By Michael D. Kennedy
March 17, 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 fact that the Black Panther has endured for more than fifty years is a testament to the strength of his core concept and his versatility as a character.” An illustrated history of T’Challa, the Black Panther, concludes with this quote, offering a familiar account of the first Black superhero to become a dominant figure in comics, and soon, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But this quote also does not do T’Challa justice. Superhero sociology can help.
I recently introduced the concept of superhero sociology in a blog on science fiction and sociology. In a recent volume on female superheroes, I also wrote about how Elektra could help cultivate critical capacities. These capacities depend on appreciating the distinction of the superhero genre, which the Panther’s illustrated history certainly captures. But that beautiful volume does not mark the second disposition necessary to realizing comics’ critical powers.
Contradiction is the soul power of comics cultural politics. Superheroes exist in a believable world, if with fantastic abilities. Their fictional status and powers generate a tension, a “what if” that can inspire their consumer to imagine ways to become a better citizen or political agent, or both. Together with the hero, its consumers and creators can partner in social analysis and transformation. In a white supremacist society, the Black Panther can exemplify that transformative power.
To be sure, sociology is not in the business of superhero studies, but it ought to be. After all cultural sociology analyzes the production and reception of cultural artifacts in addition to considering their implications in various contexts defined by race, class, gender, sexuality, and historical and global location. Superheroes are a different product; however:
Like any cultural product, superheroes can be used in a variety of ways, but they are not entirely plastic [. . . .] While young Black men might find something appealing in Batman’s tales, the Black Panther in a white supremacist society could not become the major hero he might have because most white folks won’t identify.
I may ultimately be proven wrong about the Black Panther’s cross-racial popularity in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s authorship of the comic, the Panther’s forthcoming film, and the critical consciousness our “first white president” inspires. But both white supremacy and its consort, white liberal hope, die hard. They indeed deny the contradictoriness of the Black experience in America, powerfully articulated in the third paragraph of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
African Americans born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.
Jose Itzigsohn and Karida Brown elaborate Du Bois’s theory of racialized subjectivity in ways that can inform our readings of the Black Panther. They write:
The veil, thus, has a doubling effect: It creates a barrier of recognition between the Black and White worlds and it leads the Black person to misrecognize his or her own self. Yet, turning the screw on Plato’s allegory, while the prisoners in the cave have a distorted view of themselves, they also have the possibility of glimpsing at the world beyond the veil.
The Black Panther has offered that real glimpse even as white America does not quite know what to do with him.It was the first prominent superhero in American comics to be Black, “a model of heroic action identical in substance, yet diverse in appearance,” writes Julian Chambliss. The Panther nevertheless challenged many white assumptions. Chambliss elaborates:
By creating an African superhero from a country untouched by European imperialism, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began a dialogue about the implications of black agency throughout the African diaspora [. . .] anxiety linked to domestic racism and desire linked to the African diaspora places the Black Panther in a contested space where questions about freedom, legitimacy, and equity are put on display.
It is not only what the Panther represents, of course. It is also how the Panther has moved others. For example, in Black Kirby (2015), Reynaldo Anderson views “Jack Kirby’s appropriation of a black masculine subject in the hero image of Black Panther in the 1960s” as groundbreaking, and the “first archetypical figure of Afrofuturism in the comics medium.” At the same time, the Black Panther was contradictory.
While a definite alternative to past Sambo-like racist caricatures, the Black Panther was still subordinate to and helped to constitute an order based on white supremacy. But just as white supremacy not only allows, but demands, double consciousness emerging from the color line, the Black Panther heightened that awareness of what appears to be, what is, and what might still be. In Regina Bradley’s commentary on Black Kirby, she particularly notes the picture of Black Kirby with the balloon, “We not just conscious—We Double Conscious.” The gloved hand belongs, the superhero literate would know, to the Black Panther.
With the partnership of Black Kirby, the Black Panther—especially along with those who consume it—can transform the meaning and consequence of double consciousness. But because the Panther exists within this white supremacist society, the Panther’s less double-conscious creators and consumers can see him differently.
Chambliss emphasizes that, in the beginning, this was a character made by white writers and artists, reflecting more a vision of what whites hoped to achieve with Black inclusion than of Black agency itself. Chambliss notes a change, however, when the Black Panther comes to star in his own 1970s comics. In the first story arc, Rhode Island’s Don McGregor challenges the overt racism of Jungle Action, typically featuring “blond jungle gods and goddesses saving the natives,” by bringing “a black character as the hero.” In the first arc, McGregor et al. features the Black Panther and elaborates on this African-born hero’s society; in the second, T’Challa challenges the Ku Klux Klan itself. Progressive whites love criticizing overt racism, especially when it diverts attention from its abiding institutional variety.
Following that critically acclaimed run, the great artist and Black Panther co-creator, Jack Kirby, came back between 1977 and 1979 to write, pencil, and edit the Panther’s appearance in a comic title, at last, featuring the hero’s name. It was Kirby’s style, but much less engaged with African American life, leading some to explain the title’s decline with that exit. Adilifu Nama challenges; he found “the placement of the Black Panther in these various sci-fi fantasyscapes as racially and politically progressive.” The blackness of the Black Panther needs to be, therefore, a matter of critical discussion. With Christopher Priest, however, the Black Panther moved to an unprecedented and intentionally Afrocentric version in the late 1990s.
The Black Panther became one of the most inspiring figures in the Marvel Knights Universe, with terrific (if realistic) superpowers, a technology that not only rivaled but seemed to outdo Iron Man’s, and a kingdom never colonized by the white world, at his disposal. This Black Panther was not, however, a commercial success. Race matters. In 2002 Priest explains:
The BLACK PANTHER has never been a marquee character [. . . .] The character is black. Most people want to read comics or see movies or listen to music they can immediately identify with, and I’m guessing a great majority of people who have never even *tried* PANTHER have an instinctive notion that they will not be able to identify with the character. But people universally identify with Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson or Muhammad Ali [. . . .] The issue of race is handled in PANTHER in a way no other comic series currently published *can* handle it, sadly, because (to my knowledge) I am the only African-American writer currently working on a mainstream super-hero monthly series.
Black Panther’s anti-imperialist accent and racial consciousness came to be even more evident in the hands of Priest’s successor, Reginald Hudlin Jr, completing the logical extension of the racial-cultural politics that could be, then, in comics (my emphasis). Adilifu Nama notes in a 2007 story that moment when the Black Panther and wife Storm confront Dr. Doom, one of the Marvel Universe’s great evil geniuses, in an exchange that makes explicit evil’s expression through white supremacy.
It is about time that the Black Panther helps us move beyond the politeness accommodating white supremacy. Double consciousness could crest with the Wakandan wave if commercialism does not smother what these times so desperately need.