‘Black Panther,’ History and the Future

Hollis Robbins considers the hit film, Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the limits of thinking historically.

February 27, 2018
Image of Black Panther film poster

Some of the most interesting responses to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film come from Afrofuturists committed to imagining a world without Du Boisian double consciousness, without the burdens of history -- not fighting for liberation (because there was no slavery) but rather for infinite, yet-to-be-fantasized objectives. Charlotte M L Bailey, for example, focuses on the imagined architecture and technology featured in the film. Angela Watercutter at Wired also focuses on technology and design in the film's setting, Wakanda.

One of the best scholarly responses to the film has come from a philosopher arguing that as groundbreaking a film as Black Panther is, its weakness is its failure to imagine something better. Chris Lebron laments in Boston Review that the two “radical imaginings” offered by the film, “an immensely rich and flourishing advanced African nation that is sealed off from white colonialism and supremacy … and a few black Wakandans with a vision of global black solidarity who are determined to use Wakanda’s privilege to emancipate all black people,” cannot be reconciled without black-on-black bloodshed. Can something other than the choice between incarceration or death be imagined in Wakanda?

If humanists do one thing well, it is focus on the question “who are we?” But the more pressing question may be “what do we want?” The relationship between these two questions is more tenuous than humanists want to believe.

My questioning of the limitations of historical thinking was provoked by seeing Black Panther the same week as the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I am also struck by the leadership of the young student survivors insisting that something be done about gun violence in America. These students do not care about the past. They care about the future.

Is it possible to have too much focus on history? The immediate reaction to current events in the past few years by humanist scholars -- sociologists, historians and literary historians in particular -- has been to look to history to try to understand the present. Engaged and robust communities of historians have sprung up, notably the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), led by a group of smart and social media-savvy young historians, led by the extraordinary Keisha Blain of the University of Pittsburgh. Consider also the scholars engaged in the #Syllabus movement of the past few years, launched by Georgetown historian Marcia Chatelain in the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

These passionate historians advocate for an educated citizenry, a historically aware citizenry, a citizenry well versed in the institutions and social structures of power that have made the world as it is. Their assumption is that knowledge of the past is critical for disrupting existing arrangements and effecting political change.

But is it working? What if historical thinking is not enough? What if an intense focus on human history is a preoccupation, keeping scholars from imagining a better future? What if more imagination is needed? More fantasy? How do we imagine a socially, politically and economically just future unfettered by past crimes of humanity?

And yet my National Humanities Center colleague Stephen G. Hall reminds me that “a significant component of Pan-Africanist thinking has been imagining better worlds. We only need look to Queen Nzingha, Yaa Asantewaa, Edward Blyden, Margaret Murray Washington, Amy Jacques Garvey, Claudia Tate, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” To be sure, history “done right” has much to offer if we look and look deeply. Hall notes that the female army of Wakanda is based on the Dahomey Amazons, “among the most feared warriors in Africa in the 19th century.”

But I turn from images of Wakandan women with spears to images of tearstained teenage faces in this world, protesting the fact so many people in America are armed and dangerous.

I am provoked to ask about the education system that produced the technologically savvy Shuri, an inventor, healer and design engineer who also happens to be the sister of Wakanda’s King T’Challa. How many Shuris are there in Wakanda? Who were her mentors? Where did she train?

More importantly, did Shuri go to school every day worrying about violence? Or was she able to simply focus on imagining solutions to technological challenges?

As a literary historian, my daily focus is on the past; my training and my methodologies involve finding, sifting and weighing evidence. But I am willing to acknowledge that students should be encouraged to balance historical thinking with critical imagining about the future. Listen to Sun Ra. Read Octavia Butler. Consider Future Studies. Political scientist Jim Dator’s homepage at the University of Hawaii is a good place to start.

In the meantime the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, organizing protests, marches and vigils in the coming weeks, are teaching all of us an important political lesson: change sometimes involves walking out of school, turning your back on past failures and insisting on something new.


Hollis Robbins is a 2017-2018 Tri-Delta Fellow at the National Humanities Center and a member of the humanities faculty of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.


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