Apr 25, 2018

Black Panther, In Respect of Retrospect

Some of you may have noticed in our Black Panther Roundtable, the notable absence of one of our Roundtable regulars. It's not that Zulu LaMar Forte didn't have much to say; it's that he had a lot. LaMar is one of the Cube's oldest friends and first supporters, and he's not just a comics fan but also  a true student of African history. There was a lot to lay out there in terms of the movie, and so, I turn it over to him.

Black Panther, In Respect of Retrospect
(or “Light A Candle, It's About to Get Real Black In Here”)
by Zulu LaMar Forte

When I saw the final costume for T'Challa in Captain America: Civil War, I had a feeling that Marvel was on to something. The costume itself told a story, in that moment. And it made me think about the stories that could be told within the MCU framework, whether or not they would be told, and what sort of care and attention would be given to the particulars.

Seemingly for a number of the people that have or will see this movie, just getting a movie with an all-black cast that gives them a good reason to pay top dollar for stale popcorn and a week's worth of carbonated beverages is good enough; as an African raised in the diaspora of North America, the norm for me is trusting people that don't look or think like me, that aren't me, to do justice to who my ancestors were...and ultimately, to who I am. And as much as I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther I would be irresponsible to not give thought to it here, and look at it outside of the popcorn n' pop soda perspective. To put a film like this, which I found to be a multilayered marvel generally, under the proper scrutiny that I have never had the luxury of avoiding, I pose 3 questions, in three parts:

• Who was the African before colonization?
• Who was the African during colonization?
• Who is the African, afterward (and now)?

I: Who Was The African Before Colonization?

I could answer my own question with something like “the original man” or “the mother and father of civilization,” and while both those statements are factual, they still don't do our history justice. One of the lasting refrains of my life has been “What has Africa really contributed to the world?” and if I can be candid for a moment, “just about everything” is a more than appropriate answer: humanity, ethics, writing, spirituality, science, mathematics (the combination of the last three in particular is unique, and found nowhere else but at its place of origin), law, and social order are all human achievements that have both origins and highly developed apexes in Africa. Even the most staunch deniers of these would still have to admit that the world's wealth was made on the backs of my people, only for us to be locked out of benefiting from that wealth.

No conversation about Africa, or Africans, is complete without bringing up the pillar of our nature, and social order: the concept of Ma'at. Ma'at is the embodiment of a multitude of concepts such as truth, justice, righteousness, equality, reciprocity, sobriety, harmony...but the head of all these is balance. As a living concept Ma'at (this is the part where I make it clear: contrary to popular belief, what most people call the “gods” of Kemetic culture are not actual beings that people worshiped, they were attributes of nature given a human form and used to tell stories and teach lessons, as there was no concept of religion or need an outside savior) takes the form of a Kemetic woman, because the aforementioned concepts are considered feminine traits.

The Dora Milaje are based on Kemetic warrior queens such as Nzingha, but also on Marcus Garvey's all-woman bodyguard squad and the warrior women of Dahomey

This is not a slight or an insult, because that balance that Ma'at embodies is a universal balance reflected on all planes of existence, and as such that balance was also found in the relationship between a man and a woman. There was no misogyny, sexism, or hatred of women, because it never occurred to anybody to think of a woman as being anything other than equally divine when put beside a man. This is something that not many people can actually believe, or even appreciate properly, because all most of us know is the inverse. And when I explain this I almost always get a “well it's not like that anymore” and it usually comes from those of European ancestry, because they cannot imagine a world or people that have no concept or hatred for women and if they could, it would have to be a thing of the past, as opposed to something that still lives in the people that created it.

The first concept of what we would call a “goddess” later on comes from the Congo, and just so happens to coincide with the origin of humanity. Nut (newt) is the personified concept of the universe, and her body consists of the universe in its totality. Usually depicted as reaching across the sky, the heavenly bodies came directly from her womb, and the sun itself died every night only to be taken into her mouth and reborn in the morning. Pepi II of Kemet said “The heavens are found between the legs of the goddess Nut” famously, and Dr. Yosef Ben Jochannan, whom we call “Dr. Ben” lovingly, came along in the 20th century and brought it full circle: “Just as the heavens are found between the legs of Nut, on Earth heaven is found between the legs of the black woman.” You cannot have a concept like this and hate women, or think them beneath you, and likewise you cannot perpetuate a concept like this if you view men as being beneath you. This is what we call the dialectical law of opposites, and in African culture opposites are seen as divine instead of defined against a negative and corrupted structure.

