[Blackstudies-l] How ‘Black Panther’ Taps Into 500 Years of History

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Sat Feb 17 08:57:42 EST 2018


lisaparavisini posted: " Johns Hopkins historian Nathan Connolly explains
to Hollywood Reporter how Ryan Coogler's film draws on centuries of black
dreams of independence to create Wakanda. I’m a historian. And regardless
of how you think a historian is supposed to behave, I’"
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New post on *Repeating Islands*
<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> How ‘Black Panther’
Taps Into 500 Years of History
<http://repeatingislands.com/2018/02/16/how-black-panther-taps-into-500-years-of-history/>
by
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: black_panther_still_14.jpg]
Johns Hopkins historian Nathan Connolly explains to *Hollywood* *Reporter*
<https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/black-panther-taps-500-years-history-1085334>
 how Ryan Coogler's film draws on centuries of black dreams of independence
to create Wakanda.
I’m a historian. And regardless of how you think a historian is supposed to
behave, I’m not going to pretend to be some detached observer, not when
when it comes to the movie *Black Panther*. On the contrary, history serves
as the source of my excitement for the film and for much of the positive
attention it's enjoyed worldwide.
*Black Panther*, as a film, is quite good. Sure, it struggles to shake good
vs. evil storytelling, and it could safely be accused of boasting too few
practical effects. Such shortcomings, however, should surprise no one. They
come with the territory for comic flicks, at least for now.

I maintain that we should consider *Black Panther* historic for reasons
altogether different than the nuts and bolts of movie-making. It's a
breakthrough in black cultural representation. It’s a powerful fictional
analogy for real-life struggles. And *Black Panther* owes its very
existence to centuries of political and artistic activity, always occurring
in real places and under the mortal (but still super-) powers of real
people. In Coogler’s vision and as a point of fact, in other words, Wakanda
and its inhabitants stand both fictional and historical. It's history is,
quite literally, our history — everyone’s.

Relative, first, to the culture business, one might consider *Black Panthe*r
our generation’s *A Raisin in the Sun*. It has desegregated the Hollywood
blockbuster, as a genre, and, like Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic,
rendered universal themes through pointedly black subject matter. With a
mostly black cast, black writers and black director, the film has managed
to achieve unprecedented financial success *and* critical acclaim. In the
history of cinema, its seat has been reserved.

In still deeper ways, *Black Panther* and its kingdom of Wakanda serve as a
glittering, cinematic maroon colony to which, for a few hours at least, we
can all escape. And this is where we go down history’s rabbit hole. You
think Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were the first people to imagine an
unconquered black nation in the shadow of a white world? When the creative
team behind “the Sensational Black Panther” thought up a never-colonized,
isolated and futuristic Africa in *Fantastic Four* No. 52 (1966), it's
because it seemed appropriately fantastical, like a high school kid with
spider powers or an intergalactic surfer traveling the cosmos faster than
light.

But dreams of a place like Wakanda began sometime around 1512 in the
Caribbean mountains and forested hills above the mines and fields of
Spain’s colony, Santo Domingo. Then and there, Africans in the Americas
first broke away from slavery to form their own societies with indigenous
island people. They did it again in the maroon enclaves of Dutch Surinam
and British Jamaica. In villages, town and cities, too, beyond the reach of
slave-catchers in the eventual United States, black people carved out
spaces and hoped-for futures of their own. Slavery and variations of
colonialism, in the U.S. and abroad, forced linguistically and culturally
disparate people, again and again, to understand themselves as “black,” as
a race.  And, for just as long, African-descended people have imagined and
endeavored to build places free from the brutalities and indignities of
those systems. From Colombia to Canada to, later, coastal Liberia, a black
homeland became the stuff of dreams.

Black utopias are nothing new. Neither are the ways people endeavored to
bring them about. Before a massive 1791 slave uprising in Saint-Domingue,
black folk in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean hoped for and
swapped rumors about some possible end to slavery. In hushed tones over the
mistress’ laundry, men and women in bondage spoke the stuff of planters’
nightmares. They whispered freedom’s name by lamplight in slave cabins.
They called out to it from the decks and holds of war and merchant ships.
Rumor and talk of freedom swirled up into revolution and served as what the
historian Julius Scott famously called “the common wind.” And when
Saint-Domingue, through force of arms, finally became Haiti in 1804, news
spread quickly. A free black nation, it seemed, had already been what
enslaved people were waiting for.

Wakanda might not be Haiti, it's true. But it's what Haiti was before such
a place even existed. It's a dream and a wish spoken into the wind.

Ryan Coogler’s *Black Panther* taps a 500-year history of African-descended
people imagining freedom, land and national autonomy. Wakanda conjures this
past, even as it professes to stand outside it. It’s a land, again like
Haiti and much of *actual* Africa, about which everyone has a notion, even
if they’ve never been there. Worlds must be dreamed, after all, before they
can be made.

