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A Conversation on The Black Panther

Black Issues in Philosophy

Prior to the release of The Black Panther, some well-intentioned whites on social media recommended whites to wait a week before going to see the movie so black audiences could “have their moment” without white intrusion.

Greg Doukas felt this stance was senseless, and contacted Lewis Gordon to hear his thoughts. Gordon replied that the attitude was both patronizing and racist. It regards black people as children who would be supposedly having “their” moment until white adults came in to bring “reality” to the subject. Additionally, Gordon argued, that claim was premised on the idea that the movie was one for black people only. Black people regularly go to movies with predominantly white — in fact, in some cases only white — casts (even at times portraying characters who were historically black). Why can’t there be the same about a movie featuring a predominantly black cast?

The exchange between Doukas and Gordon is presented in this installment of Black Issues in Philosophy.

GREG DOUKAS: I am thoroughly perplexed by the reaction exhibited in some of my friends and colleagues, whose ideas I otherwise ordinarily agree with. The proposition they raise, and which I’ve been troubled by, is this: Over the duration of the film, our hero T’Challa [the Black Panther] makes a transformation from a nativist into a character representing a liberal politics of amelioration and liberalism more generally, while his nemesis Killmonger emerges as a distinctly Fanonian character in his own politics by presenting a radical critique of colonialism and racism.

LEWIS GORDON: This is far from the case. First, Killmonger is not Fanonian. He is a tyrant. Fanon believed in radical democracy. Wakanda is clearly a republic and possibly a constitutional monarchy in which each member of the society contributes as counsel and skilled citizen. It’s clearly a city-state or what in ancient Greek is called a polis, in which politeia (the thriving of citizens through activities cultivated by such a social space) is expected to occur. Killmonger is more like the case studies of colonial disorders in the later part of Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth. He is a tyrant because his relationship to everyone was asymmetrical, driven by resentment and hate, and his regard for life was nil. Think of how he killed his loyal girlfriend Linda and how he ultimately aimed to destroy or destabilize Wakanda — a functioning African state — with the now faddish Afropessimistic declaration of “burning it all down.” His ego was such that he wanted to bar, through destruction of the special vibranium affected plant, the possibility of future Black Panthers emerging. Bear in mind also that T’Challa was not against fighting/violence. His point is that it should be used only when necessary, and he was doing so always on behalf of justice and a people in whose respect rested his legitimacy. Killmonger didn’t care about respect from the people. He also didn’t have respect for them. His “legitimacy” was like, say, Donald Trump’s: achieved purely from the strict adherence to the imperfect rules, though unlike Trump he actually defeated his opponent in fair combat. The people revolted against him not because he won the ritualistic battle but because his tyrannical rule defied the virtues the battle was to manifest. They fought against him in fidelity to the spirit of the rules.

DOUKAS: I thought Black Panther parallels the story of Disney’s Lion King, with one difference being that the protagonist has to fight his uncle’s son in Black Panther instead of his actual uncle. The other difference, of course, is there is no critique of colonialism in Lion King. But, by interpreting Killmonger as the representative of a radical Fanonian politics, I worry people are falling into the trap of precisely the kind of understanding of Fanon’s ideas that you have tried to argue against. My suspicion is they arrive at this interpretation simply because Killmonger places violence on the table as a means of transforming the situation of black people around the world and because they were unhappy with the resolution T’Challa character provides. Violence, in this case, becomes a shiny object people have identified Fanon with and project onto Killmonger, while bashing T’Challa as a liberal apologist for black suffering.

The Lion King doesn’t work for many reasons except one; it’s really a retelling of the greatest ancient Egyptian myth: the story of Isis, Osiris, Set(h), and Horus (see here and, for kids, here). The basic one is that many people who draw such parallels are ignorant of myth and much of Africa. In many parts of Africa, ancestors are crucial, and power is most manifested in the ultimate ancestor, namely, a god or the gods. Because of this, no “king” is an individual but instead a collection of sacred relationships across time to whom they owe respect. What is crucial is that the previous Black Panthers were imperfect but were doing their best since they were, in the end, human beings. Additionally, the first Black Panther didn’t emerge simply to end war through scaring people, like the sovereign of Hobbes’s Leviathan, but instead the organizer of a country. His “power” wasn’t only his physical prowess but also his leadership skills. In effect, the conclusion of the movie is a statement of T’Challa exemplifying the true spirit of the first Black Panther, since he understands power as political and thus relational, not physical.