This plays into Black Panther, being set in an African country that has defied colonization, and these concepts are clearly left intact because of it. It is the nature of Ma'at, and as a result the African, for the woman to be the giver of the ways, and the man to be the enforcer of the ways. Tehuti was the compliment of Ma'at and his role was to record events, and as such he scribed the 42 Negative Confessions as she called them out; his zoo-type was the ibis, because the long pointed bill of the ibis resembles a pen. T'Challa, a single and childless African man, has women around him that respect his position and in turn he knows and understands that his personal power comes directly from them. The movie did a fantastic job of laying a base for something that, for most people, is a foreign concept. Even the concept of the throne is born from the matrilineal system, as the throne is symbolic of the lap of the mother, and T'Challa's throne has the same configuration as ones we see in Kemetic reliefs and scrolls.

One thing that stuck out to me was the me'ri (love) between T'Challa and the women in the film. It isn't often that level of care is given to relationships between African men and women in films and television, and usually when it is done it's so heavy-handed and not well thought out. They had disagreements without yelling at one another, and never allowed these disagreements to interrupt or define their relationship. It was refreshing to see that, especially when we have other programs that show families, royal or not, at each others' necks so often. Not once did T'Challa call into question their capabilities, and even when he was defeated never did they consider deserting or berating him for it.

Ma'at is also shown in how the elders are treated. In the words of Baba John Henrik Clarke, “In Africa nobody had a word for “old folks' home” because nobody had ever thrown away grandma and grandpa.” Elders were-and are, despite the best attempts of a white supremacist patriarchal mechanism-revered and not looked at as dead weight. For example anybody that grew up in a black church knew that the oldest woman was known as “the mother of the church.” Not an official position, but the mother was given the highest respect and you'd get mangled for sitting in her favorite seat, in the least. The Wakandan elders were afforded the same esteem by everyone, even those not of royalty. One of the few ways I could come up with to make the film better was to have elders from out community in the movie; Winnie Mandela (RIP), Shaharazad Ali and Baba Dick Gregory (RIP) imparting wisdom to T'Challa, his sister Shuri, and even his mother Ramonda? Yes, every time and all the time.

I Photoshopped this pic of Baba Dick Gregory in traditional African garb

II: Who Was The African During Colonization?

The plight and struggle of the African today often makes for a tense and laborious discussion, mostly because of a failure or refusal to admit its genesis. The primary weapon of the conqueror, whether it be the European or the Arab before them, was a distortion and corruption of the greatest gift we gave to mankind. Despite the near-universal resistance to the idea, African spiritual concepts gave birth to what we now know as religion, and the fact that these concepts were distorted and used to attempt to destroy us is a violation that the English language has no suitable words for. Never mind that missionaries commonly worked as agents to “spread the word of God” in order to take away land from native Africans, often with death as an end result. Those details are typically seen as inconsequential or best left no discussed, as to not rile up people who may hear them and not take it well.

It isn't enough to say that colonization interrupted African progress; the conquering of Kemet halted human progress as a whole, because while Kemet wasn't the creator of most of these spiritual and scientific concepts, it was the zenith of them. We can attribute these scientific and spiritual concepts to both Kush (Ethiopia, and it's not a coincidence that 'ethics' has its birthplace here) and the aforementioned Congo.

Imhotep himself is paid tribute in the Hippocratic Oath, in the opening line. “I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses” of course refers to Greek gods, and of those four gods only 3 are fictional. Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine, and is the name given Imhotep when they added him to their pantheon. Hippocrates himself declared “I am a child of Imhotep” due to him studying Imhotep's work, thousands of years after his death. Imhotep used what we consider modern medical tools, such as scalpels, as well as the first recorded prescriptions. 

I understood the mathematics involved with the Pythagorean Theorem because while I learned it formally in the 10th grade, I instantly recognized the theorem itself as being found in Kemetic mathematics-also knowing that Pythagoras studied with the Kheri Heb priests there. I always found it humorous that the Kheri Heb priests' curriculum consisted of 40 years of study, while Pythagoras, whom is considered to be one of the most intelligent people that ever lived, flunked out around year 22.

When looking at how Wakanda was depicted in Black Panther I immediately drew the parallel between it and both Kemet and Kush. Wakanda is a synthesis of the two, having Kemet's scientific pedigree while also maintaining Kush's spiritual and historic pedigree (Kush is one of the few African countries that was never conquered). I would imagine if Kemet was never conquered, it would look like Wakanda. I lamented with my nephew when talking about African history about what a sight it would be to see flying cars and trains zooming over and around the Great Pyramid of Giza, which would be in its original condition coated with white limestone. As excited as I am to go to Africa next year, not being able to watch the sun rise over the pyramids and have the light reflect off the limestone and across the desert is something that brings both a rage and bittersweet feeling I cannot describe.

The tribes of Wakanda are based on different African tribes.

Also I must state that there were several African dynasties and advanced cultures that were also destroyed, and while I can't go into detail here for lack of time and space, it's well worth the research.

