What Vibranium and Wakanda Reveals about the Potential for Unexploited Blackness
There was an incredible amount of buzz leading up to the opening of Marvel’s Black Panther. As a Marvel fan, I too was looking forward to this film and probably like most Black people, anticipated what the potential cultural impact could be on the community. There is so much to unpack from watching this film! But, what I am mindful of is that it allows us to think about the historical, social, and political erasures of Africa through colonization and re-imagine unexploited blackness.
Pan Africanism is on full display in this film. Okoye, T’Challa, and Nakia dressed in red, black, and green in the nightclub scene. For me, this was a reference to the colors of the Pan African flag. The struggles of people throughout the diaspora have often been symbolized by these colors as a way to bind the sons and daughters of the continent together. However, separation through colonization has divided people in profound ways. Africans have been pitted against Black Americans. The film deals with this as its central theme.
Other examples of Pan Africanism has to do with cultural expressions. Nothing is more exemplary of this than the Wakandan greeting! T’challa greets his younger sister, Shuri with the special handshake clinch and then the Wakandan salute. That so reminded me of a handshake me and my younger brother, Doug created when we were kids. Ours took about two minutes though, I’m sure! This is how so many people from the African diaspora show love and respect. There is also a view of collectivist philosophy and cultural expression through the the film’s use of music, language, and ceremonies. N’baku and the mountain gorilla barking tribe is indicative of Black male fraternities. There was drumming and organic rhythmic expression prevalent in the ritual to select T’Challa as king. Beautiful, strong, intelligent Black women are centered as the foundation of the Wakandan ecosystem! The sense of community and family is present because of them. They serve as the conscience of society. The use of the tongue clicks in language is a part of how speech and communication is informed by this biorhythm.
The MacGuffin is not so secret in this film. It’s Vibranium! A natural mineral resource that is abundant in Wakanda. It is the central factor as to why the outside world is interested in the country and its people. It is also to me, the way to look into historical colonization and exploitation. Klaw represents much. He is not simply a capitalist who is bent on getting his hands on this form of energy and selling it to the highest bidder, regardless of the cost to human life. He is also aware of the power that this resource holds for those who have it and those who do not. Throughout history, White people have stolen the intellectual and physical property rights of African peoples. Colonization is one of the methods to achieve capitalism. Vibranium represents all of the reasons why the African continent has been targeted by the European world. Think about blood diamonds. A natural resource that has been stripped from Africa and is a major source of wealth in western countries. Not only for its beauty, but for how it can be used in technology. A natural mineral, diamonds can cut through stuff, are water resistant, can conduct heat, and are used in laser technology. In Black panther, Vibranium isn’t just sought after for it’s beauty, but what it can do technologically.
Shuri’s brilliance is on full display throughout the film as well as how the country’s citizenry respects the many uses for Vibranium. To me, Vibranium serves to construct a narrative of how African peoples have used environmental/natural resources in such ingenious ways. Creating an entire ecosystem, including political, social, and cultural norms around life sustaining resources is an incredible aspect of the contributions that African people have made. There have been many hidden figures throughout history. The untold truth about raping and pillaging countries for their natural resources is that intellectual, artistic, technological, scientific, linguistic, philosophical, and cultural brilliance comes with elements such as Vibranium in the Marvel universe, and diamonds and other minerals in the real universe. Something that must be understood is that the western world often refers to African nations as third world countries. But this assumption must be uprooted. There has been great thievery of intellectual and physical property from the African continent. How can countries who have all of these natural resources be considered poor? Mallence Bart-Williams explains the reality of how this works in this TED Talk — https://youtu.be/AfnruW7yERA
Killmonger is the embodiment of the colonial project in America when it comes to Black folk. Reared in the cradle of the Black power movement in America, he does not actually adopt some of the most important characteristics of the struggle. Unlike the real Black Panther movement, which this story does not claim to remotely resemble, Killmonger has a sole desire to use Vibranium to utterly destroy the White, western world. His sole mission is to enact revenge and terror upon those who have wronged him. His state of mind stems from years of training in colonized tactics such as ruthless violence and imperial destruction. His revolution is to kill everyone who will not align with his desire to be king. Killmonger’s character and philosophy is somewhat problematized for me because he articulates what is so true about what colonization has done and is still perpetuating. For example, he points out that museums are full of African brilliance while simultaneously excluding people from the diaspora from having access to what they originally created. His deep emotional scars from the trauma he suffered allows for some empathetic examination of the cause of his pain. However, as Freire pointed out in Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
“The central problem is this: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be “hosts” of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization.”
Further, Fred Hampton once said you can jail a revolutionary, but you cannot jail a revolution. The ultimate philosophical underpinning of this belief is ensconced in his call and response chorus at rallies, “All power to all people.” Decentralized, collective, and international in its fight for freedom, this is the real revolutionary idea. Killmonger carries the infection of whiteness with him through his own colonized mindset which is to annihilate everyone in his path who won’t bow to his will and his way. Having been trained in the CIA by the same colonizers who built the American empire by covert operations to destroy collectivist nations, he is an efficient, cold-blooded killer. However, he challenges T’challa and Wakanda to think about the role they play in being complicit to the literal destruction of African peoples throughout history. They should not get a free pass. I am reminded about Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonition to good people who do nothing. Killmonger‘ s character is complicated. His cause is righteous even if his methods are not.
This film has many implications and does not get a pass on negative critical analysis. There are valid critiques that must be discussed. Namely, everything we think we know about Africa is through a White colonizer point of view. The West African philosopher, V. Y. Mudimbe points this out so profoundly in The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. However, if thoroughly discussed and debated, Vibranium can be a way for us to rediscover and re-imagine blackness. Whiteness and the colonized mind blinds us from seeing the fact that African peoples have been at the forefront of human advancements in almost every major discipline. Perhaps Vibranium and Wakanda can help us excavate the scientific, cultural, and philosophical pieces of fabric that provides even a glimpse of unexploited blackness. But then again, without whiteness, would we even have blackness? If there weren’t strange fruit, would there have been a Harlem Renaissance? Will leaning into the possibility of Vibranium awaken Black consciousness in a new way? Only time will tell.