Black Panther: Pan African Superhero?

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One of the problems with Black superheroes in Marvel and DC comics is that they may look Black, but very rarely do they reflect the experiences and struggles of Black people. This was a point that was made Kenneth Ghee who explained in Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation that: “Historically in comic books and movies, the Black superhero operates in a totally Eurocentric (White) context; no Black family, no Black lover, no connection to community or culture…For him (and for us and our children) there is no Black consciousness or Black cause, only a generalized ‘humanitarian’ supportive role from a Eurocentric worldview and perspective.” Given that the Black Panther movie is set to be released next month, I would like to point out that one of the unique things about the Black Panther is that he is one Black superhero who has to confront many of the problems that Black people confront daily. The Black Panther doesn’t just live in Africa, he also lives many of the real problems that Africa has faced and continues to face. Black Panther comics are filled with themes of Western imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism in Africa. These themes are especially prominent in the six episode cartoon series which was an adoption of Reginald Hudlin’s run of the comics.
In the comics Wakanda is the most technologically advanced country in the world because the people of Wakanda are able to utilize their country’s resources for their own benefit. Wakanda was the only African country never to be colonized or conquered, so it did not suffer through the ravages of the slave trade and colonialism which disrupted Africa’s development and, as Walter Rodney explained, underdeveloped Africa. Some have defended colonialism by arguing that colonization was a benefit to Africa because it introduced European technology, but this was not entirely the case. The technology that was introduced was utilized in the service of European domination in Africa. The vast majority of colonized Africans were exploited and impoverished, and they did not benefit from European technology in any significant way.

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Ethiopia was able to fend off the Italian invasion and under Menelik II’s rule Ethiopia made many technological advances, including establishing a railway, a postal service, and the country’s first hospital. This was because without European domination Ethiopia was free to adopt European technology and apply it in ways that were beneficial to their country, but the other colonized African nations did not have this benefit. Whereas Menelik was able to establish a hospital, in many colonies Africans were malnourished and given inadequate medical care. In Mozambique the Portuguese failed to train a single African doctor and Guinea-Bissau was even more neglected by the Portuguese colonialists than Mozambique was. Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, once explained that by the time Tanzania gained its independence the country only had 12 doctors. Wakanda presents us with a glimpse of where Africa could have been had it not been for colonialism, as well as a glimpse of where Africa could very well be with the proper leadership.
Comic book superheroes are typically people who decide to become superheroes due to personal tragedy or by obtaining superheroes, but the Black Panther is unique in that he has inherited his role as a superhero. T’Challa comes from a long dynasty of Black Panthers that have protected Wakanda for thousands of years. The Black Panther does fight the typical super villains that are found in comics, but what makes this character unique for people of African descent is that the Black Panther also fights a threat that Africans had to fight in real life, which is European colonization. For example, one story in Hudlin’s run depicts one of T’Challa’s ancestors defending his nation against an assault led by a European settler known as Klaue. In the story Klaue is a soldier who fought military campaigns in South Africa and has nothing but contempt for Africans, whom he views as uncivilized savages.

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T’Challa’s own story is rooted in Africa’s struggle against neo-colonial forces. T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, was murdered for refusing to give up Wakanda’s most valuable resource, which is a fictional metal known as vibranium. In Hudlin’s retelling of the story, T’Chaka’s assassination was part of a plot that was carried out by various Western countries that were unable to talk T’Chaka into giving them his country’s resources. When they realized that T’Chaka could not be bought off, their next option was to simply kill him. This brings to mind the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, and other African leaders who were killed or overthrown by Western countries for refusing to serve the interests of those countries. T’Challa ascends to the throne and has to remain cautious about the fact that the very governments that assassinated his father would be plotting to do the same to him.
Aside from the Western governments that seek to undermine Wakanda to exploit its wealth, the Black Panther also has to confront African dictators such as M’Butu, who is one of the antagonists in the cartoon series. M’Butu is the dictator of a nation that borders Wakanda and he is depicted as being the opposite of T’Challa. M’Butu is greedy, self-serving, and is easily paid off like many of the dictators that continue to rule Africa today. M’Butu is also a close American ally and even agrees to participate in a plot to overthrow the Black Panther. Black Panther not only fights to protect his nation against European invaders, but against African traitors as well.
I am not sure how deeply the movie will delve into these themes. The anti-colonialist message found in the cartoon series and some of the comics was toned down when the Black Panther was introduced in Captain American: Civil War. In that movie T’Chaka’s assassination was part of a plot to frame the Winter Soldier rather than being an assassination that was carried out because T’Chaka refused to give up his country’s resources. Even if the anti-colonialist message is toned down, I still think the significance of the Black Panther movie is that it’s a movie that will challenge some of the ways Africa and African people are typically depicted in the mainstream media. It is also significant in that it has a message that is relevant to all people of African descent. For African Americans and others in the diaspora it is a reminder that there is more to our history that slavery, and for those on the African continent it is a reminder of the great potential that Africa has.

Article by Dwayne Omowale

Ana Nzinga Mbande-Queen of Angola

NPG D34632; Ann Zingha by Achille DevÈria, printed by  FranÁois Le Villain, published by  Edward Bull, published by  Edward Churton, after  Unknown artist

In the 16th century, Portuguese slave traders turned to the Congo and southwest Africa, after their stake in the slave trade was threatened by England and France in the northern part of the continent. Their most stubborn opposition came from an unexpected source: an Angolan queen who ruthlessly maneuvered her way into power, fought off the slavers for decades, and, rumor has it, immolated her lovers.

Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba, also known as Nzinga Mbandi, Anna Nzinga, and Rainha Ginga, was born in 1583 to the king of Ndongo, a kingdom of the Mbundu people in modern-day Angola. The story goes that Nzinga was so named because she was born with her mother’s umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, and the Mbundu word for “to twist” is kujinga (an alternate spelling of Nzinga is “Njinga”). This circumstance was believed to indicate that the child would grow to be proud and haughty.

The king, Ngola Kiluanji, allowed Nzinga and his son, Ngola Mbandi, to witness his governance of the kingdom, which included numerous guerrilla raids against Portuguese invaders who were trying to infiltrate the territory. His children, as a result, grew up with a sharp understanding of the horrific implications of Portuguese colonization, which depended on slavery to expand its reach and riches.

According to Joseph C. Miller’s Nzinga of Matamba in a New Perspective, Nzinga first appears in the historical record in 1622, when she arrived in Luanda as the emissary for her brother, the ruler at the time. He had been dedicating all of his efforts and forces to keeping the Portuguese out of the highlands east of Luanda. During her visit, Nzinga converted to Christianity, and was baptized as Ana de Souza, a fact that would help her in her later negotiations with the Portuguese. Within two years of his sister’s visit to Luanda, Ngola Mbandi had died under unknown circumstances, and Nzinga had staked her claim as ruler of the kingdom.

Though Nzinga was about to revolutionize diplomatic relations between the Portuguese and the Mbundu state, she seized her title with great opposition from the internal political factions in the kingdom. The 17th-century Mbundu kingdom was made up of a hierarchy of linked political titleholders each with their own followings. After Ngola Mbandi’s death, the king’s title would normally have gone to the leader with a combination of the most number of followers and the most deft political maneuvering.

“The scant evidence available on Nzinga’s place in this general structure indicates that her claim to the royal title of the ngola a kiluanje violated established Mbundu norms,” writes Miller. “The Mbundu harbored strong feelings against females assuming any political title and explicitly prohibited any woman from assuming the position of the ngola a kiluanje.”

Initially, the Portuguese did not recognize Nzinga as the rightful ruler of the Mbundu people, either; they suspected that she was somehow implicated in her brother’s death and refused to honor her right to succeed him. They instead assumed that the heir apparent to the Mbundu throne was Ngola Mbandi’s son.

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As a result, Nzinga was forced to turn to support from outside the state: from a band of Imbangala warriors who inhabited the borders of the Mbundu kingdom and had expressed hostility against both Mbundu and Portuguese armies in the past. She also offered asylum to slaves escaping from Portuguese territories, eventually recruiting them as manpower.

The Imbangala in particular were crucial to increasing Nzinga’s position in domestic politics. Not only were they notorious for their fierce ways and highly effective war strategies, they did not have the same hierarchical structure as the Mbundu and frequently recognized women under the title of tembanza: a leader in both war and politics. Nzinga manipulated the Imbangala’s readiness to accept a kinless woman as their leader by assuming the tembanza position in a group of Imbangala lead by the kaza, one of the most powerful warlords in the region.

The Mbundu recognized Nzinga’s situation with the kaza as a marriage of sorts, and so did the Portuguese. According to Miller, Nzinga then used the kaza to help her kill her brother’s son, the heir apparent, in an effort to secure her position as the leader of the Mbundu. However, eventually the Imbangala left Nzinga and defected to the Portuguese due to her lack of Imbangala ancestry. By 1629, Nzinga was left without allies, with the Portuguese army in hot pursuit.

She fled to the old Mbundu kingdom of Matamba, a safeground that had in recent years been ravaged by Portuguese and Imbangala raids. In the 16th century, Matamba had flourished under the rule of several queens, although they had long since ceded rule to Nzinga’s father, Ngola Kiluanji, and later her brother. The disarray after his death and the various raids had created a political vacuum which Nzinga was quick to fill, using their willingness to accept female rulers to buttress her position as leader of the Mbundu.

Nzinga increased her wealth, her armies and her power by blocking Portuguese access to slave trade routes and diverting the slaves into Matamba. She continued to resist Portuguese troops well into her 60s, and it is said that she would wear male dress and lead her armies into battle herself.

Legends of Nzinga extend outside of her brilliant military tactics and political strategy. In Philosophy in the Boudoir, the Marquis de Sade wrote that Nzinga “immolated her lovers,” obtaining a large, all-male harem after she became queen and having each man she slept with killed after their carnal encounter. Though there is no way of knowing if there is truth to these rumors, there is no denying Nzinga was a ruthless ruler, unafraid of sacrificing men who came in her way.

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In 1657, at the age of 74, Nzinga entered peace treaty talks with the Portuguese, after having fought and been worn down by colonial and slave raiding attacks for decades. After conceding much of her power, Nzinga devoted her efforts to rebuilding her war-torn nation. Following her death in 1663, the Portuguese lost their most valiant opposition and were able to accelerate their colonial occupation.

As Donald Burness points out in “Nzinga Mbandi” and Angolan Independence, up until the 20th century, not much had been written by African writers on historical African revolutionaries. But during Angola’s fight for independence from the Portuguese in the 1970s, an MPLA leader named Manual Pacavira wrote a novel about Nzinga called Nzinga Mbandi while imprisoned by the Portuguese, drawing many parallels between her fight and the ongoing civil war.

“The spirit of Rainha Ginga is not dead; it serves as a source of inspiration and pride to a people and its leaders who face new challenges and new opportunities,” writes Burness. Angola is now independent, and a statue dedicated to Nzinga in Luanda serves as a tribute to one of the first people to have fought for its freedom.

Article written by Urvija Banjeri