Wakanda 4 Today – or – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Lack of History

First Published in  February 2018

 

 

The world may seem cruel! The world it may hate us! In time we will show the world why the world made us!!!” 

What Would Wolves Do by Les Savy Fav

In the past few years the art of “the take” on the visual arts has transformed the ruminations of your favorite writer into social commentary that assuages the political machinations of everyday life and makes our momentary visits to dreamscapes all the more real and long-lasting. Yet such analysis often creates a false dichotomy over the promise of art and popular culture and whether it has any “true” political significance. Singular works are treated as utopian visions that diagnose society’s ills; or they are denigrated as “just” movies, television shows, or art instillations, totally cut off from the literal fights over life and death taking place in political forums. But the political importance of such works can only be revealed when we consider how they are inextricably linked to the limits of our technological and physical worlds and the strategic decisions made in the creative process that will determine its future circulation and economic impact. Black Panther and the world it creates and in which it circulates is undeniably political.

Film-making produces more than just movies, it also produces industries that have a magnitude beyond the artists themselves. Artists can no longer feign ignorance or stand outside of the competitive and exploitative dimension of the creative arts industry, especially when working with a multinational such as Disney. In one month, Black Panther has earned approximately $920 million in box office receipts, almost five times its $200 million budget.   Also, given the various box-office records it will continue to break, the movie will have an undeniable impact on the cast and crew’s future earning potential and the market it creates for other objects, including Black Panther action figures and African inspired home décor and fashion. Finally, the film has greatly impacted film locations; the city of Atlanta, Georgia, witnessed $84 million flow into local businesses; and through the promotion of tourism the other location sites will benefit as well. Besides Atlanta, the film was shot at Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil; Busan, South Korea; and aerial footage from Uganda, Zambia, and South Africa. It is these last locations (or what essentially amounts to physical, interchangeable backdrops) that speak volumes to both the content and lasting effect of this movie. A movie that heralds blackness and traffics in the continent’s concealed potential is of Africa but not in Africa.

Last year at an art gallery in Maputo, a Mozambican acquaintance asked about my relationship to Africa, a question I have received numerous times over the fifteen years I have travelled to the continent and studied the politics of western and southern Africa. As the conversation continued, however, it took a surprising turn when my interlocutor said he was working through his relationship with Africa as well. It became clear that Africa is an imaginary space we both grapple with given our lived realities in the geographic spaces that produced us – America and Mozambique – and the invented space of our historical origin. What besides our skin color or as its labeled our blackness linked our disparate souls to this geopolitical dreamscape, which despite its physicality is just as fantastical as that of Wakanda. There are many Africas: North Africa versus Sub-Saharan Africa; the regional Africas, (north, east, central, south, west); and then the Anglophone, Arabophone, Francophone, and Lusophone Africas. There is South Africa that some do not consider Africa and there is Egypt that is often designated as part of the Middle East.  There are approximately 1,500 languages, and by inference as many distinct cultural groups in Africa, not to mention historical and emerging cultures based on religion, sexuality, and political ideology. Wakanda appears as an amalgam of all these Africas, as Ainehi Edoro and Bhakti Shringarpure write. The movie makes cultural expressions and artifacts interchangeable; assumes a historical trajectory based on a logic of mythical origins; and conceals the internal dynamics of an epic civilization that is meant to be isolated yet whose existence is contingent up a keen understanding of the outside world. Wakanda turns Africa into a vehicle for blackness while denying the conditions that created blackness.

On Still Processing, a New York Times podcast, Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris offer the most laudatory commentary of Black Panther; of course more for what it offers as a visual object rather than the processes that created it. One of the more perplexing themes of their discussion is that the movie offers a vision of blackness that is not “concerned” with the white gaze and is truly pan-African,  given that the cast is a panoply of the diaspora’s elite. Never mind that this elite diaspora is able to reap the benefits of an aspirational society while simultaneously striving to reject it. While this rejection of the white gaze and whiteness is not problematic when the film is selectively ablated from today’s political context; the rejection is suspect when you consider the film in conjunction with the economic processes that created it, its circulation, and its growing legacy.

If the movie is about promoting Africa and the African diaspora by building up the myth of an isolated country that realizes the need to extend its wealth and knowledge beyond its borders; then not filming on the ground in Africa signals an acute fissure within the theory and practice of blackness.   Unsettling because the magnitude of the financial rewards of a Hollywood film in Accra, Dakar, Lomé, Maputo, Timbuktu, or Tunis would have been much greater for Africa and the diaspora than filming in Atlanta, Argentina, or South Korea. More importantly, it could have showcased these cities’ imaginative architecture, public art, and urban (re)design.  This could have offered a better template for Wakanda’s capital city, which as a virtual space simultaneously exists everywhere and no where on the continent. It is probably easy to anticipate the reasons why it would not be “feasible” to film in such locations: too dangerous, limited infrastructure, corrupt officials exploiting American companies and artists. The weight of this irony is more palpable when we consider that this “material” lack also signals an unwillingness to directly confront Africa’s “figurative” lack.

