Is It Nation Time? The Black Nationalism of Black Panther

Sean Posey | Race & Ethnicity | Commentary | February 22nd, 2018

In the fall of 1992, a unique moment in American cinema captured the attention of the nation. Auteur Spike Lee released his magnum opus, Malcolm X, to wide critical acclaim. But more than that, for the first time, a biopic of one of the central characters in the history of Black Nationalism reached an audience around the country and the world. Hats with the 'X' logo appeared on the heads of black youth everywhere, and the film itself inspired introspection and dialogue among not just black intellectuals but also among African Americans from all walks of life. The film's ending credits merged scenes of Malcolm throughout his life and connected Harlem to Soweto and America to Africa.

A similar moment seems to be upon us with the recent release of Black Panther, a comic book film about an African king/superhero and the fictional nation of Wakanda. Symbols and themes from Black Nationalism and Pan-African history are laced throughout the film, which manages to elevate the comic book genre flick to a visual textbook for not just inspiring black pride, but also for reflecting important elements of the black past and possible future.

Black Nationalism is a complicated concept, one with roots stretching back to the nineteenth century and beyond. The reality of chattel slavery in the West led to the call for the birth of a black nation from men such as Martin Delany, often called the "grandfather of Black Nationalism," and Robert Alexander Young, author of the 1829 Ethiopian Manifesto, which postulated a universal connection between all black peoples.

Young was writing about an old idea - Pan-Africanism. Envisioning a future nation for blacks in North America and beyond (Black Nationalism) - and building connections between African peoples around the world (Pan-Africanism) - are concepts that pulse throughout Black Panther. During the early nineteenth century, Paul Cuffee, a black businessman and abolitionist in America, began bringing African Americans to Sierra Leone. The English had already begun to bring freed slaves to the area after the Revolutionary War to a place called Granville Town, also known as the "Province of Freedom." Cuffee hoped the region could be a future homeland for blacks looking to flee oppression in America.

In the twentieth century, Marcus Garvey, perhaps the most famous of the Black Nationalists and Pan-Africanists, envisioned Liberia as a future homeland for blacks looking to flee violence and discrimination in America. He hoped that such a place would become an advanced country where blacks could prosper and build a power the equal of any in Europe. The Garveyites and other such Black Nationalists saw themselves as indelibly linked to Africa.

In Black Panther, a modern and technologically advanced black nation in Africa has already been realized. The nation of Wakanda masquerades before the world as an underdeveloped state, but hidden behind an elaborate façade is the most advanced country on Earth, powered by a fictional metal known as vibranium. Mined from a sacred mound, the substance powers nearly everything in the country.

In this technologically advanced nation, what Patricia Hill Collins calls the "main ideas" of Black Nationalism - self-determination (political), self-definition (cultural), and self- reliance (economic) - are all fully realized.[1]

Maglev trains, Talon fighters, and vehicles designed to mimic flying animals are among the more wonderful aspects of Wakandan technology that we see in the film. Unlike Western countries, Wakanda incorporates technology that both mimics and exists in harmony with the natural world. Afrofuturistic cities mingle with gorgeous vistas of waterfalls and trees. There are skyscrapers sporting thatched roofs, grass sidewalks, sophisticated public transportation systems, and no visible cars.

There is nary a white face in sight as black vendors sell their wares in the street, and a black king, T'Challa, rules over a country that has never known colonization. According to Carvell Wallace, director Ryan Coogler loosely modeled his idea of Wakanda after the Kingdom of Lesotho, a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. But Black Panther's kingdom is a futuristic polity beyond the wildest dreams of even Marcus Garvey.

From as far back as the nineteenth century, women such as Maria W. Stewart, a servant turned public figure, espoused the ideas of Black Nationalism on the national stage in America. However, in North America and throughout the African Diaspora, patriarchal structures relegated black women to largely supporting roles in the struggle for black liberation. Such gendered systems of power are absent in Wakanda.

