What is a utopia? What do you imagine?
Do you imagine moving sidewalks and flying cars, teleportation machines, world peace?
Utopia, defined by Sir Thomas Moore in his book Utopia (1516), is an imaginary place, an ideal state, a visionary system. In 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby imagined a utopia, an idea of an Africa untouched by colonial hands. They called it Wakanda. The leader and protector of this utopia is the Black Panther.
Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966. On October 15, 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale created the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary socialist organization also referred to as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. At the heart of their platform was a 10-point program:
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby claim no affiliation to the Black Panther Party. Even if the name is a coincidence, there are significant correlations between the comic and the political movement. The Black Panther Party was, in many ways about creating a Black utopia in America, or at the very least protecting and providing for Black people in a country that even after the Civil Rights Movement, failed to protect and provide for its citizens. The Black Panther does the same for his people.
Black Panther’s popularity has ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, but after an appearance in the Marvel film Captain America: Civil War (2015), Marvel Studios followed with an announcement that Black Panther would be getting his own film and fast-forward three years and Black Panther (2018) has grossed $404 million worldwide in four days. The film’s success is due in large part to the idea that a utopia like Wakanda exists.
Black people in America and all around the world have embraced the film. They are embracing Wakanda as their rediscovered homeland. At the world premiere in Los Angeles, the cast and crew of Black Panther walked down a majestic purple carpet dressed like African royalty. Moviegoers followed suit, wearing traditional garb, afro-futuristic renderings and everything in between. For the Black community, the premiere of Black Panther warrants a celebration, a jubilee. It doesn’t matter that Wakanda isn’t real or that there isn’t a bullet-proof Black man protecting his people. They are clinging to the possibility that such a future might be possible. It’s the possibility that sustains.
The possibility is called Afrofuturism; a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that combines elements of science-fiction, historical fantasy, fantasy, Afrocentrism, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of Black People, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.
Afrofuturism challenges the utopia. Black Panther challenges the utopia. The film makes it clear that while life in Wakanda may be ideal, it cannot escape the historical, political and cultural realities of the world beyond their borders.The past does not have to determine the future. Instead, the future becomes something to aspire to.
World of Wakanda by Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates