It’s Our Time: The Women of Wakanda

But Black Panther declares, why not huts and spears and Shuri’s marvelous lab and her African-inflected genius? That was a movie I didn’t expect to see. This neoliberal Empire lets the natives in only if we leave everything at the door: our ancestors, spirits, and worldviews; our beauty and our wisdom. Still, what challenges does Black Panther ultimately offer to Western hegemony? Reclaiming a past the Empire would erase ultimately changes the future. However, he declared this to be an adolescent need. Our capitalist, might-makes-right Empire is where everyone is heading. The rhino halts to lick her face and the battle is defused. They choose life. The women don’t give up on Wakanda, on the dream of their ancestors. When his woman declares that her love for him doesn’t supersede her love for Wakanda, W’Kabi responds to the power of her emotions (there is no good reasoning without emotion). General Okoye, the leader of Wakanda’s warrior women, derides their opponents for the primitive guns they use. I’ve participated in several academic panels on Black Panther. Killmonger has been an assassin, trained by the CIA. What kind of women would Black Panther showcase as supporting characters while the male warriors battled to the death to lead the nation and the world? His partners are a disposable girlfriend (who he murders) and an unrepentant greedy thug (who he also murders). The glorious myth of Western progress tells us that the so-called savages have nothing to offer tomorrow — savages are just yesterday pathetically persisting in today. She stands tall. Remember the ooga-booga cannibalism of the Voodoo Queen in District 9 and minstrel Voodooism in too many other films to name? How can a serious actor who has played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall take the dilemmas of Wakanda and King T’Challa seriously? Black Panther broke the bank, proving to be a mass market delight. Like Killmonger, W’Kabi sought revenge even if it meant civil war — Wakandans killing Wakandans. SEPTEMBER 8, 2018

IN THE RUN UP to the opening night of Black Panther in early 2018, there was hype, hope, and skepticism: would the general public (i.e., non-black people) turn out to see a bunch of black folks in a mythical comic book masquerade centered on Africa and the diaspora? How could there be such a big deal with Black Panther when the plot was so good-guy/bad-guy thin? Nakia urges the Black Panther to quit hiding in the bush and step out onto the global stage in order to become a leader for the rights of black people (and all people) across the world. Folks were shocked that the film was so good, so REAL. ¤
Andrea Hairston is a playwright, novelist, and scholar. Theater is not “real” or a “mature” political engagement with reality. Okoye chooses to fight to the death to save her country as Nakia demanded. He changes. Black Panther would no doubt feature beautiful black people in a fabulous action adventure, but would Marvel, Disney, and corporate Hollywood ultimately roll out an entertaining apology for colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy? Or is he a tragic figure masking his wounds and seeking petty revenge with revolutionary rhetoric and posture? I’m not big on tragic figures who are crushed by irreconcilable forces with no hope for change. Wakanda interrupts this pseudo-Darwinian myth of progress that denies the rest of the world our humanity. What?!? I was taken aback, at a loss for words. Empire always uses stories to control the present and colonize the future, to define what is “real” and normal. I am still an adolescent, a child, a young adult, a middle-aged lady, and a post-menopausal fairy god-bitch. Colbert’s hidden question was this: Children of the Enlightenment, aren’t we too mature, too rational for a mythical masquerade centered on Africa and the diaspora? As we rush to the climax, Okoye faces down a two-ton armored rhino who runs down Wakandan warriors and charges for her. Nakia insists that Wakanda is strong enough to display their strength and brilliance. Accommodationist T’Challa survives while revolutionary Killmonger dies. T’Challa breaks tradition without abandoning the past and calls to the future with the help of revolutionary women like Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, and Ramonda. It’s a new story for tomorrow: Afro-futurism. In Wakanda, African traditional worldviews do not have to be tossed aside so that black folk can become citizens of the new world. I had come to the panel to talk about the Women of Wakanda, not to defend the validity of popular entertainment or our so-called adolescent desires to see ourselves beautiful and flawed, competent and despairing, vital and brilliant — whoever we are: dykes, fan boys, gender queer academics, grandmas, and people who never go to superhero movies. And what about the women? Linear, absolute, and inevitable progress is one of our cherished neoliberal myths; Western technological superiority is the pinnacle of this supposed progress. The performer-audience bond was achieved with black bodies, and I took pleasure in that too. She is even willing to sacrifice W’Kabi, the man she loves. These very different women recognize the flaws in Wakanda’s relationship to the world community and to the ancestors. Costumes help me perform who I mean to be; performance is the moment you make meaning of your experience! Black Panther offers an Afro-futurism that is not only about projecting African diaspora people and cultures into the future; it’s also about recovering the past. She revolts against a mad king who flaunts the laws and sets himself above Wakanda. Baaba Maal, Massamba Diop, and Kendrick Lamar created African and African-American music that carried us to our best selves. In my theater, all these different people watched performers from the African diaspora and saw themselves as beautiful. She is author of Will Do Magic For Small Change, a finalist for the Mythopoeic, Lambda, and Tiptree Award, and a New York Times Editor’s pick. I still haven’t gotten over this; we had definitely seen different movies. The Empire would denude everyone. Does he join with the oppressed peoples of the world or the techno-wizard Wakandans to bring about change? When Angela Bassett, queen mother of Hollywood, says, “It’s your time,” she is talking to us all. Of course Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall could all jump over buildings too, or they never would have gotten anywhere! Is his conquest of Wakanda and call for retributive violence really a revolution, or is it merely revenge using the tools of his former masters? Nakia saves a life in the first few moments she’s on screen: a young man with a gun seems to be part of a group trafficking in women. How is blasting his foes (and the black people he’d like to save) a revolutionary change from the might-makes-right, multinational, corporate imperialism that savaged Africa and continues wreaking havoc throughout the world today? I don’t know about you, but I’d love to have one of those light-cannon, energy-spewing spears, good whenever you need a burst of force to prevent catastrophes or other stupid-ness (and to survive car chases). They revolt against the mad king and the status quo of an isolationist Wakanda. Once again, a character trying to queer the imperialist narrative of a corporate blockbuster doesn’t make it to the credits. Like these ancestors, the women of Wakanda can imagine a world and shape the future. General Okoye, caught in a tragic struggle, also changes. And Nakia makes it to the credits. In Wakanda, our profound connections to the ancestors need not be severed in order to participate in technological modernity. Brilliant Europe just got there first. She sends them back to their village so that they can resume their lives. Black Panther redefines normal. Nakia, King T’Challa’s former lover, challenges Wakanda’s traditional isolationism from the beginning. The women bring the Black Panther back from the dead. Maybe, just maybe, they let the music slip through. I went to Black Panther three times, and I bought the DVD. Killmonger chooses to launch Wakanda’s futuristic, superior weapons at the enemies of black people, a vague indiscriminate target. I will dress up like Okoye or M’Baku or Ramonda or any other character if I feel the spirit. Do we see him engaging in revolutionary struggles? But is Killmonger really the revolutionary in the film? In reality, he’s a child soldier stolen from his family and forced into service by the older gangster-warriors. Also, this is the Marvel Universe: a fiercely male domain. From random atoms, swaths of light and sound, performers and storytellers create the worlds that we all live in. Since T’Challa isn’t the mythic rugged individualist who saves the day all by himself, some folks fear that T’Challa isn’t a real hero, but Black Panther redefines what it means to be a hero. Has he become his own enemy? She is a War Dog, an undercover spy who is fighting for women’s freedom in West Africa when T’Challa intervenes to invite her to his enthroning ceremony. In particular, he didn’t mention the women. So does T’Challa; he ultimately challenges the ancestors who abandoned Killmonger to hell in America. We must tell our dead fathers they were wrong when we discover their flaws and inadequacies, even as we understand and celebrate their humanity, their brilliance and bounty. Black Panther called to our particular bodies, ideas, and beauty. Folks have worried on Twitter and elsewhere that T’Challa might be eclipsed by the mighty women who support him. Nakia is for change, for