Powered by Blogger.

Wakanda and the Western Portrayal of Africa

I'm getting a little sick of seeing people telling black people to "calm down" about the Black Panther movie. "It's just a movie" they say. "It's a fictional world that doesn't mean anything to the real world they say". I disagree. I think this movie stands to have a profound impact on the real world and especially our perceptions about Africa and about blackness. Here's why.

In 2007 I made a trip that changed my life. It was my first trip to Africa. For about a month I was in Arusha, Tanzania working with a group that was helping to build a village of orphanages. Right from the beginning of the trip, from the flight, to the lodging, to working with the locals I was profoundly confronted with many misconceptions and internalizations I had about Africa.

Africa has always been presented as a place to be feared, or at least ignored. Perhaps this was due to the desire to strip the African slaves of any semblance of resonance with their homeland and so Africa was made to seem ugly, poor and undesirable. James Michira in his paper, “Images of Africa in the Western Media” stated that Africa is often portrayed as a homogenous entity comprising uncivilized and heathen peoples who are culturally, intellectually, politically, and technically backward or inferior. Images of jungle people in loin clothes prevailed, leaving many African-Americans to utter the phrase that I would hear around school or work colloquially, “Ain’t nothin I left in Africa I need to go find!”

The negative portrayal of Africa by Western and European powers dates all the way back to the ancient world. Greek historian Herodotus in his work The Histories portrays Africa as being inhabited by savage and non-human like creatures in comparison to the innate civilized natures of the Greeks and Caucasians (p 2).

Charles Darwin reaffirms this idea in his famous work, The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, saying that Africans were still evolving and therefore did not fall within the ‘favoured races’ category with the same status enjoyed by Europeans (p 11–13).

Historian and Professor John Wa’Njoga, states in his essay, “Representation of Africa in the Western Media” that the writings of 19th century authors such as Darwin prepared the ground for twentieth century Western journalists and academics to continue their negative portrayal of Africa during the colonial and post-colonial era. Ama Biney agreed, tracing the portrayal of Africa from the 1950s and ’60s as being “emergent Africa;” the 1970s portrayed a “dependent Africa,” while the 1980s and ’90s portrayed a “crisis and pitiable Africa” (p 1).

In 1966, Marvel comics released its first Black Panther comic book. The general premise revolved around the character, T’Challa who is the king of a futuristic, technologically advanced African country called Wakanda. Wakanda presents some interesting observations and possibilities about modern perceptions of Africa.

With the Black Panther film coming in February of 2018, with its all-black cast and it’s epic portrayal of African identity, it is bound to have an impact on the perceptions and possibilities of Africa. Could Ghana be Wakanda? Or Nigeria or Zimbabwe? What are the implications of seeing Wakanda on the big screen? We have an African king that is just and righteous and a warrior and a superhero; a far cry from the perceived corruption that plagues many governments on the continent. The imagery alone sends a powerful message to the country at large and to black people in particular.

What are the implications for a film portraying a positive image of Africa? Already the teasers, trailers and posters of the film have created an abundance of buzz from “black twitter” and pundits and bloggers across the internet. Powerful, positive black images on film have been so infrequent in the history of Hollywood that we are clamoring to it with reverent fervor. I submit that this is due in part to it being a positive portrayal of Africa and blackness in general.

I remember my dad telling me stories of him watching the 60s tv show Tarzan growing up. He would always say how it bothered him that he was rooting for Tarzan to beat up and destroy Africans and black people on tv, even though those Africans were being portrayed as savage villains. This is what Black Panther has the potential to do. It has has the potential to revolutionize what little black children think and imagine when they think about Africa. Maybe it will even inspire them to travel there one day as I did in 2007, and revolutionize their lives and perceptions forever.

There is something to be said for positive representation. The Opportunity Agenda in its seminal work in the Social Science Literature Review made the case that representation and media portrayal can literally have life or death ramifications for black boys across the country. Whether we are talking about the criminalized portrayal of black men in television and movies or the negative portrayal of Africa in Western media, it still goes back to the issue of identity and identification. If Africa and Africans are “hopeless savages” as Darwin put it then what does that imply about African-Americans? There is no doubt in my mind that seeing an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of Africa in the Black Panther will have a lasting effect on self-image.

The Black Panther gives us a positive image on blackness in a post-Obama world where our blackness, and not just our bodies, is again under visceral attack. It gives us the opportunity to feel powerful and in control of our own identities and existence. It gives us a heritage to hold onto and to represent. There will inevitably be Panther hats and T-shirt’s and all manner of paraphernalia worn on every block in every hood the same way that “X” hats and T-shirt’s were found on those same blocks and in those same hoods over 25 years ago when Spike Lee’s film came out. They both represent the same things: black pride, black autonomy, and black consciousness. Black people are genuinely proud to see an all-black cast in a movie that portrays them, and Africa in a positive and powerful light. We don’t have much to grab onto these days, but Black Panther has the potential to be a temporary escape from the real world; a world that seems to despise our blackness. I believe in it’s positive portrayal of Africa, the Black Panther also provides a positive portrayal of blackness in general, and we can always use more of that. 

Works Cited 
The Opportunity Agenda. “Media Representation and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys”. The Social Science Literature Review, Oct 2011 [accessed online 12-29-17] http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/Media-Impact-onLives-of-Black-Men-and-Boys-OppAgenda.pdf

Biney, Ama. “The Western Media and Africa: Issues of Information and Images”. Journal of International Affairs, vol. 1996/1997, no. 21, 1 – 21.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Sixth London Edition, 1882

Herodotus. The Histories, (ca. 442 B.C.)

Michira, James. “Images of Africa in the Western Media”, 2002. [accessed online 12-28-17] http://web.mnstate.edu/robertsb/313/images_of_africa_michira.pdf

Wa’Njogu, John. “Representation of Africa in the Western Media: Challenges and Opportunities” in Njogu, K and Middleton, J (2009) (eds.) Media and Identity in Africa. London: Oxford University Press 2009

No comments