By Nicholas McLeod, Assistant Professor, Rider University
Featured image by Sam Nystrom-Costales
In 2017, the Black Panther premiere shattered all expectations with $1.237 billion in ticket sales in its first weekend, making it the twelfth highest-grossing film in history.1 It was Marvel’s biggest film yet, featuring a promising young Black director, a soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar–the biggest rapper in the world–and a star-studded all-Black cast that reflected the contours of the African diaspora. Black Panther told the story of a modern nation-state’s chaotic transfer of power following the death of their beloved monarch. Audiences sat in awe of this Afrofuturist utopia with flying vehicles, domesticated war rhinos, and a fierce military regiment made up of all women. But in Black Panther, we saw more than a Black superhero and Warrior King. For the first time on screen, audiences were given an intimate look into the complexities of identity formation in an independent African nation and their relationships with Africa and the African diaspora. Issues of identity and racial essentialism have presented a challenge to African governments since the independence era, as newly independent African nations carried not only their own nationalist aspirations, but also the question of Pan-Africanism and their responsibilities to people of African descent throughout the world.
Pan-Africanism was central to the plot of Black Panther, particularly surrounding Wakanda’s reluctance to aid other African nations and populations. While Vibranium protected the nation from enslavement and European colonial invasions, but why would Wakanda ignore others in Africa and the African diaspora in their struggles for liberation from the global white supremacist apparatus? As people of African descent showed up in dashikis and traditional African attire to the Black Panther premiere, the film ignited a public conversation about racial essentialism, identity, and Pan-Africanism that the international Black community had yet to toil over outside of academic settings.2 Unbeknownst to many viewers, these same challenges of racial essentialist identities and the viability of Pan-Africanism also emerged in the West African nation of Ghana, as Kwame Nkrumah’s government found the Pan-African identities that bound Black people together in the diaspora were not easily transferred to post-colonial Ghana.
Pan-Africanism is often discussed as a movement, ideology, consciousness, or even an identity.3 There have been so many definitions and conceptions of Pan-Africanism that scholars are now hesitant to attempt to define it, and instead opt to describe its core tenets. In short, Pan-Africanism calls for the unity of all people of African descent in their fight against racism and imperial domination.4 The concept has its roots in shared histories of dehumanization, exploitation, and the persistent oppression that accompanied slavery, colonialism, and contemporary systemic racism. These experiences are what have bound Africa and the African diaspora together for centuries; yet, these were conditions that the fictional nation of Wakanda never experienced.
While Vibranium made Wakanda the most powerful and technologically advanced nation on the planet, Black audiences asked: “What about us?” Did Wakanda not care about the suffering of their African brothers and sisters throughout the world? The concise and seemingly smug answer to this question was attributed to the nation’s traditional practice of conservative nationalism and self-preservationist isolationism. The film’s villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan), a vengeful lost son of Wakanda, wanted to use Wakandan technology to conquer the world and start anew with the sun never setting on the Wakandan empire. Harkening back to Public Enemy’s classic album, “Fear of A Black Plant,” Killmonger’s plans for Wakanda represented the sum of all fears for most whites–an African nation not only on equal footing with the West, but one that supersedes the military might of the leading nations of the world. Killmonger also personified Wakanda’s reckoning for its choice to remain hidden while the rest of the Black world experienced the greatest crimes in human history.
