Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Panther and the Democracy of Imagination

Black Panther and the Democracy of Imagination

Chambi Chachage

The story is probably too familiar now. It involved a black boy by the name of Malcom Little. When a white teacher asked him what he thought of becoming, his young mind sparked with imagination: “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.”

Leaning back on a chair and clasping his hands on his head, the benevolent teacher half-smiled and told him, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic.” Paternalistically, he explained that in such day and age it was not realistically for a black person to be a lawyer. So, the black had to imagine something else. In fact, the teacher started imagining for him.

 Ironically, that is the same year that a young black lawyer,  Thurgood Marshall, won a US Supreme Court case that is now immortalized in the film, ‘Marshall.’ Yet in one conversation the imagination of a black boy was shattered. Of course, that ‘Boy Wonder’ grew up to be a legend. This is how he then interpreted it:

Note the keyword ‘future' for the new blockbuster on the block, Black Panther, is an Afrofuturism film. To put it simply, that is an attempt to imagine possible futures for Africa and its Diaspora. You may wish to call it the SciFi of an Africana - or even Black - World.

That is why it is important not to limit the film by the tyranny of the experts’ imaginations. For sure, we cannot agree about it. There are those who draw from it a great sense of black affinity. For others, it is another painful source of black anguish. Yet to some ‘souls of black folk’, it elicits a nagging feeling of ambivalence. And all that is okay given our varying points of experiencing intersectionality.

I, for one, find the gullible use of the term ‘tribe’ that African scholars have fought hard to deconstruct disappointing. The patriarchy of ‘absolute monarchy’ is also appalling. One cannot help but also be sympathetic to the critiques of the demonization of Killmonger who is the closest character to what Malcolm X or Black Panther Party members were in their radical attempts to bring black - if not global - liberation. All that matters but they should not cloud the positivity of representation captured below: 

Thus, what should also matter as we continue to reflect and review it, is to let a thousand flowers bloom as we imagine the future - nay, futures - of Global Africa. Even if the movie is part and parcel of the corporate capitalism of Hollywood, at least let us not deny it its  ‘revolutionary’ or ‘liberatory’ credentials. Part of its heritage is what Jelani Cobb refers to as “an entire lineage of that pan-African tradition insisted on was a kind of democracy of the imagination.”

Such was the democracy that Malcolm X was denied when he was Malcolm Little. Now it is partly possible for the likes of him to practice it. After all this is what the ancestors behind the lineage Cobb is referring to imagined it, that is, “If the subordination of Africa had begun in the minds of white people, its reclamation, they reasoned, would begin in the minds of black ones.”

Yes, let ‘black nerds like Shuri imagine they can use technology responsibly and save the future of Africa and the world for that matter. Why not? Surely one can hardly dispute Chrystal M. Fleming’s argument that in Black Panther there is “a colonized vision of progress over-determined by Western technocentrism.” As she further puts it, defining “civilization and the value of human beings in terms of technological advancement” endangers the earth.

For her, “all of this points to the limits of our collective imaginations, the constraints we face in representing black liberation when our concepts are always, already thoroughly infused with colonialism, capitalism and even more ancient hierarchical ways of defining human worth.” I concur.

But should we now throw the tech baby with the technocentric bathwater? No! All we need is to both decolonize and democratize  our technological imaginations. And Black Panther is not simply presenting us with a “technocentric Wakanda.” With its seemingly glowing flowers of life, it is highlighting the need to preserve the soul of the earth. Even its way of preserving vibranium is pro-life.

Rather than limiting our imaginations, Black Panther is more of an invitation to keep dreaming and imagining. And this is what the likes of Cobb and Fleming are doing in imagining other futures in their responses and reviews. It is what its sequel, I imagine, will do.

Malcolm Little, like the black boy at the end of the film, would feel anything imaginable is possible. If black Wakandans can make such a transformative spaceship for uplifting an ‘LA hood’, why shouldn’t he? That is its ‘black power’- to empower what the late Abiola Irele refers to as the core task of The African Imagination.

Black girls and boys can because black women and men could.



Valentin Ngorisa February 21, 2018 at 8:58 AM  

Dear Chambi,
Great blog post.
I also found this African PhD candidate blogged about it.

Wakanda sio Ukanda February 23, 2018 at 4:51 PM  

Hi Chambi,

For a proto-Marxist such as yourself, this is the most upbeat post I have read for a while. You always seem to be depressively critical.

About the use of tribe etc, it occurred to me the isiXhosa they use is a tribal language - and across the cape Zulu’s are one of the most “tribal” (read proud) of the African people (ask Zuma). I was more offended by the fact that panthers are South American, we have leopards (chai) in Africa. Then again how can one complain when this is based on a Marvel comic?

Finally, for me the movie was a metaphor/prophetic and spoke of the status quo in one familiar country, including the apt use of “Wakanda” title - though there they are in power and recent economic war means the Vibranium is safe at the port in DSM. But that rubble rouser in America she is stirring the peasants. M’Baku has not yet come.

Having killed Kraus in the economic war and televised that success to all, he is now at work incinerating cherished heart-shaped herbs that had served all well before his accidental ascendancy to power. We are not sure if a rebel royal to the state stole one herb for the future.

Lets hope for a good ending.

Chambi Chachage February 24, 2018 at 6:42 PM  

Wakanda sio Ukanda, Xhosa is not a tribe - neither is Zulu.

Wakanda sio Ukanda February 27, 2018 at 4:21 PM  


You are right —my mistake. Zulu is a nation along with their cousins across the cape.

M’Baku is still not yet...or has Karume risen.

Good day and keep up the good work.

Your country needs you in these dark times.

Wakanda sio Ukanda.

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