It is easy to see the inspiration of historical figures such as Amy Jacques Garvey and Henrietta Vinton Davis in the characters of Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (played by Danai Gurira).

Okoye is head of the fearsome Dora Milaje, an all-female bodyguard that protects Black Panther and the royal family. They might be thought of as a cross between the "Amazonian Guard" that protected the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and the Nation of Islam's Vanguard or "Warrior Class" of the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class. The Dora Milaje bring to mind the term "an army of Amazons to lead the race," used to describe women in the United Negro Improvement Association. [2] Indeed, the Dora Milaje have been compared to the all-female African army of the Dahomey Amazons, who once fought the French in what is now the Republic of Benin.

Unlike Okoye, Nakia is a spy, a member of the secretive "War Dog" squad, which operates in a capacity similar to the C.I.A., minus the overthrowing of foreign governments. During the course of the film, she attempts to convince T'Challa of Wakanda's responsibility to help other embattled Africans across the continent. However, it has long been the tradition in Wakanda to avoid any entanglements with the outside world that might draw attention to the country's true power.

The tension between Wakanda's wealth and the impoverishment and agony among black populations throughout the world is symbolized in the character of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger is the son of a murdered Wakandan spy and prince, N'Jobu. While working undercover in Oakland, California, during the 1990s, N'Jobu witnesses the poverty and racial oppression facing blacks in America. He comes to believe that Wakanda should use its technology to aid the suffering of fellow blacks, wherever they may be.

N'Jobu comes to work with hated arms dealer Ulysses Klaue to in order to smuggle vibranium of out of Wakanda in order to facilitate an uprising among African Americans. When T'Chaka, who is both N'Jobu's brother and also T'Challa's father, confronts him, N'Jobu refuses to come back to Wakanda to stand trial and is killed by T'Chaka.

N'Jobu's son, the young Killmonger, is left behind in America. He grows to become a member of a black-ops unit, training for the day when he might return to Wakanda and seize the throne. There is more than a bit of Malcolm X in Killmonger, who wishes to arm the black people of the world for a final battle against white supremacy. But unlike X, Killmonger descends into violent acts against his own people (especially women) in his quest for power.

When he ultimately does return to Wakanda to confront T'Challa, it is easy to hear the words of Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist, who spoke of the plight of blacks in the United States during the twentieth century: "How long shall we have to wait for something to be done for the black people's of this country?" [3]

T'Challa, the Martin Luther King to Killmonger's Malcolm X, rejects the idea of a global war. But he remains torn over Wakanda's policy of isolation from the rest of the world, particularly the black world outside of his country's borders. By the end of the film, T'Challa decides to open outreach centers throughout the United States, bringing Wakanda's technology to those in the African Diaspora - a true act of Pan-Africanism.

The chant of the Black Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s (Is it nation time?) is symbolically answered in Black Panther. For although Wakanda is a fictional African country, its importance extends throughout the diaspora.

The concept of Black Nationalism in modern times goes beyond the idea of creating a physical polity. According to Kate Dossett, "Black Nationalism in the United States has always been closely linked to Pan-Africanism, and can be better understood through an imagined community notion of nationalism rather than a euro-centric state model." [4]

Wakanda's example is one that reaches out beyond Africa to the masses of people of African descent. It is an imagined nation for an imagined community throughout the world.

Black Panther has the potential to help engage audiences with these concepts and with the history of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. The beauty of the costumes, characters and the fictional world of Wakanda can do much more than entertain. They could mark the beginning of a new cultural and political awakening in a century where the key questions of black self-determination, self-definition, and self-reliance continue to be part of a needed dialogue.


[1] Patricia Hill Collins, From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism and Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 75.

[2] Kate Dossett, Bridging Race Divides: Black Nationalism, Feminism, and Integration in the United States, 1896-1935 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2009), 157.

[3] Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 181.

[4] Doessett, 6.