by Agya Boakye-Boaten Ph.D. –
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” ~ Chinua Achebe
The euphoria surrounding the release of Black Panther—a Hollywood movie based on the Marvel Comics superhero—has offered a welcome reprieve from the current racial contentions and discontents. It has ignited a sense of pride among Africans at home and abroad about the positive portrayal of their intellect and contribution to the world.
The movie (probably the first almost-all-black superhero blockbuster) is set in Africa, where the mythical country of Wakanda is an extremely advanced society, a center of world innovation and transformative technological advancement.
Who would have imagined that a fictional African country, long hidden from the world, could be a futuristic place with technology far ahead of the rest of the world?
This piece is not an analysis of the movie, a task I’m woefully unqualified to undertake. No, I want to challenge the idea that Wakanda is just a figment of our imagination; rather, it is a recollection of a memory of Africa long before the continent’s violent encounters with Europe. This is history being told by the lion, and not the hunter.
Such a telling is counter to the Hegelian narrative of Africa, which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his book Philosophy of History claimed that:
“The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas—the category of Universality.
“In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence—as for example, God, or Law—in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being.
“This distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the Knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting.”
The racist dehumanization of Africa and Africans by European scholars, and the complete dismissal of entire cultures and histories of a continent and its peoples, laid the foundations for the epistemological violence that continues to plague the continent and its people today. Thus this movie challenges the Hegelian characterization of Africans of a people who had made no contributions to world civilization.
In Black Panther, Wakanda was so advanced that a severe injury to the spinal cord could be healed completely in 24 hours. The people mined a precious metal, “Vibranium,” that was so versatile, powerful, and valuable that they had long determined to keep it secret from the rest of the world. While I acknowledge my limitation in fully grasping the intricate scientific aspects of the movie, I saw clearly the historical parallels of Africa’s actual advancement and innovation before the invasion of Europe.
First, Africa as the birthplace of mankind was also first in advancing the cultures of modern humans. African metallurgy provided the foundation for the industrial revolution. The Nok of Nigeria for instance, were smelting iron as early as 1000 BC. There is also ample evidence of Copper smelting in Nubia around 4000 BC. From this technology, Africans developed the first tools for modern humans, which became the foundation for advancement of subsequent cultures elsewhere.
Second, Africans revolutionized agriculture by domesticating wild plants to cultivate as food, and they made tools from iron. According to Pedro Barros and Luis Cabral (Review of International Economics), these advances led to an increase in “food production through more efficient bush clearance, weeding and harvesting, causing higher population densities; larger and more stable village communities; increased specialization, trade, and social differentiation; and the appearance of a settlement hierarchy and more complex forms of political organization.”
Long before Christopher Columbus, the Ghana empire, around 1062 A.D.—as the Byzantine empire was declining—enjoyed advanced social and political institutions. The city of Gao, founded around the 7th century, became the capital of the great Songhai empire, home to Timbuktu, which was the intellectual center of the empire and attracted scholars from across Africa and even parts of Europe. The University of Sankore in Timbuktu was the intellectual hub under the reign of Emperor Mansa Mussa (1307-1332), who, on his 1324 pilgrimage to Mecca had an entourage of about 60,000 people, and carried about 2,400 pounds of gold, which he distributed to people along the way. Adjusted for inflation, Mansa Mussa’s fortune would be about $400 billion.
Today, Africa is home to about 44% of the world’s richest mineral deposits, gold, diamonds, platinum, copper etc. The wealth of Africa no doubt powered Europe and America, so why does Africa still exist within the periphery of world history?
The deliberate obscurity of Africa’s history and its epistemologies, coupled with the violent narratives of Eurocentric history, makes Black Panther seem like a fictitious wonderland, a fantasy for a people desperate for a redemptive story. But in fact the great cultures of Africa were destroyed as a result of their violent encounters with European imperialism and fundamentalist epistemologies.
While Europeans were astounded by the level of sophistication and wealth in African societies, their relationship was not one of cooperation, but exploitation and destruction. They dismissed entire cultures as irrelevant and atavistic and labeled highly complex societies on a spectrum from nonexistent to obscurantist to primitive.
The recovery and restoration process for Africans and Africa has been slow, frustrating, and extremely painful. How do you restore a people’s culture, their very essence, which has been destroyed systemically over a period of 400 years?
Restoration starts by knowing how the culture was destroyed in the first place, by recentering African epistemologies and cultures. Since Europe and Europeans have no incentive to atone and reverse course, Africans at home and abroad must revitalize themselves from the paralysis of coloniality and oppression, and do so through acknowledgement of their Africanity, which means a people of strength and resilience. They must be awakened from the distortions of history, identity imposition, and cultural imperialism. Once the recovery is on course, a restoration process needs to start.
While the recovery process is reactionary, in direct response to Europe’s epistemic violence and fundamentalism, the restoration process is pro-actionary: it must begin with reconciliation amongst Africans, and forge a collectivist alliance through memory recollection. While it may be impossible to recreate what was destroyed, we can endeavor to remember.
The novelty of the film Black Panther lies not only in the cinematographic brilliance per se, and the empowering display of an all-black cast; it is also an exhilarating departure from Hollywood culture of portraying Africa and Africans through stereotypes and unflattering narratives. It is a powerful depiction of the power of memory recollection. This is what happens when the lions, rather than the hunters, tell the story of the hunt. It is empowering and inspirational.