Black Atlantis

Inte­ri­or art from The Quest (Drex­ciya, 1997).

This review of Marvel’s Black Pan­ther is part of a forth­com­ing dossier on the polit­i­cal thought of Huey P. New­ton. It con­tains spoil­ers.

In a sweep­ing sur­vey of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s place in the lib­er­al rhetoric of the most recent turn of the cen­tu­ry, Pankaj Mishra points to Coates’s strug­gle with a dis­con­cert­ing ques­tion: “Why do white peo­ple like what I write?” We might also ask why white peo­ple like the film Black Pan­ther, which, accord­ing to the direc­tor Ryan Coogler, was inspired not only by Coates’s work on the Mar­vel com­ic books but also his writ­ings on race and iden­ti­ty. At an event in Harlem’s Apol­lo The­ater, Coates described the film as “Star Wars for black peo­ple,” rhap­sodiz­ing that the film was “an incred­i­ble achieve­ment. I didn’t real­ize how much I need­ed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feel­ing sep­a­rat­ed and feel­ing recon­nect­ed.”

Indeed, like Star Wars, Black Pan­ther presents us not with sci­ence fic­tion but with myth, shar­ing with it what we might describe as “semi-feu­dal futur­ism” – a term far more appro­pri­ate for this film than “Afro­fu­tur­ism,” thrown around in the main­stream media stripped of any mean­ing­ful polit­i­cal con­text. Why do white peo­ple love Black Pan­ther, just as they love Star Wars?

If we take a cyn­i­cal look, we might con­clude that it is because two clas­sic modes of white racism are repro­duced in Black Pan­ther. First, the notion that the val­ue of a cul­ture and peo­ple lies in the extent of its tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, a con­di­tion ren­dered as a nat­ur­al prop­er­ty rather than one which results from an unequal glob­al divi­sion of labor and dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. Sec­ond, that the oppo­si­tion of the oppressed to their oppres­sors amounts to nihilis­tic vio­lence, prac­ticed by crim­i­nals with unwor­thy inten­tions.

If we are more for­giv­ing of the white audi­ence – that is, assum­ing their con­de­scend­ing benev­o­lence – we might con­clude that the appeal of Black Pan­ther lies not in the racist stereo­types it rein­forces, but in the way it dis­cred­its the ideals of eman­ci­pa­tion and egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and replaces them with priv­i­lege and phil­an­thropy. Fol­low­ing Parliament-Funkadelic’s 1977 indict­ment, in the year of Star Wars, of the com­mer­cial­iza­tion and con­tain­ment of the rad­i­cal poten­tial of black music, let’s call this mythol­o­gy “the place­bo syn­drome.”

In the recent sequels, the semi-feu­dal futur­ism of Star Wars has been updat­ed for an audi­ence per­haps even less cred­u­lous of monar­chies than it was in 1977, with Princess Leia con­vert­ed into a gen­er­al of a more or less repub­li­can anti-impe­ri­al­ist resis­tance. Black Pan­ther is monar­chist with­out apol­o­gy. Its semi-feu­dal futur­ism is com­bined with the cul­tur­al nation­al­ism his­tor­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed not with the nom­i­nal­ly con­nect­ed Black Pan­ther Par­ty, but its adver­sary Ron Karenga’s US Orga­ni­za­tion – with which the Pan­thers had a vio­lent shootout at UCLA lead­ing to the deaths of Los Ange­les Pan­ther Cap­tain Bunchy Carter and Deputy Min­is­ter John Hug­gins.

In Black Pan­ther, we are pre­sent­ed with a mythol­o­gy that makes anti-impe­ri­al­ist resis­tance unnec­es­sary. In the Mar­vel myth of the African nation of Wakan­da, ini­tial­ly cre­at­ed by Stan Lee and Jack Kir­by and brought to the big screen by Dis­ney, Third World pover­ty is not a result of the rav­ages of colo­nial­ism and the uneven exploita­tion of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism. Rather, this pover­ty sim­ply does not exist – it is an illu­sion intend­ed to hide the wealth cul­ti­vat­ed and pro­tect­ed by an African monar­chy from time immemo­r­i­al. Devel­op­ment exceed­ing that of advanced cap­i­tal­ism has already been achieved with­in a semi-feu­dal mode of pro­duc­tion pro­tect­ed in the bound­aries of a nation-state.