The additional myth is the story of Isis, Osiris/Horus and Set(h) in KMT (Ancient African name of what is now known as Egypt). This is also known as the “warring twins.” They repeat in many forms throughout mythic literature. The sacred king (Osiris) is killed. The ritual moves from earth to water (in this case snow — notice, the Jabari clan found him by the riverbank) and the king is reborn through having been submerged in snow/water. This is a crucial mythic element. T’Challa is in fact three manifestations of the Black Panther. His first is when he attempted to apprehend the killer of his father. The second is when he was reborn after his coronation through ritual battle. Both instances of resurrection are after submergence in red soil. The third, however, is different. He is reborn from water. He is really a new Black Panther. Earth is, in most myths, feminine, but the feminine has at least two manifestations — earth and water. The soil of the initial ritual is red, and another term for red clay in ancient languages such as Hebrew is adamah, which means “ground” or “red clay” from which came the word “adam,” which means “human.” The mother, from whose womb he initially came, is crucial here, since T’Challa mother Romanda is, in ancient mythic form, Isis. T’Challa’s father through to the first Black Panther is Osiris and T’Challa is both the manifestation of Osiris and Horus since Osiris is also the Black Panther because the process through which he is “born” as king is actually resurrection. Osiris is, among other roles, a god of resurrection. The mother has her husband(s) and her son in one, since the sacred king was historically planted in the soil and the one who stands above the ground and belongs to her emerges from water. Think of the breaking of the amniotic fluid. There are more details of this myth, but the crucial thing is the elimination of Set(h)’s temporary rule of KMT/Egypt/Wakanda.

T’Challa is clearly not a liberal apologist. First, he is a king in an African republic in which much of the society is also governed by elders and other figures of authority, which suggests a form of democracy. He always only fought as a duty to his country/people. The mission to get Klaue in South Korea was legal since he was capturing a criminal who violated the laws of his country. Second, he ultimately agreed with his uncle N’Jobu’s argument against insularity and devoting Wakanda’s technology to black liberation. The closing scene was in fact going full circle from the opening thesis of the Black Panther as a leader who brings together conflicting worlds instead of tyrannically ruling over them. This complicates the story. Is N’Jobu Set(h), who, as a spy is also a man of secrecy? Or is a part of his spirit Set(h) crystalized in his son, N’Jadaka, disclosed in his alter ego Killmonger? If Zuri’s confirmation of N’Jobu’s helping Klaue is taken into account, then N’Jobu is Set(h) and so, too, by extension is N’Jadaka. We should also bear in mind that T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father, had aimed to take his brother back to Wakanda to stand trial. It was his swift effort to save Zuri that led to his killing his brother, which is, as well, a traumatic experience of heroism. Failure to address that trauma takes it to another generation.

There is also an additional ancient African/Egyptological element. The fictional substance vibranium is a metaphor for HqAw (or Heka), the ancient power through which all things are possible. Even the authority/power of kings (pHty) need HqAw. Some of it is in the blood of all the people of Wakanda, which makes the Black Panther a heightened exemplification of the people’s nobility.

DOUKAS: I saw both T’Challa and Killmonger as incredibly complex characters, as this film was all story and no fluff. I’m not denying there were elements of liberalism in the character of T’Challa And Killmonger was a thoroughly effective antagonist. He was so precisely because of the “truth” he symbolized regarding Wakanda’s historical isolationism and the urgent need to decolonize the outside world, which the line of Black Panthers of the more recent past seemed to have turn away from. But I also think that, while formally a Wakandan citizen, Killmonger was really an outsider to Wakanda. He came off as a tyrant seeking power, control, and domination under the guise of caring for a people who were not his own; with narcissism and resentment emerging as his motivations due to an inability to cope with/resolve his own past — his father’s mistake of betraying Wakanda and uncle’s mistake of covering it up, which led to his situation.