Utopian fantasies ostensibly offer the chance to escape the doldrums of the current moment, yet they also offer a much needed critique of said moment and the chance to think otherwise about a society’s trajectory. Wakanda’s utopian society offers many a visual elixir to centuries of European thought that deemed Africa as lacking history and civilization. This figurative lack haunts most academic and popular thought about Africa and the diaspora, as there is an assumption that this lack is what motivated the brutal subjugation and epistemic violence launched against black bodies. Given Africa’s size and the abundance of natural resources, it is often designated as “lacking” because it does not have comparable ancient ruins or academic texts that demonstrated its civilizational prowess. Also its environment at the time of the colonial intervention deviated greatly from the Europeans built environment. Yet such lacks and deviations could also signal a lack of intricate hierarchical systems that harnessed and then exploited the labor power of those deemed different. Given the current quest to create a more just world, we need to develop a greater analysis that examines technological advancement, the production and consumption of objects, and the built environment in conjunction with the (in)ability to engender equitable societies. A utopian fantasy that interrogates blackness yet not tied to a single geographic space could offer a re-imagination of what it means to not look like European civilizations and the environmental havoc they produced; and to offer counterfactuals on a society’s historical trajectory in which technological advancement was tempered by the needs of all rather than the desires of a few. While watching Black Panther, I kept hoping for a vignette about the “average” Wakandan: of the miners, the construction workers, teachers, artisans, and caretakers, i.e. the ones who built Wakanda. It is these stories that resonate more with blackness, because for better or worse blackness stems from a common history of subjugation. While this commonality commingles with the history of different ancient African empires as well as the peoples and empires from around the globe, blackness was not crafted in ancient civilizations; rather it was made as an immaterial consequence of the circulation of objects, a by-product of the social relations of production and consumption. The origin of blackness is the bottom of an ocean, and that could be just as magical and creative if we, and here I mean all of humanity, will let it.

In 1903, W.E.B DuBois offered the concise concept of ‘double consciousness’ to capture the existential complexity of the Negro problem — of being a freed man whose history was denied and who must navigate the brutal distortions of a civilized oppressor and their lived experiences to better understand themselves and life. Likely to the dismay of DuBois, over the 20th century as the Negro begat the Colored who begat the Black who begat the African-American, this double consciousness did not wither away, rather it intensified. But rather than see this persistence as an aberration, there is the chance to include it is as a definitive feature of the human condition. All regions of the globe have been shaped by subjugation, violent displacements, and epistemic violence; and such events have all contributed to the making of this world. Perhaps the specificity of the Black experience and blackness is that it emerged alongside an acceleration of capital and the proliferation of discursive, visual, medical, and infrastructure technologies that suspended the original sin of subjugation based on phenotypical and geographical difference.   Over time this marginalization has been challenged, overturned and morphed to include other races given what is ultimately at stake – the creation of a just civilization that is not predicated on the exploitation of one’s labor. Thus what blackness has to offer and what future Black Panther movies could offer is the chance to imagine a future that is not obsessed with reworking the past, rather a future that is willing to transcend its past.

 

I Am Not Your Nigger, Nigga, N-word, or Future Permutation of the Word Negro™

Imagine being at a club in Cairo eagerly awaiting to get down after a week of hard work and a new friend makes the case for why they do not listen or dance to American hip-hop.

“It is misogynistic, homophobic, and there is the strange use of the N-word.”

Since I desperately wanted to dance with them in comfort at that exact moment, I tried a bit of smoke and mirrors, which went something like this….

“Of course the misogyny and homophobia is regrettable, but such remarks are couched within the complex interplay among racial injustice, empowerment, and the ultimate attempt to become a (wo)man.”

As for the N-word that was a bit harder to explain.

First, “It is not all hip-hop music only that kind of hip-hop.”

Second, “It’s a Black American thing, you have to be born of that experience to understand why rappers use such words and why it is acceptable as a 21st century commodity.”

Then I mumbled something that only my glass of beer heard.

Finally, “as a Black American I give you permission to dance, drunkenly, here and now. When I am trying to escape the harsh realities of dealing with racism, sexism, and authoritarian regimes; I like to unwind by shaking my ass to appropriations of historical slurs and misdirects of sexual desires.”

