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Friday, March 23, 2018

March 23, 2018: Black Panther Studying: Liberia, Garvey, and Wakanda

[Few pop culture texts have exploded into our collective consciousness more than Ryan Coogler’s film adaptation of Black Panther. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy this film phenomenon, starting with an older post on the comic and moving into a handful of other contexts and connections!]
On two historical American images of Africa and this contemporary cinematic one.
First and foremost, I can’t pretend I have as much to say about American images of Africa as does Jelani Cobb, who says a great deal in the second hyperlinked piece in the bracketed intro above. But as I watched the film, and witnessed a breathtaking vision of an African nation imagined largely by Americans (director Ryan Coogler and his co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole), I couldn’t help but think of two prior American visions of the continent. For one thing, there was the early 19th century vision that led to the creation of Liberia, a country specifically imagined by the American Colonization Society (ACS) as an African space for former slaves. Whatever we make of the motivations behind that creation—and they seem to me to have been somewhat beneficent but largely racist (or at least unable to imagine a place for African Americans in America)—it reflects an image of Africa as both a past and future alternative to America, a space for Americans of color to reconnect with an ancestral homeland and in so doing create a new 19th century community.
Nearly a century later, the Jamaican American leader and activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) imagined a strikingly similar role for Liberia and Africa. Garvey’s complex social movement, which originated in 1914 with his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and became known as the “Back to Africa” movement, likewise saw Liberia specifically (and the continent more broadly) as a space of both historical significance and future possibility for African American and African Caribbean communities alike. Unlike the white-led American Colonization Society, Garvey and his fellow UNIA leaders were themselves African American and African Caribbean, and they linked their vision of Africa to a proto-Black Pride perspective and movement. Yet at the same time, Garvey’s vision of Africa was nearly as imaginary as that of the ACS, based far more on experiences in Jamaica and the United States than on any specific engagement with African communities and nations. That doesn’t necessarily render his overall movement problematic (virtually all immigration stories begin with imagined visions of other nations, after all), but it does reflect an enduring role of Africa in the American consciousness.
Coogler and Cole work hard in Black Panther to create an image of an African nation (and/or to build on those images already created in the comic, of course) as entirely separate and distinct from America (or anywhere else): Wakanda has literally been hidden from the rest of the world for the entirety of existence. But these historical American images of Africa still find echoes in their film, I would argue. For one thing, Erik Killmonger’s lifelong desire to return to Wakanda (literally his ancestral homeland and also the site of his imagined ideal future) is not at all unlike those of the ACS and (especially) Garvey, complete with an expression of global Black Pride that will be centered on this idealized African nation. And for another [SPOILERS FOLLOW], the film’s ultimate depiction of Wakanda’s global role—as an iconic African nation that can positively influence communities of color around the world (and not only communities of color, but it’s important that the first site is the Oakland neighborhood where Killmonger grew up)—still feels shaped by the kinds of idealized images of African collective identity imagined by those colonization and emigration movements. Wakanda is, and should be, many things, but to me there’s no doubt that one of them is another American image of Africa.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Takes on the film or its contexts?

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