In their first face to face meeting, T’Challa/Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) responded to Killmonger’s criticisms stating: “It is not our way to be judge, jury, and executioner for people who are not our own… I am not king of all people. I am king of Wakanda and it is my responsibility to make sure our people are safe.”5 While this isolationism allowed Wakanda to thrive and avoid centuries of slavery and colonialism, for Killmonger and many viewers, it was a poor excuse for their failure to act. More specifically, they critiqued Wakanda’s failure to use their unrivaled resources to protect and empower other people in Africa and the African diaspora. T’Challa’s decision to uphold this tradition of isolationism bore a stark contrast to Ghana’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, who openly embraced Africa and the African diaspora and devoted his government’s resources to building a Pan-African nation. Nkrumah held this position because he had developed a Pan-African identity, which analyzed racial subordination as a part of systems that functioned on a supranational scale, and necessitated a form of Black unity that transcended ethnic and national boundaries.6
Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism was deeply rooted in 20th Century debates on the post-colonial future of Africa. For this reason, immediately after Ghana gained independence, Nkrumah declared that Ghana’s independence was “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.”7 For Nkrumah, Ghana’s independence was an opportunity “to demonstrate to the world, to the other nations, that we are prepared to lay our foundation – our African personality.”8 This “African Personality” manifested as Ghana developed government policies in ways that reflected the nation’s connections with the rest of Africa and the African diaspora.9 Nkrumah’s Bureau of African Affairs, which aided in African liberation struggles by sending monetary aid to anti-colonial groups, is a great example of his commitment to Pan-African ideas and policies. Nkrumah also used his position as President of Ghana to address pressing issues facing Africa and Africans on the floor of the United Nations and even invited people from the African diaspora to work for the Ghanaian government.10
Wakanda’s tradition of isolationism presented a great irony, in that the isolationist nation had simultaneously embedded its network of War Dogs throughout the world to surveil and influence world events. Could this network of Wakandan spies not use their missions to aid in the liberation of people in the African diaspora? Killmonger’s father, Wakandan Prince N’Jobu (played by Sterling K. Brown) was a War Dog who was stationed in Oakland, California in 1992. During his time in the African diaspora, he observed African American leaders being assassinated, communities flooded with drugs and weapons, over-policing, and mass incarceration. As a result, Prince N’Jobu believed Wakanda had a duty to arm black people to overthrow these oppressive systems and for Wakanda to take its place as a benevolent ruler of the world.
T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) is also a member of the War Dogs, and was called back from her undercover mission in Nigeria to attend King T’Chaka’s burial in Wakanda. She recognized the importance of sharing Wakanda’s resources–albeit not military aid–with Black people throughout the world. Nakia’s fundamental belief in Wakanda’s responsibilities beyond the nation’s borders was a major source of contention in her relationship with T’Challa. Having spent so much time outside of Wakanda amongst people of African descent, Nakia could not ignore the struggles experienced by Black people throughout the world. Like Prince N’Jobu, Nakia believed Wakanda was strong enough to help others and protect themselves at the same time.
As Wakandan War Dogs, Prince N’Jobu and Nakia spent extended periods of time amongst non-Wakandan people of African descent. Like Nkrumah in Ghana, they were primary advocates of discarding the traditional isolationism of Wakanda and instead embracing a Pan-African consciousness that necessitated their duty to come to the aid of others. This Pan-African consciousness was developed by their own observations and diasporic experiences with neo-colonialism, systemic racism, and second-class citizenship, which allowed them to look beyond their Wakandan citizenship in the construction of their identities. As a result, they embraced a Pan-African identity that Wakandans without these diasporic experiences could not understand.
Nearly 60 years ago, Nkrumah’s Ghana was practicing the Pan-Africanism that Wakandan War Dogs like Prince N’Jobu and Nakia envisioned. Just as the majority of the Wakandan population embraced their tradition of isolationism and wanted to devote their resources to developing and fortifying Wakanda, many people in Nkrumah’s Ghana believed the nation was investing too much of its resources in Pan-African liberation. While Nkrumah’s Pan-African rhetoric of continental unity and anti-colonialism was effective in mobilizing national support before independence, this was no longer the case by the end of his tenure as President. Instead, many Ghanaian citizens believed that Ghana’s resources should be focused on developing the nation as opposed to supporting the rest of Africa.11 There was also a great deal of resentment towards non-Ghanaians from the African diaspora who were working in the government and directly shaping the nation-building process in Ghana. This resentment was rooted in Nkrumah’s struggles to cultivate the same Pan-African identities in Ghana that sparked anti-colonial movements in the diaspora during the interwar period.
Nkrumah developed his Pan-African identity not in Ghana, but in the African diaspora as a student in the United States and Great Britain. During the 1930s, Nkrumah entered the Pan-African movement, which was led primarily by West Indians like Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, and C. L. R. James. In the United States, Nkrumah studied under these West Indian intellectuals and lived in West Indian communities.12 By the time Nkrumah was a graduate student in London, he had joined the Pan-African Federation, whose main objectives were “To promote the well-being and unity of African peoples and people of African descent throughout the world; to demand self-determination and independence of African peoples; the total abolition of all forms of racial discrimination; and to strive to co-operate between African peoples and others who share our aspirations.”13 As a result, Nkrumah’s involvement in the Pan-African Movement allowed his identity to transcend national borders and ethnic divisions in Ghana in favor of a Pan-African identity. Like Prince N’Jobu and Nakia, Nkrumah’s Pan-African identity would not have been created without his diasporic experience of leaving his home and observing the racialized oppression experienced by Black people throughout the world.