Our hero is the monarch T’Challa, whose drug-induced phys­i­cal strength allows him to func­tion as an iso­la­tion­ist super­hero, keep­ing Wakanda’s wealth hid­den from the out­side world. In this mis­sion he relies equal­ly on a dizzy­ing array of advanced tech­no­log­i­cal gad­getry, rem­i­nis­cent of impe­ri­al­ist agent James Bond.

But the Wakan­dan monar­chy has a dirty secret. T’Challa’s father T’Chaka mur­dered his broth­er N’Jobu, who while under­cov­er in Oak­land – the city where Huey P. New­ton and Bob­by Seale found­ed the Black Pan­ther Par­ty in 1966 – had come to the con­clu­sion that Wakanda’s advanced tech­nol­o­gy should be used to lib­er­ate black peo­ple around the world from pover­ty and oppres­sion. Because this posed a threat to Wakanda’s nation­al sov­er­eign­ty, N’Jobu was elim­i­nat­ed and his son aban­doned to grow up with­out his father.

N’Jobu’s son, Erik “Kill­mon­ger” Stevens, ris­es up with the goal not only of aveng­ing his father’s mur­der, but also of claim­ing the Wakan­dan monar­chy and using it to real­ize his father’s dream of inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion. “Two bil­lion peo­ple all over the world who look like us whose lives are much hard­er, and Wakan­da has the tools to lib­er­ate them all,” he says to a skep­ti­cal Wakan­dan nobil­i­ty. “Where was Wakan­da?” These two polit­i­cal visions – of a glob­al insur­rec­tion against oppres­sion and the defense of the nation-state – are played out in the con­test for the throne between the African monarch T’Challa and the urban African-Amer­i­can Kill­mon­ger, who the Wakan­dan nobil­i­ty scorn as an “out­sider.” As Christo­pher Lebron writes in Boston Review:

Rather than the enlight­ened rad­i­cal, [Kill­mon­ger] comes across as the black thug from Oak­land hell bent on killing for killing’s sake—indeed, his body is marked with a scar for every kill he has made. The abun­dant evi­dence of his effi­ca­cy does not estab­lish Kill­mon­ger as a hero or vil­lain so much as a recep­ta­cle for tropes of inner-city gang­ster­ism.

T’Challa’s even­tu­al vic­to­ry against Kill­mon­ger is not achieved by African ini­tia­tive alone, as the core fig­ure of crit­i­cal race the­o­ry Kim­ber­lé Cren­shaw has writ­ten. The visu­al spec­ta­cle of the film, Cren­shaw reflects, “sucked me in like a nar­cot­ic and had me accept­ing things that made my heart ache upon reflec­tion.” Its exu­ber­ant cel­e­bra­tion of a pur­port­ed­ly time­less African essence repress­es its com­plic­i­ty with the his­to­ry of racist vio­lence. In Crenshaw’s words:

A civ­il war between Black fam­i­lies was unfold­ing over aid­ing oth­er Black peo­ple, and… the CIA’s shoot­ing down of ves­sels car­ry­ing tech­nol­o­gy into the fight against an anti-black world order was hailed as a hero­ic moment… I kept won­der­ing how I’d come to dance on the table for the CIA? The ones that helped destroy the dream of African lib­er­a­tion, that had a hand in the assas­si­na­tion of Lumum­ba, staged a coup against Nkrumah, tipped off the arrest that impris­oned Man­dela, installed the vicious, nation-destroy­ing Mobu­tu? Why not throw in the FBI and COINTELPRO as kind­ly white char­ac­ters? Was this meant to be iron­ic? What mean­ing do we assign the fact that the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a real life Wakan­da in the resource-rich Con­go and Ghana, and the promise of a Pan African quest for col­lec­tive self-deter­mi­na­tion were pre­cise­ly the threats that the CIA worked to sup­press?