revolution. It’s our time. That’s the Magic of performance, of story. He sees the possibility of another story, and he calls off the war. African rituals offer T’Challa wisdom and the opportunity to change. Kleptocracy! Tragedy often supports the status quo, but these women refuse tragedy and create better alternatives. THROWBACK SPEARS? This is what Africans might create if never colonized. The film is set in Wakanda, a fictional African nation that evolved in secrecy, protected from European colonial interruption. All over the world, the public flocked to watch the mostly black cast tear up the screen. “Normal” is the secret weapon of the empire. He does this radical act with the aid of the people — especially the revolutionary women who do not give in to revenge and tragedy. When the DVD dropped, Stephen Colbert asked Chadwick Boseman (who played King T’Challa, the Black Panther) how he was able to invest a cartoon character who can jump over buildings with so much reality? The women stop the war machines, save T’Challa, and together they bring Wakanda out of isolation to transform the world. Critics of the film insist that Black Panther supports the status quo. Don’t black people in particular need realism? Black Panther, in contrast, argues that African cosmology, spirituality, and technology have much to offer the future. So what about the women? If this is Afro-futurism, some asked, why those primitive huts atop skyscrapers and primitive costumes on lady warriors who wielded throwback spears instead of guns? T’Challa demands a change of Wakanda’s isolationist past. Pleasure in the beautiful spectacle of blackness was thus immature, insignificant. In the film’s troubled Hollywood narrative, Killmonger, the black man representing power to the people by any means necessary, is mortally wounded in a climactic knife fight, and he prefers death to any alternative. Nakia tells General Okoye that they should save the nation, not serve a mad king. There was no time on this panel for theorizing performance; other panelists also declared that Black Panther wasn’t REAL POLITICAL ACTION because its aesthetics were a throwback to savage days — the costumes, the architectural setting, and even the style of the movie was a primitive mish-mash, not like what you’d find today in African cities. Nakia has been riding in the truck as one of the women stolen from her life, and she knows the boy’s story; she saves him from the superior Wakandan warriors and also liberates the women. He starts a new story. “Normal” is a story masquerading as absolute truth that goes without saying. The Women of Wakanda perform like African women before them: the Benin Queen Mothers; the Dahomey Ahosi women warriors, advisors, and reign-mates to the king; Yoruba Iyalojas — queens of the market in Nigeria; the Sande Women’s Societies of Central West Africa; the dike nwami — Igbo warrior women; Zulu Isangoma — healer women of South Africa; and the mikiri, ad hoc political institutions of Igbo women. African spirituality was never grotesque heathenism. Theater is a transcendent, out-of-time, out-of-space, out-of-skin engagement with the cosmos, a shape-shifting, time traveling SHAKE-UP of your mind/body/spirit. Theater makes reality, not the other way around. Again, this is a vision of what Africans might create if never colonized. The rhino is ridden by her love, W’Kabi, but Okoye is fierce and will not be moved. Killmonger can’t imagine different possibilities, but Nakia, Shuri (T’Challa’s sister and the young techno-genius of Wakanda), and Ramonda (T’Challa’s mother and wise woman) are able to imagine change and a different future for Wakanda. This hidden question about the so-called “maturity” of the film popped up everywhere. Folks dressing up like Wakandans weren’t doing REAL POLITICAL ACTION, weren’t attempting a mature engagement with reality. Modernity is all about abstracting us from our bodies, our particular histories, our unique ways of seeing the world. The shield cloaks the Wakandans rocked were marvelous, too, and the makeup and music of the film were sublime pan-Africanism. The histories and fictional stories that we tell ourselves create our reality. Nakia is with the people, for the people. It’s not just vibranium techno-wizardry that Wakanda has to offer the world. One learned fellow suggested that the film fulfilled our deep need to see beautiful black people reveling in their Africaness and taking care of business. In a sacred ceremony that sends him to the ancestors to gain the power of the Black Panther, T’Challa tells his father that it was wrong to abandon Killmonger, wrong to abandon the rest of Africa and the diaspora. We ignore the women at our peril! Killmonger can’t imagine a story he wants to live in; he has run out of future. W’Kabi understands what’s at stake.