of Africa, Black Panther and his utopian Wakanda offers a different vision of the world. Black Panther’s world is one where the people find their strength in a deep pride and reverence for their homeland. But it is also a world where the bounties of a nation’s blessings rot on the vine if they are not shared with those in need. In that sense, the world of Black Panther is not all that different from ours.