After Kill­mon­ger is mur­dered by T’Challa, he says, “Bury me in the ocean with my ances­tors that jumped from the ships, ‘cause they knew death was bet­ter than bondage.” But it is the lie told by Disney’s Black Pan­ther that this is a bina­ry choice. Killmonger’s last words are the clos­est the film gets to the actu­al his­tor­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion of Afro­fu­tur­ism, in the neg­a­tive form of a dis­avow­al. The Afro­fu­tur­ist Detroit tech­no group Drex­ciya pro­posed, in the lin­er notes to its 1997 The Quest:

Dur­ing the great­est Holo­caust the world has ever known, preg­nant Amer­i­ca-bound African slaves were thrown over­board by the thou­sands dur­ing labour for being sick and dis­rup­tive car­go. Is it pos­si­ble that they could have giv­en birth at sea to babies that nev­er need­ed air? Are Drex­ciyans water-breath­ing aquat­i­cal­ly mutat­ed descen­dants of those unfor­tu­nate vic­tims of human greed? Recent exper­i­ments have shown a pre­ma­ture human infant saved from cer­tain death by breath­ing liq­uid oxy­gen through its under­de­vel­oped lungs.

Drexciya’s Afro­fu­tur­ist utopia builds on a con­cept intro­duced in Parliament’s fol­low-up to Funken­t­elechy Vs. The Place­bo Syn­drome, 1978’s Motor Booty Affair. On that album, George Clinton’s mythos moved from out­er space to under­wa­ter, turn­ing the myth of Atlantis into an alter­na­tive tra­jec­to­ry that begins with the North Atlantic slave trade. “We need to raise Atlantis from the bot­tom of the sea,” says the con­clud­ing track, “Deep.”

Achille Mbe­m­be speaks of Black Pan­ther as a futur­is­tic fable, a “tech­no-nar­ra­tive” whose pow­er derives from its “rever­sal of the African sign,” recall­ing the dias­poric “reflec­tion on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new world, of a black com­mu­ni­ty which would be nei­ther debased nor stamped with the seal of defile­ment.” The Afro­fu­tur­ism of Black Pan­ther, for Mbe­m­be, is the over­com­ing of West­ern human­ism from the van­tage point of those who West­ern moder­ni­ty assigned the space of the non-human. The future beyond West­ern human­ism is pre­fig­ured by the cou­pling of the human body and the “qua­si-infi­nite plas­tic­i­ty” of tech­nol­o­gy, and the con­comi­tant trans­for­ma­tion of the vio­lat­ed Earth of Africa into “astral mate­r­i­al.”

How­ev­er, from the van­tage point of post-human­ist Detroit, where the plas­tic­i­ty of tech­nol­o­gy sub­ject­ed the dias­poric black pop­u­la­tion to the tyran­ny of the auto­mo­bile fac­to­ry, Drex­ciya pro­pos­es an entire­ly dif­fer­ent pol­i­tics of Afro­fu­tur­ism. Drex­ciyans do not belong to a coun­ter­fac­tu­al his­to­ry insu­lat­ed from the slave trade which lies at the foun­da­tion of cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty. Rather, they passed through it, and sur­vived it, ani­mat­ing what Paul Gilroy called the “Black Atlantic.” Kod­wo Eshun has described this dias­poric con­tin­u­um, in a pow­er­ful review of The Quest, as “the ‘webbed net­work’ between the US and Africa, Latin Amer­i­ca and Europe, the UK and the Caribbean along which infor­ma­tion, peo­ple, records, and enforced dema­te­ri­al­i­sa­tion sys­tems have been rout­ing, rerout­ing and criss-cross­ing since slav­ery.”

The Drex­ciyan Afro­fu­tur­ist myth is a myth not of the nation-state, but of lib­er­a­tion. As Eshun puts it: “By invent­ing anoth­er out­come for the Mid­dle Pas­sage, this son­ic fic­tion opens a bifur­ca­tion in time which alters the present by feed­ing back through its audi­ence – you, the land­locked mutant descen­dent of the Slave Trade.” It is a myth which, as Net­trice R. Gask­ins writes, “draws on mod­ern African cul­tur­al ethos, tech­nol­o­gy, and artis­tic actu­a­tion by cre­at­ing self-deter­mined, rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al worlds. In dis­course of dis­sent, this is a place where the oppressed plot their lib­er­a­tion, where stolen or aban­doned migrants sur­vive adverse con­di­tions.”