I was never fully committed to ‘nigger’ or ‘nigga’. I did not go out of my way to police its use among friends and the words never came easily from my lips. I remember vague conversations in high school and college about why you should not use those word; but in my arguments I started to feel like my grandmothers who always extolled the benefits of relaxed rather than natural hair. In time, my argument shifted to intra-racial class dynamics. We were and still are witnessing some kind of time travel, battle royale featuring the Talented Tenth, Malcom X, and the hip-hopper de jour for the souls of black folk. But all of these debates seem too academic: who uses the word, who justifies its use, and who makes money from the repeated use of the word. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently offered one of the better rationales for why white Americans should not, cannot use the word. It ultimately boils down to respect for the internal dynamics of a marginalized group and the “basic laws” of humanity that respect the places, actions, and words of the other. Whites, Coates argues, have always felt entitled to enter any space, participate in any conversation, use any words as they see fit; and that is the privilege that needs to be dismantled. But what if their “right” does not emanate solely from their race, but from their ability to consume?

There is something jolting about hearing the phrase “yo my nigger” while abroad…there was that time I heard it in Bogotá, in Prague, in Accra and then in Cairo. I was at the Saqqara Pyramid with two friends, one Black American and the other Black Mozambican, and an Egyptian man with a donkey selling his souvenirs kept calling us his niggers. He did not see three people he needed to denigrate for fear of their existence. He saw Americans (by virtue of speaking English ) who happened to be Black; and by virtue of being American in this part of the world we must have money. Besides, what did he know about the States unless it came from cultural distortions in the form of movies, sports, hip-hop music, clothes etc. Whenever these incidents would happen, Black American expats would regroup and the established residents would explain to new arrivals that this occasionally happens and it is better to grin and bear it. This could mean the difference between paying $25 or $20 for a souvenir that in reality costs only $5 to make. When I would tell my Egyptian friends about this man, they would cringe and dismiss him as an ignorant pest who, like the rest of his kind, detract from the experience of visiting the pyramids. Sure he may not know the history of American slavery or movements for Black empowerment, but he knows how to make a buck . . . just like that rapper was trying to make a buck when he laid down the track that made nigger and nigga postmodern euphemisms heard round the world. So really who is performing for who.
I never did convince my friend to dance that night, perhaps for the better. At a time when there is greater visibility of Black American life and an acknowledgement of its complexity, what is to become of the objects created in the past to challenge the system, but are now integral to it? Does taking a stand against such music mean a rejection of American history and everyday life in Black communities or could it be a rejection of the commodification of that life?

I finally saw Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro; and seeing it in Cairo with Arabic subtitles was fitting to James Baldwin’s concern about the construction of a racialized other in an effort to deflect personal anxieties. The movie has been widely heralded for offering insight into why America’s original sin, i.e. race, continues to haunt us. But just as the juxtaposition of police and mob violence from the 1960s and 2010s served as a stark reminder of the work that must continue; Peck’s deafening silence on Baldwin’s queerness also reminds us of the persistence of taboos within Black American communities and the need to privilege coherent narratives of racial strife and resistance. Baldwin did not conceal his queerness; it was not an open secret. It was integral to his work and likely shaped his ability to bear witness to the existential desire for an other. Even though I can understand why niggers emerged in the White American psyche, I am still confused as to why the words “nigger” and “nigga” circulate across the globe at accelerating rates. Is this the triumph of a hip-hop industry that provides a forum in which White Americans experience the exclusion that so many black, brown, female, and queer “others” have endured at their hands? Is it the responsibility of the artist or the consumer to handle with care any object that is necessarily an artifact of subjugation and rebellion?

Black American culture has come of age in the era of globalization, and given that so much of that culture processes the experience of human subjugation it is not surprising that with the consumption of such experiences there is a desire to understand and a willingness to perform this pain. Deploying the word is a ready-made act of rebellion; so is it any real surprise that White Americans, Chinese, Ghanaians, or Egyptians say the word as they consume a product and make it their own. It is their consumption and reproduction of the word that puts money in the hands of those who were simply chronicling Black American life or raging against the machine. If nine years ago we were able to see the possibilities of what America and the world could be if a Black American held power; today we are stuck in a post post-racial phantasmagoria, where seeing is not being. We see black, brown, female, and queer folk gaining visibility in the cultural marketplace, we consume new objects that better express an authentic racial/gender identity; but does that make us free? Does it end the exploitation of those who make such objects and those who consume them? It might seem odd that I only came to terms with not using this word or purchasing music by artists who use it gratuitously while living abroad. I understand the process of reclamation occurring when trying to demystify its power. But when questions about who can say it conceal questions about why we say it and more importantly why people across the world say it, then there needs to be a discussion about how it arrives to distant shores. When I hear the word abroad it is never used in the derogatory tone (don’t worry, each country has its own language to denigrate brown and black bodies) it is always used as a term of endearment and often followed by pleas to shop for objects or services. It is only when your racial identity is reissued and repackaged for your purchasing power pleasure does the strangeness of using that word become more real.