GORDON: The crucial point about not only Wakanda but also its various clans is that its people had a voice. The struggle emerged over how that voice should be manifested — as a public or private voice? Wakandans, with T’Challa’s model of leadership, expected a public voice; Killmonger’s was one of his voice only, which meant others had to be silent since their voice didn’t matter to him. The issue about his father and uncle is more complicated. Remember, Killmonger’s father N’Jobu was selling Wakandan technology to Klaue, a white supremacist who, in case anyone thinks otherwise, repeatedly called black people, including Wakandans, “savages.” How is he helping the lives of black people by doing that? He could only have been doing so through some kind of resentment: His brother, T’Chaka, got the throne. The film makes some changes of locations from those portrayed in the comics (e.g., the scene of N’Jadaka’s origins taking place in Oakland instead of Harlem, NYC), but the basic point is this: His father was also supposed to be a spy.

Spying is crucial in the film, since N’Jadaka/Killmonger is also a spy and special operative agent. Spies are often psychopaths who could be whatever their superiors or targets would prefer them to be. His fidelity to the people isn’t assured. This is what makes Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest, a complicated character, since she, too, is a spy. Her character is established at the outset, however, in her first appearance in the midst of a mission to rescue enslaved women, girls, and boys in Nigeria. This hardly represents complete isolationism.

Anyhow, one thing spies know is to present themselves as working on behalf of anyone who holds power. Thus, the speeches of N’Jadaka/Killmonger must be taken with a grain of salt. He doesn’t necessarily want to save black people; he wants to rule us. Remember, his declared aim was global imperialism with him at the helm. I very much doubt his plans for the rest of Africa and the diaspora was any different from what he unleashed on Wakanda. He’s basically like Jay-Z’s Jay-Bo in “The Story of O.J.” in that when he looks at us, he only sees “niggas.”

This is an additional element of the film, anticipated and summarized so well by Richard Pryor many years ago: In Africa, he saw “black people but no ‘niggas.’” Killmonger brought the problem of “niggerization” into Wakanda, where the identity of Wakandan as “human” offered dignity. (I take Klaue’s Afrikaner accent as a reference to another country in which such a process took place — Azania, known today as South Africa.) We are also left with a message of America — in fact, the Americas — as places that produce “niggas.”

In contrast, T’Challa seemed able to sustain healthy love for his father who, in the beginning, he thought was “the greatest leader in the history of Wakanda,” even after realizing the truth about his father’s mistake and realizing that his father was imperfect and, more deeply, a human being. What T’Challa faced was the reality that Wakanda might have created Killmonger.

Here, one must know African philosophy and cosmology among at least peoples in the areas depicted in the film. Ancestors are always of greater value. That’s why T’Challa kneeled when he saw his father in the spirit world and his father had to tell him to stand because he was now king. It is a crucial political scene. It signified T’Challa as humble, despite being a king. He is king of his people, but he listens to them, learns from them, and sees his authority as embedded in them. N’Jadaka/Killmonger didn’t kneel when he saw his father. That failure reveals the tragedy of his kind of leadership. T’Challa learned that the greatest leader of Wakanda was really the first Black Panther, Bashenga, not T’Chaka. Other Black Panthers lost their way, perhaps through a form of Wakandan nationalism, and failed to see the role of leadership as not only protecting one’s people but also nurturing their growth, which requires reaching beyond themselves to the world of others. The many examples of youth, creativity, and technology, embodied in his young, precocious, and genius (precocity and genius are not the same things) sister Shuri, bring the point home. T’Challa’s taking on Bashenga’s example instead of the other Black Panthers, including T’Chaka, means he is thinking about a different future. Simply put: conservative Wakanda preserves the past and seeks order and security; left-wing Wakanda, which was there in its origins, takes on the uncertainty of possibility and a different future. That’s why the technology is introduced directly to black children but not so to the U.N. dignitaries.

DOUKAS: In my view, this was a film about the value Africa(na) has to offer the world, about family and nation, and about the difficulties black people will be met with in the struggle to continue decolonizing the world (I’m thinking of the U.N. scene at the end here). Though, I’m perplexed over how strongly people were arguing Killmonger embodied a radical Fanonian politics. I strongly disagree with this argument, but I am not a Fanon expert. This is why I write to you today.

GORDON: Yes, I think many don’t get it, but many people don’t get Fanon either. Remember, Alice Cherki and others have had to remind readers that Fanon detested violence but argued against inaction, which maintains colonial violence. He would also have been critical of pre-T’Challa Wakanda but not what T’Challa inaugurates. His point was that being “actional” would always be interpreted as violence in the eyes of those who see the status quo as legitimate. Think of the patronizing questions posed by the U.N. dignitaries and think also of the white supremacists and Internet trolls freaking out about the film. It’s not Killmonger they’re worried about. It’s actually T’Challa.