The film is aware of the greater pow­er of the myth of this rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Atlantis – and it rec­og­nizes that Kill­mon­ger, for so many view­ers, will be its most sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter. Thus T’Challa must some­how absorb Killmonger’s spir­it of resis­tance and jus­tice to bring the film to a palat­able con­clu­sion. He does so by repro­duc­ing the polit­i­cal place­bo syn­drome that came about in the late 20th cen­tu­ry. Under his rule, Wakan­da begins prac­tic­ing the black cap­i­tal­ism that came to dis­place black pow­er as the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments of the 1960s and 1970s were crushed by the state and ran up against their own strate­gic and orga­ni­za­tion­al dead­locks. He buys the con­demned build­ing where his uncle was mur­dered and estab­lish­es a cen­ter for STEM edu­ca­tion – an invest­ment of the Wakan­dan monar­chy in urban devel­op­ment.

The char­ac­ter of the Black Pan­ther was intro­duced in the Fan­tas­tic Four com­ic series three months before the found­ing of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, but the name-recog­ni­tion and cred­i­bil­i­ty of the film in a polit­i­cal land­scape marked by Black Lives Mat­ter sure­ly draws on the his­to­ry of black lib­er­a­tion for which the BPP is such a pow­er­ful synec­doche. In her review of the film at The Baf­fler, Kaila Phi­lo has not­ed prece­dents to its appro­pri­a­tions of BPP his­to­ry and aes­thet­ics, by cul­tur­al icons like Jay-Z and Bey­on­cé:

Black artists revere the Black Pan­thers because they have giv­en us our most indeli­ble images of Black rad­i­cal­ism and, more impor­tant­ly, pow­er; the Party’s staunch social­ist and anti-impe­ri­al­ist ide­ol­o­gy often falls to the way­side, how­ev­er, because the pow­er they seek is eco­nom­ic and not mere­ly a func­tion of the white cap­i­tal­ist cre­do, which leaves the poor behind. It’s this cre­do that qui­et­ly informs our best and bright­est Black enter­tain­ers to this day.

In a 1970 let­ter to the Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front of Viet­nam, founder of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty Huey P. New­ton wrote, “we are inter­est­ed in the peo­ple of any ter­ri­to­ry where the crack of the oppressor’s whip may be heard. We have the his­tor­i­cal oblig­a­tion to take the con­cept of inter­na­tion­al­ism to its final con­clu­sion – the destruc­tion of state­hood itself.” With this rev­o­lu­tion­ary agen­da sup­pressed and dis­missed by today’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al lib­er­al­ism, Killmonger’s mis­sion can only be, as Adam Ser­w­er writes disin­gen­u­ous­ly in The Atlantic, the pro­duc­tion of a new his­tor­i­cal trau­ma, on the mod­el of X-Men’s Mag­ne­to:

Killmonger’s plan for “black lib­er­a­tion,” arm­ing insur­gen­cies all over the world, is an Amer­i­can pol­i­cy that has back­fired and led to unfore­seen dis­as­ters per­haps every sin­gle time it has been deployed; it is some­what bizarre to see peo­ple endorse a com­ic-book ver­sion of George W. Bush’s for­eign pol­i­cy and sign up for the Project for the New Wakan­dan Cen­tu­ry as long as the words “black lib­er­a­tion” are used instead of “democ­ra­cy pro­mo­tion.”

Arm­ing insur­gen­cies all over the world, how­ev­er, was a project of inter­na­tion­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies long before George W. Bush, as Newton’s let­ter attests, and it is dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to the vio­lent entrench­ment of nation-states in the exist­ing impe­r­i­al hier­ar­chy rep­re­sent­ed by Amer­i­can neo­con­ser­vatism. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­na­tion­al­ism presents an alter­na­tive to the place­bo syn­drome of cap­i­tal­ist phil­an­thropy, to which the lib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al elite claims there is no alter­na­tive. Dis­ney asks us which fig­ure is wor­thy of the title of Black Pan­ther: is it the poor African-Amer­i­can child from Oak­land who dreams of inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion, or the monarch who aims at defend­ing the glo­ry of his nation? His­to­ry has already giv­en us the answer.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).