By Rachel Gillett
May 5, 2018
*This post is part of our new blog series on The World of the Black Panther. This series, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason, examines the Black Panther and the narrative world linked to the character in comics, animation, and film.
The plot of the Black Panther film is driven by an ideological clash between T’Challa, the superhero-ruler of the fictional African country Wakanda, and Eric Killmonger, his cousin. These two action heroes fundamentally disagree on how to address global systems of racial oppression. T’Challa agonizes over whether to do so at all or simply protect his people through ongoing isolation while Killmonger advocates armed global uprisings.
The tension between the central characters was reflected in an eruption of cultural criticism as the Twittersphere exploded over the film and audiences flocked to see it. Did T’Challa’s choice to turn to the United Nations and private philanthropy to address global racism represent a neo-liberal copout? Was Killmonger’s defeat an implied rebuke to the philosophy that violent armed struggle is necessary to overcome systemic racial oppression? Does T’Challa’s triumph represent Black excellence and thus model its possibility? Or does Killmonger’s life and death reify damaging perceptions about Black inner-city youth and violence? Do the imagined, Afro-futurist, never-colonized Wakandans do valuable work simply by existing in print and onscreen? Or does the film commercialize, exploit and appropriate African cultures? These questions aren’t new. T’Challa and Killmonger are the product of a long historical and intellectual genealogy.
In 1935, two French anti-colonial intellectuals and activists in Paris responded to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia with a similar clash of views. Gaston Monnerville, a Paris-educated lawyer and politician from French Guiana, argued that Italian and Nazi dictators treated people of color like “goods for sale or exchange,” but France was benevolent.1 From the opposite end of the political spectrum Stéphane Rosso, a French West Indian activist and journalist, wrote an op-ed railing against complacent politicians and called for workers to protest imperial domination everywhere. In a striking reversal of Monnerville’s language, he warned that under France’s rule Martinicans would “be sold” and “delivered to other imperial powers.”2
Monnerville and Rosso do not map exactly to T’Challa and Killmonger. Yet the film’s heroes embody these clashing life stories and modes of political engagement. Wakanda, fabulously wealthy, has been miraculously shielded from colonization. T’Challa, as heir to the throne, has had every advantage of education and opportunity. Killmonger had a radically different upbringing, orphaned as a young boy and raised in Oakland, California (birthplace of the Black Panther party). Monnerville was raised in Guiana, sent to Catholic schools, an “evolué” and a fighter within the realm of the law. By 1935, Rosso, in contrast, was an anti-colonial communist activist, in a job that didn’t pay much, and under surveillance by the police. He advocated strikes, walkouts, and immediate independence from France. Monnerville and Rosso are not T’Challa and Killmonger, nor are they Leopold Senghor and Frantz Fanon, or W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, or Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. These political figures do not fall as neatly into the categories of peaceful reformer versus violent revolutionary as T’Challa and Killmonger.
In terms of an intellectual tradition, however, the hero and anti-hero of Black Panther reflect longstanding debates within Black diasporic communities over how to fight colonial oppression and racism. Monnerville and Rosso represented larger constituencies who thought deeply and debated hard over whether armed struggle and open outrage were the appropriate responses to colonization and racism, or whether legal reform and personal excellence were more effective tools in the fight. Black Panther, a pop culture phenomenon, is imbued with these debates. It calls them out and demands a response from its global audience.
Moreover, the film’s realization of Wakanda—the imagined uncolonized land of Black excellence—is also the product of a rich vein of Black American and pan-African representation. Ethiopia has been a chief site of that imagining. In 1829, Black New Yorker Robert Young published his militantly Christian “Ethiopia Manifesto.” He identified Black Americans as members of a pan-African fellowship, unjustly enslaved but bound for redemption according to the biblical promise that “princes will come out of Egypt and Ethiopia stretch out her hands.” More recently Janelle Monae visually invoked and ironically inverted tropes of Ethiopia as homeland in her single “Django Jane” in which she sits atop a throne, declaiming her power and “black girl magic.” Her afro-futurist gender correction of “Hotep” Afrocentrism is absolutely in line with the portrayal of Wakanda and Wakandans in the film. Each adapts a vision of Ethiopia that had creative and political power in the past.