 

 

 

 

 

Tearing Down or Better Yet Never Building the Confederate/Apartheid/Soviet Monuments of the Future.

What do the United States, South Africa, and Ukraine have in common? During the last decade they have each grappled with the question of remaking public space to comport with a new political reality. A reality in which “people power” toppled authoritarian and illiberal governments that exploited and oppressed those who were different – be it race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etcetera. While each state’s strategy to remake their public spaces is unique, especially in terms of when they chose to remake space and time and how they used law to achieve such ends; all are essentially creating new societal trajectories that reconfigure the past, present, and future.
I write this from Cairo, just after a trip to South Africa. While in KwaZulu-Natal, I listened to a podcast on the dismantling of Lenin statues and renaming of cities in Ukraine. Hearing that story in a country where the reclamation of space via renaming streets and naming metropolitan areas has proven contentious during extraordinary moments (protests and bureaucratic inertia) and ordinary moments (communicating with locals who refuse to take on new names) rekindled my anxiety about acts that are meant to quickly undo the past. While the historical construction of space is inextricably linked to the construction of race; the remaking of space, especially within one’s lifetime can easily disrupt the various memories and tactics communities used to survive. After these experiences it is hard not to see my own country through the lens of post-communist and post-apartheid realities. Even though the events that led to Charlottesville are further removed, occurring some 60 to 150 years ago, the reactions to remaking space and time are no less visceral. One would think that with more time, the question of keeping or removing the statues would be easier to ask and to answer, but it is not. Because for those who grew up knowing that Klan rallies were just a part of life, there are still many other symbols of America that persist and serve to elevate our civilization, but are just as responsible for the degradation of slaves, indigenous, the poor, and women. And such symbols will endure once the media’s bright lights are turned off. While the removal of these statues will assuage the ghosts of Reconstruction, there is something else we should be asking ourselves: can we remake public space and monuments that capture the complexity of our current political realities and will they survive the scrutiny of future citizens? A refashioning that does not romanticize current achievements while concealing the trauma, exploitation, and violence that engendered these achievements, especially given the dark underbelly of America’s continuing success.
One reason for my skepticism is that it has taken so long to directly confront the images and objects of the Confederacy. Trust me, when you have to reckon with a member of an Arabic heavy metal band wearing a patch of the Confederate flag on his torn jean jacket, it is truly mind numbing to square that circle in this moment. Is it an act of personal aesthetics that mimics one’s heroes or a covert sign of camaraderie? While I will never know the answer, what becomes more curious is how did that image and object arrive in Cairo; and most likely it was delivered by the internet. While we are often focused on the internet as a platform that facilitates mobilization in the real world; it also allows for critical and creative engagements that empower and engender a sense of belonging. Sentiments that are necessary to directly confront the legacy of colonialism and remake the world in one’s own likeness. But no matter how many virtual worlds comfort us, the internet’s agility cannot be readily translated to the physical world. Charlottesville reminds us that we still live with others, collaborate with others, fight with others to make and give access to our world. But the inherent limitations of the physical world force us into a false dichotomy – either we keep or remove the statues. Yes the statues need to come down, but a more subversive action would be to repurpose the statues and spaces that express the complexities we confront in discussions about trauma, triumph, and re-imaginations that are fueling the recovery of a more comprehensive history of America. There is the potential for monuments to grapple with collective healing, but there is also the potential to manipulate space and once again honor the stewards of our shameful past and present. This removal, like so many other acts within the “culture wars” cannot alone give us what we want: an end to systematic racism, misogyny, and homophobia and prevent similar types of exploitation via epistemic violence that happen during the drive for a better life. A life built, in part, on the political machinations to maintain our freedom to consume and be consumed. Is it at all ironic that we are likely communicating about Charlottesville via devices that come from environmental degradation and labor exploitation of other parts of the world? That many of the products we consume are the result of a subjugation of labor akin to slavery, whose legacy we are trying so desperately to dismantle? And what will the future say about the monuments we erect today at a moment when violence, inequality, and epistemic terror persist despite the proclamations of wanting to change this world. . . of creating knowledge to to change the world. . . .of creating industries to change the world, but only consuming politics as entertainment when we fail.

Do I have the answers with how to resolve this tension, no, sadly for the moment I only come armed with philosophical and theoretical explanations that can bear witness to such exploitation. But in bearing witness it is becoming clear that if we truly want to remake our world, if we truly want to stop repeating the phrase “never again” then we need to integrate our political and cultural mobilizations in an effort to remake space for the ones we are waiting for.

 

Birth of My Afro By The Sea

My Afro By the Sea is an experimental blog based on mobility from personal displacements and travels, ethnographic engagements, and professional relocations. In moments of repose, I explore these experiences in relation to political and cultural mobilizations for futures based on reconfigurations of the past and present. I welcome collaboration with like-minded individuals.