And they do, sometimes, *get* made, and remade. For the two centuries that
followed the Haitian Revolution, artists and authors have drawn from Haiti,
Ethiopia and visions of free African nations to dream in paintings,
sculptures, books, songs, plays, films and, yes, even comic books. With the
rumblings of decolonization coursing through Africa and the Caribbean, the
painter Jacob Lawrence completed 41 separate works capturing the
establishment of a free Haiti, his Toussaint L’Overture series (1937-38).
The very same year, the historian C. L. R. James released *Black Jacobins*,
a book almost cinematic in its detail, and which still stands, for many, as
the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution.

James’ book fell out of print after a decade, only to go back into
production at the urging of black American readers and in response to the
cresting black activism of the 1960s. In short order, *Black Jacobins* provided
the foundation for the first-ever comic book treatment of Toussaint’s life
and Haiti’s founding, *Golden Legacy* No. 1. *That* book came in 1966, the
very year two white New Yorkers first decided to imagine “the King of the
Wakandas.” Though Jewish and no doubt attuned to the value of homelands,
neither Stan Lee nor Jack Kirby had even been to Africa (and it showed).
But neither had Lawrence nor James, in their respective landmark
achievements, ever been to Haiti.  Dreams to art to life, and back again.

As African-descended people and their artistic allies continued to rewrite
what the imagined black person or place could be in the last third of the
20th century, they revised — both directly and indirectly — Wakanda’s first
quirky imagining at Marvel.  In time, a jungle of metal trees and
over-compensating, two-dimensional men gave way to a more sumptuous,
grounded world in which black interior lives glitter as richly as Wakanda
itself. The most recent takes by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay and other
creative teams have peppered Marvel’s pages with black feminist character
development and Easter eggs to scholarly books about slavery, Haiti and
Reconstruction. And almost as if writing social history, they’ve made King
T’Challa and those around him question whether we, living beyond the fourth
wall, should want a black king at all.

Seeing the Wakanda of comics brought to life, audiences will rightfully
swoon at *Black Panther*’s costumes, “authentic” accents and visual
effects. Still, we’d do well to remember there’s nothing “African” about
the movie, as least not in any historical sense. It’s a mashup of African
*isms*. Thus, we ought not to let it stand in for the people and countries
of Africa. The film’s glorification of an isolated black kingdom —
mono-crop economy and all — decouple it, too, from Haiti, for what that’s
worth. They tried that there, after all — a beleaguered response to more
than a half-century of blockades and denied diplomatic recognition
following independence.

What *is* historical about *Black Panther*, in perhaps the deepest respect,
is how smartly it invokes the history of anti-colonial struggle and age-old
visions of black self-determination. It grapples, as well, with an
ambivalence, just as old, about the collectivist aspirations of black
people, on the one hand, and the symbolic value of black monarchs, on the
other.

>From opening scene to credits, *Black Panther* does its best work, as
commentary, via treating Wakanda as a paradox. Should singular black
excellence — in this case a singular black utopia — be responsible for the
liberation of African-descended people worldwide? What’s the obligation of
the free to the unfree? Spoilers abound in answering these questions. Thus
we’ll avoid them here. Suffice it to say, one cannot appreciate Coogler’s
cinematic tone or the legions of anticipated *Black Panther* viewers who’ve
never cared to crack a comic book without seeing and recognizing history’s
outlines in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda.

Indeed, what’s most real about *Black Panther* are its literary and
historical sinews tying us back into the black past, or better, to black
past *dreams*. Its slick, blockbuster look aside, *Black Panther*, by and
large, doesn’t feel like a movie thought up around some conference table in
Hollywood because its characters and setting benefit from the dreams — in
print and across history — that made Coogler’s complex cinematic
world-building possible. In this way, *Black Panther* doesn’t offer a
submerged history lesson so much as a trip — a pilgrimage, really — to a
place we should all see at least once. “I have been to Wakanda,” one
enthusiastic, early reviewer
<https://twitter.com/Vanessa_KDeLuca/status/958274136836485121?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.vanityfair.com%2Fhollywood%2F2018%2F01%2Ffirst-black-panther-reviews>explained,
“and I may never recover.”

But recover me must. Yes, let us dream of a land high-tech without a
history of environmental degradation. Let’s, all of us, be “black” without
the crucible of colonialism. And let’s, if only for a time, be the richest
nation on Earth, without the existential pain of cultural genocide or the
elevation of white aesthetics to the exclusion of all else. Then, buoyed by
dreams of Wakanda, let's return home and face the world that actually needs
remaking.
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
February 16, 2018 at 10:31 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/category/news/> | URL: https://wp.me/psnTa-zvd

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