Bear in mind that this is an allegory that takes place in a fictional universe of superheroes and super villains. If one super villain could wreak such havoc on Wakanda when it has the technological innovations produced by Shuri, imagine what a legion of super villains and white super heroes, most of whom would probably also have been racist, do to he earlier Wakanda? Think also of the vibranium and imagine today’s Congo, though a historical comparison would probably also be Ethiopia, where Haile Selassie/Ras Tafari (“the Lion of Judah”) reached out to the League of Nations when Mussolini’s forces attacked his country. His efforts fell mostly on deaf ears, no doubt because of his allies’ commitment to colonialism, their racism, and his lack of leverage. It was through organizing resistance forces in Khartoum that the Ethiopian Free Forces, led by Selassie, liberated Addis Ababa and then, after three years of additional fighting against the Italians, secured a peace treaty along with reparations from Italy in 1947. The subsequent, high-profiled Ethiopia took an unfortunately familiar path because of reasons that I cannot develop here, much of which is related to my initial point about allegory.

DOUKAS: One thing I’ve learned from your work is that Fanon had a deep love for human beings living in an anti-human world. He detested violence. He even wept because the colonial situation, saturated by violence, constituted a tragedy where all attempts to transform the world without violence failed. In the movie Warmonger cried during a flashback from his childhood. It is more difficult to imagine the adult version of Killmonger weeping, as by then his heart was hardened and cold. One could imagine T’Challa weeping because, despite not liking reality, he at least saw it for what it was…

GORDON: I could imagine him weeping. Remember, the last image for him was the sunset, which in African and many other ancient societies, was the beginning of the day (Judaism is an example of this view). This means he understands that his vision for himself is at an end. His tears are Fanonian. He saw the folly of his brand of Negritude. Remember Fanon’s declaration at the end of the 5th chapter of Black Skin, White Masks: seeing such a position as a negative moment of a dialectical movement of absorption as outlined by Jean-Paul Sartre, he began to weep. That’s because that model locks one in impossibility. It has no future. Only death. Fanon’s eventual response to Sartre is that dialectics aren’t closed but open. It needn’t transition to what Sartre fatalistically offered. In fact, fate is non-dialectical. T’Challa’s leadership was born at the same sunset, which was symbolic of a new day. His Black Panther, born from submergence in cold water, has sobered up and belongs to the diaspora, not only to Africa. Again, the first place to which he brings Wakanda’s technology is where the division of his father and uncle/Osiris and Set(h) took violent form. He now raises the question of changing it through the clear metaphor of the future embodied in the youth. Wakanda’s innovations belong to them, not those who horded it.

DOUKAS: We also cannot forget this was a Disney movie. But since you may choose to write on this film as you do with many others (and since you’re a Fanon expert), I thought I would raise these issues with you.

GORDON: I have no problem with its being a Disney movie. I worry more about the days when production companies would rather not make money than to do so through the production of a script in which black people dominate and are not degraded. If Disney hadn’t underwritten it, I think this constellation of writers and the director/writer would have done the same. Think of what Ryan Coogler did with Creed (2015). It was a joy to watch a movie about black people without our being described as “niggas,” “bitches,” “hoes,” etc. And in truth, when I go to Africa (east and west, and always south of the Sahara), I experience months of not hearing such invectives, which always is for me an inoculation I wish every diasporic African, especially those in the Americas, could receive.

With regard to Fanon, do bear in mind his urging at the conclusion of The Damned of the Earth. We should look beyond Europe and develop new concepts and set afoot a new humanity. Wakanda, the fictional place in this film, is at least at the level of popular culture, an imaginative leap in the cause of Afrofuturity. It is at least not locked in the double consciousness of white antiblack hatred as reality but instead poses the potentiated, double conscious question of thinking, imaginatively, about commitments to what could, perhaps even must, be done.

Gregory Doukas is a doctoral student of Political Theory and Public Law at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Lewis Gordon is the Executive Editor of Black Issues in Philosophy.

Lewis Gordon is editor of Black Issues in Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; the 2018–2019 Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, Portugal; and chair of the Awards Committee for the Caribbean Philosophical Association.

This article was originally published by the Blog of the APA. 

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