“Black Panther” is an epic film that taps into a long history of Pan-Africanist desire for homecoming. From the slave spirituals of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to Marcus Garvey’s panoramic Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which stirred enslaved Africans across the Western Hemisphere with distinct visions of homecoming, renewal and rebirth, to its modern expression of defiance and self-reliance during the Black Power era.
Directed by Oakland native Ryan Coogler and starring a bevy of chocolate-, caramel- and cocoa-colored actors, the film carries the fearsome weight of history as a badge of honor proudly worn, rather than a burden destined to be carried. Black Americans, from the instance of their arrival in a New World marked by forms of bondage including slavery in the colonial era and present-day mass incarceration, have longed for memories of a world before conquest, life before colonialism. During slavery visions of distant homelands were whispered by Africans in America who, even after generations in bondage, retained enough memory of their past to instill cultural, linguistic and food rituals that linger to this day.
Imagining home for black Americans meant creating safe spaces — both real and fictional — that could offer refuge against the racial hailstorms of everyday life they recognized as racial weather patterns violent enough to lynch entire towns, like Rosewood, Fla., out of existence. The legendary black feminist Ida B. Wells imagined home as a place where black women might be safe from racial terrorism, while W.E.B. Du Bois, the preeminent civil rights leader and black intellectual of the first half of the 20th century, longed for homeland on two continents, reasoning that black people’s “double-consciousness” emanated from their dual heritage in America and Africa.
Garvey came tantalizingly close to upending America’s racial hierarchy in the immediate aftermath of World War I through provocative and inspirational rhetoric that made the quest for black dignity synonymous with love and respect for Africa. The UNIA cast the widest net in history in its search for homeland, attracting exiled citizens of the African diaspora to a call to cultural and political arms. His movement identified descendants from the “dark continent” as the proud participants in the first wave of a global revolution destined to culminate in a restoration of ancient glories.
“Black Panther” imagines home as the fictional African nation of Wakanda, not so much an empire but a Pan-African paradise whose deft mix of dazzling vistas and natural waterfalls is balanced by technological wonders that remain their secret treasure. That secret both protects Wakanda and burdens it with the knowledge of having remained on the sidelines while much of the world suffers, especially their black sisters and brothers living in America.
Michael B. Jordan’s Eric Killmonger represents both a personal specter from Wakanda’s past as well as the embodiment of black political anger, rage and pain at the loss of ancestral homelands and kinship ties. Killmonger’s brash intelligence echoes an unsettling combination of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, updated with a burning desire to eradicate the system of mass incarceration in the United States, end neocolonial policies that impoverish much of the world, and ignite a political revolution that will alter power relations between the global north and south. His anger well-earned, his desire for home overwhelmed by a need for a reckoning that imperils Wakanda and the rest of the world.
More than a movie, “Black Panther” has become a cultural touchstone in the age of Black Lives Matter, with black social media — and white and Latino and Asian and Native American allies — erupting in a frenzy of hope and joy at the sight of a comic book superhero who is not simply a well-received black guest in a house owned by whites.
This time he is the king of an entire nation, the wise young ruler of an African kingdom whose leading warriors, scientists and healers are black women. “Wakanda Forever!” echoes historical clarion calls, “Up You Mighty Race!” and “Black Power!” precisely because it imagines black life as worthy of experiencing joy, receiving and giving love, finding home. Social media now offer a window into the past in a manner that, at its best, amplifies and disseminates over a century of intellectual work on black history, helping to catalogue the importance of past social movements while shaping current protests, organizations and freedom dreams.
What might have simply been an exercise in branding for one of the largest movie franchises on the planet has suddenly morphed into a pop cultural phenomenon that mixes political substance with cultural subversion. The latter point is best realized in Kendrick Lamar’s throbbing soundtrack, most poignantly the album’s best track, “All the Stars,” performed with SZA. The video has rightfully become a much-talked-about homage to a mélange of African styles, reflecting the breadth and depth of the continent’s potent cultural, political and aesthetic influence on the world. The song’s chorus imagines home as a world away that, on some magical nights, seem closer. “Black Panther’s” major achievement is to make those stars appear closer to all of us who are still seeking a port in the storm, a way back home.
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and Founding Director for the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
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