“Black Panther”: space, time and racial consciousness
The Afrofuturism of Wakanda reframes audiences’ perspective on Black history. | Photo Courtesy of newstatesman.com
With the premiere of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” on Feb. 16, the artistic practice of Afrofuturism has—rather ironically—become a major focus this Black History Month. The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 with reference to earlier work by writers and musicians like Ralph Ellison, Sun Ra, George Clinton, Octavia Butler and others who introduced futuristic aesthetics and science fiction to the black imagination. This juxtaposition of past and future begs the question: what is the purpose of Black History Month, and how has it managed to incorporate a movement like Afrofuturism?
At first glance, Black History Month seems to arise completely from the acknowledgment of a void in our education—a void that devalues the social, cultural, economic and scientific contributions of black Americans. Per conventional thought, studying black history allows black children to see themselves reflected and represented in the past. They encounter upstanding historical figures to admire, emulate and maybe dream of surpassing. Similarly, “Black Panther” provides those same children with mainstream heroes and heroines that—perhaps for the first time—look like them.
The Consequences of Forced Mass Exodus: Time Present and Time Past
Yet to focus exclusively on lack of representation within curriculum or media would be to avoid the root cause of that same injustice. For hundreds of years, culture, language, history and familiar bonds were systematically and purposefully stripped away for the end of turning human persons—black bodies and minds—into instruments of labor. The institution of slavery crushed the human subject into a dehumanized object, and, thus, Africans became both spatially and culturally distant from their ancestral home.
The void of black historical education and representation, then—though indeed maintained by contemporary racism—follows as a natural consequence of the centuries when Africans were routinely ripped from their roots and formed into slaves. James Baldwin reflects:
“When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and neither did I. That I was a savage—about whom the less said, the better—who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice: those were the only books there were.”
This view of Africa as a place devoid of history is the same myth that afforded Europeans the weak moral justification to plunder “the dark continent” in the first place. As a result of this violent separation and subsequent misinformation, the study of black history asks of its heroes: “What is the future of a people without a clear lineage apart from the country that kidnapped their bodies and attempted to crush their souls?”
The Unity of Black History and Afrofuturism: Time Future Contained in Time Past
Because of this reality, the questions taken up by the practice of black history and the project of Afrofuturism are essentially conjoined. Black history examines how past figures have managed to create beauty and discover truth in the midst of the social despair inherent to generational slavery, years of lynching, Jim Crow segregation, mass incarceration and police brutality.
“Armed with the knowledge of our past, we can with confidence charter a course for our future. Culture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle. We must take hold of it and forge the future with the past,” Malcolm X proclaimed at a rally in 1963.
In 2018, “Black Panther” serves a critical role in that same struggle to forge a new future with the past. Wakanda is the land for a particular imagination: an imagination that latches onto the idea of an African nation free from all traces of colonialism and its inheritance of violence. As such, Wakanda is sacred space for black children and adults alike to explore what might have been. Treading this imaginative ground together leads to a reshaped present and re-envisioned destination—giving rise to the question: “what might still be?”
Such a project does not exist in a vacuum: the fiction of Afrofuturism is essentially a counter-fiction performing a combative function. It directly challenges the stereotypes and mythology that have been propagated to devalue black life from Oakland to Wakanda and back again. “Black Panther” succeeds in part because it contributes significantly to this counter-fiction. In addition, its characters hold the pain of being estranged from the home of one’s father, ultimately asking what it means to construct a vision of the future when the past has been unjustly wrenched away. These are some of the same questions that all Americans should be reckoning with today. Remarkably, the film handles these concerns with nuance, humor and grace while also managing to hit the beats required of any entertaining superhero film.