The common line of thought, and this is why the language we uses matters, is that slaves were brought to what would later become the Americas and forced to work for free. But the fact is that doctors, artists, scientists, mathematicians, spiritualists and skilled people of all sorts were brought here and made slaves. This is an important distinction that must not be continued to be ignored or mimimalized.

III. Who Is The African, Afterward (And Now)?

Of the three questions posed, this one may be the most complex and the one most needing nuance. Of the many metaphors found throughout Black Panther the most continually referenced ones involve the relationship-and often battle-between African tradition and the contemporary circumstance that came with post-colonization Africans. We can go back to the early 20th century and see a great divide of perspective, most notable between The Talented Tenth and the followers of The Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

The Talented Tenth, who counted intellectual luminaries like W.E.B. Dubois amongst their number, were called so because they were considered the representatives of the ten percent of America-born Africans that had the privilege of a top shelf education (if you can call it that), and as such were allegedly the best qualified to lead their people to their destiny. From this tradition came the black bourgeoisie, or what can be called the “black and bougee” today. While their combined skill and knowledge base cannot be denied, these superlatives were often accompanied with an air of superiority that kept them from reaching the common person in their neighborhoods. They differed from other brilliant African minds like the previously mentioned Drs. Ben and Clarke in this manner; the latter split time between gathering a knowledge base and working with and for their people in an intimate manner, as well as training the next generation to do the same.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey created what is still the single greatest African movement ever founded in the Americas, and he did it by engaging Africans all over with his formidable oratory skills and then following up with strategic organizing. He had a vision of creating self-functioning communities that would lead to a way out of America and back to Africa, for those that wished to go, or a path to the kind of self reliance that a nation within a nation needs to sustain itself. His concept of Pan-Africanism didn't involve hating Europeans, as is the common trope associated with these sort of movements if you let outsiders tell it, but a re-instilling of pride in those of us with a direct African origin. Dr. Clarke compared the history of a people to a clock that gives them their accurate time of day, and a compass to direct them in the way they must go. And we as Africans have precious little to go on, compared to the other people of the world, thanks to the slave trade and how it destroyed the African family unit.

The pose that is known now as the “Wakanda Forever!” is the posture utilized by Ausar, while holding his staff and flail, most commonly seen in busts and Kemetic sarcophagi.

As T'Challa represents the traditional African man, Killmonger represents the African man born in the diaspora, long ago cut loose from the physical shackles of chattel slavery but still bound by the same spiritual and mental chains that prevent a people from their original destiny, in turn taking up the task of carrying out his master's ways and being the reflection of him instead of his Great Mother that nursed the entire planet in her lap.

One thing I keep hearing from moviegoers is how they wanted to see Killmonger have a redemption arc that ended with him ruling at T'Challa's side. This would have been impossible. Throughout the movie, he had no qualms about enacting gross violence towards his people, but especially the women. He starts the film out being violent towards a woman, and even when he is shown with an African woman he seems to care about, he has no problem killing her when she has outlived her usefulness. Such an egregious violation of Ma'at would have been more than enough to get him executed. Then once he becomes the nessu (king) his first act as a regent is to enact violence on an elder (also a woman). This is the sort of spirit and action that you can't just happily-ever-after from in a matrilineal society. He was well beyond redemption and this is what made his last line just as much of a violation; he didn't call on his ancestors once the entire movie, until it fit his purpose. That moment showed he had no interest in being anything they were, and it recalls one of Marcus Garvey's most famous quotes: "I have no desire to take all Black people back to Africa; there are Blacks who are no good here and will likewise be no good there."

The film explores other African motif and imagery (not at all intended to be all-inclusive):
  • During the club scene the outfits of T'Challa, Okoye and Nakia mirrored the colors of the Pan-African flag.
  • In the final fight scene Killmonger and Black Panther fight on an underground railroad.
  • The elders of Wakanda are wearing actual African garb from different African tribes.
  • The pose that is known now as the “Wakanda Forever!” is the posture utilized by Ausar, while holding his staff and flail, most commonly seen in busts and Kemetic sarcophagi.
  • The Dora Milaje are based on Kemetic warrior queens such as Nzingha, but also on Marcus Garvey's all-woman bodyguard squad and the warrior women of Dahomey

To close, I'd like to thank anyone and everyone that stuck with this thing to the end. I hope you learned something, or at least found something worth thinking about. This is just a surface reflection of what I could go into, but I find that the subject of the history of my people is very rewarding when self researched.

Also I'd like to dedicate this piece to all my mothers, those both here in the now and transitioned. Peace be upon you, and may the universe be pleased with you. Ase, ase, ase-o.

1 comment:

lil B said...

Thank you for this.

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