By the end of Black Panther, the combined pleas from Nakia, Killmonger, and Prince N’Jobu inspired King T’Challa’s embrace of a Pan-African identity. After reclaiming his crown, T’Challa chose not to arm people of African descent and conquer the rest of the world. Rather, he decided to establish the first Wakandan International Outreach Center in Oakland, California, where social outreach programs and science and information exchanges would take place. This decision was monumental as it was Wakanda’s first effort to remedy the inaction and failures of its past, but more importantly, it was the most advanced and forward-looking nation in the world’s first overt embrace of Pan-Africanism. T’Challa’s choice to embrace Pan-Africanism in his vision of the intertwined futures of Wakanda and the African diaspora was fitting, as Pan-Africanism is inherently Afrofuturistic. More specifically, Pan-Africanism imagines the possibilities of progressive and liberated African futures, which T’Challa did when he broke with Wakanda’s traditions of isolationism to envision a future that included uplifting all people of African descent.
Black Panther reminds us that Pan-Africanism, like the concept of race, is not an inherent trait or identity that exists amongst people of African descent. Pan-African identities must be cultivated and expressed by a Pan-African consciousness that considers the shared histories, experiences, and futures of people of African descent. We are also reminded that Black identities and traditions have always been fluid, so as to adapt to varying spatial and political concerns of the present and the future. Consequently, the Black Panther film franchise demonstrates that as we reconcile the African past and contemplate African futures, even in a fictional African nation, Pan-Africanism will always be relevant.
Dr. Nicholas C. McLeod is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Rider University. His research focuses on the international nature of twentieth century Black liberation movements and more specifically the influence of Afro-Caribbean intellectual-activists in Post-Colonial Ghana. He teaches a range of history courses, but his favorites are Black Atlantic Political Thought, The Craft of History: Pan-Africanism(s), and History of Africa Since 1800. His pop culture interests: Star Wars, Dragon Ball, Game of Thrones, and the MCU. Twitter: @PanAfricanus
- Pamela Mcclintock, “Box Office: ‘Black Panther’ Becomes Top-Grossing Superhero Film of All Time in U.S.” The Hollywood Reporter, March 24, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/box-office-black-panther-becomes-top-grossing-superhero-film-all-time-us-1097101/.
- For scholarly works that discuss racial essentialism, Pan-Africanism, and identity, see Michael Onyebuchi Eze, “Pan-Africanism and the Politics of History,” History Compass 11, 9 (2013): 675-686; Paul Obiyo Njemanze, “Pan-Africanism: Africa in the Minds and Deeds of Her Children in the Caribbean,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 20 (2011): 152-165; and Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Uses of Diaspora,” Social Text 19, 1 (2001): 45-73.
- Pan-Africanism has been operationalized throughout history in Africa and the African Diaspora by prominent figures like Edward Wilmot Blyden, H. Sylvester Williams, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, and Julius Nyerere. For more on this, see: Marika Sherwood, Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams, Africa, and the African Diaspora (New York: Routledge, 2012); Anthony Bogues, “CLR James, Pan-Africanism and the Black Radical Tradition,” Critical Arts 25, 4 (2011): 484-499; John Henrik Clarke, “Pan-Africanism: A Brief History of An Idea in the African World,” Présence Africaine 145, 1 (1988): 26-57; and Alexandre Mboukou, “The Pan African Movement, 1900-1945: A Study in Leadership Conflicts Among the Disciples of Pan Africanism,” Journal of Black Studies 13, 3 (1983): 275-287.
- Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism: A History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018).
- Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler (Burbank: Marvel Studios, 2018).
- Lara Putnam, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 6.
- Kwame Nkrumah, “Independence Speech,” in The Ghana Reader: History, Culture, Politics, eds. Kwasi Konadu and Clifford C. Campbell (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 301-302.
- Nkrumah, “Independence Speech.”
- James Conyers, “Edward Wilmot Blyden and the African Personality: A Discourse on African Cultural Identity,” in Racial Structure and Radical Politics in the African Diaspora, ed. G.A. Persons (New York: Routledge, 2017), 151-168.
- Matteo Grilli, Nkrumaism and African Nationalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 129.
- Jeffrey S. Ahlman, Living with Nkrumahism: Nation, State, and Pan-Africanism in Ghana (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017), 132.
- Marika Sherwood, Kwame Nkrumah: The Years Abroad 1935-1947 (Accra: Freedom Publications, 1996), 39.
- George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1971), 127.