Ethiopia’s status as an independent sovereign country with a rich history, inhabited by Black people and governed by a Black ruler, was a source of pride for Black people’s psyche. Haile Selassie claimed direct descent from King Solomon and Queen Sheba and the nation was hailed in the pan-African movement as the heart and proof of Black “civilization.” Its history was used to counter social scientific claims about the inferiority of Black men and women. So, in 1935 when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), the moment was both shattering and galvanizing. In Paris, men and women from across the political spectrum, regardless of their views on how (or whether) to tackle French colonialism, gathered to raise money and defend Ethiopia.
Rosso’s passionately anti-colonial newspaper, le Cri des Nègres, noted with excitement and outrage that a hundred thousand individuals had gathered in New York to march in support of Ethiopia, that several thousand had gathered for a protest in London, and that an attempt to demonstrate in Paris on August 21st had been forbidden by the police. Protestors assembled anyway, and were arrested.3 Rosso’s newspaper circulated throughout France, Africa, and the French Caribbean. It mentioned Ethiopia almost every single issue between 1935 and 1937. The Depeche Africaine, a more conservative Black French newspaper also prominently featured the Ethiopian crisis. The African American paper, the Chicago Defender, raised its voice in the pro-Ethiopia chorus. Men and women across the “black world” were incensed and mobilized.
The moment showed the strength of pan-African solidarity and imagined community. In fact, a reporter for the Defender pitched the possibility of a Black American volunteer army, drawn from “Ethiopia clubs and societies,” to the Ethiopian ambassador. The proposal was politely declined. Yet the “learned and cultured” ambassador, Teclé Hawariat, courteously thanked his “brothers across the sea.” He assured them: “We are separated by thousands of miles, yet our minds touch… We have one thought, one action, a unity of purpose, and a common destiny.” The interview, between an African American foreign correspondent for the Black American press and the Ethiopian ambassador to France and representative to the United Nations, took place in Paris, in French. It represented a cosmopolitan, Black internationalism that had space for disagreement on how to tackle political crises.
The invasion had a profound impact on Black cultural production in Paris. A jazz band renamed itself “The Trois Négus” in homage to Ethiopia’s rulers. Black American poets, jazz musicians, French surrealists, middle-class French Caribbean women, and Black French intellectuals all gathered together. They arranged fundraisers with North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans. They held meetings under the threat of surveillance and banishment. One of these a “grand festival noir” featured prize-winning author René Maran. It was financed by surrealist poet Luis Aragon, who read Langston Hughes’s “Call of Ethiopia” aloud. The poem ends with a rousing call to freedom4:
Be like me,
All of Africa,
Arise and be free!
All you black peoples,
Be free! Be free!
One can almost imagine Killmonger reading this poem, on his journey to Wakanda. The poem’s text insists on Black unity while acknowledging differences between Ethiopia, home to “Sheba’s race,” and other “black peoples.” Ethiopia mattered. Hughes’s representation of Ethiopia captured a larger global truth. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia threatened a powerful, imagined collective space of Black freedom. And communities of color around the world responded.
Ethiopia is not Wakanda and Black Panther is fiction. But let’s be clear. Black Panther is history. It is woven from the threads of Black history and it makes history. Not just box office history. Black intellectual history. Just as Beyoncé’s Lemonade brought all the hip critics to the yard, Black Panther has the culture vultures flocking. For all their disagreements over the plot, and over a T’Challa versus Killmonger approach to fighting systemic racial oppression, critics align on the view that the presence of numerous complex, talented, beautiful and powerful Black characters in a major Hollywood blockbuster has redemptive power.
Wakanda resembles Ethiopia, as imagined African nation, as the stuff of commentary, debate, reaction, call to action. It resembles Ethiopia—both real and mythic—at the moment of invasion. Both called forth art and interrogation from a pan-African collective around the world. So, no, Ethiopia is not Wakanda, and Wakanda, like Ethiopia, is limited as a site of mythic counter-narrative. But both are generative. Of course, this reflection doesn’t answer the question of what would have happened if the Black Panther of 1935 had looked out from his Vibranium clad towers and come to Haile Selassie’s aid—but that narrative arc has yet to be written.
- Gaston Monnerville, Témoignage. (Paris: Plon, 1975), 154-155.
- Rosso, “Martinique” Le Cri des Nègres, September 1935.
- Le Cri des Nègres, September 1935.
- This is transcribed from the version printed in Le Cri des Nègres, November 1935. It can also be found in Langston Hughes, The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001, volume 1, page 241