Chadwick Boseman's Wakanda: Afro-Futurism Is in the Present

Skyline of the business district in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city with a population of over 12 million. (Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Chadwick Boseman's Wakanda: Afro-Futurism Is in the Present

"Of all the world regions, Africa and the Middle East most suffer from stereotypes in the U.S. media."

Chadwick Boseman's tragic death at the all too young age of 43 from colorectal cancer has been weighing on me the past couple of days. I am a fan. But I also am battling cancer, and I think I understand his incredible productivity in his last years, as he knew he was fighting for his life. He was also fighting for a legacy, something to bequeath those he would leave behind. Having played Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown and King T'Challa among others, he produced a string of pearls, of multi-dimensional performances. At a time when young Black men need hope and role models, he stepped up.

I thought I would say something about the Afro-Futurism that was much discussed with regard to the Wakanda whose ruler he played in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the end of The Black Panther, T'Challa announces that Wakanda would begin sharing its technology with the world. Someone in the audience asks what a largely agricultural country had to offer, and Boseman just smiles.

Of all the world regions, Africa and the Middle East most suffer from stereotypes in the US media. Elliot Ross at Africaasacountry wrote in 2014 about historian Steven Simon's observation that publishers seemed to like putting acacia trees on the covers of novels set in Africa, and, indeed, on books about Africa in general.

I lived about a tenth of my life on the African continent, and can attest that acacias or plane trees just aren't common everywhere there.

What has been obscured by Americans' stereotypes of Africa as one big wild animal reservation is its own spheres of hyper-modernity.

The complaints of white American conservatives that "Wakanda is not a country" are peculiarly tone deaf and betray an inability to understand genres of literature. It has been observed that George Orwell's 1984 was not about the future. Eric Blair writing as Orwell was describing in the present the worst excesses of fascist and Stalinist societies (and as an anarcho-syndicalist was not above indicting British capitalism either).

Science Fiction and comic books often appeal to hyperbole and exaggeration as their central figure of speech, just as literary fiction likes irony. Wakanda is not the opposite of reality, but an exaggeration of an existing reality, a piling up of realities in one place that are instead scattered.

We don't often see Africa skylines like that of Nairobi in our media:

As for science, there is a lot of it being done on the continent, especially in South Africa, as Cheryl Kahla wrote at The South African.

She points out that Sandile Ngcobo and some physicist colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal developed the first digital laser, which can be controlled by computer and does not have to be reset each time it is used.

Some of the inventions come out of Africa's special challenges. These obstacles can spur innovation.

For instance, Africa mostly did not have a network of physical telephone wires, so when cell phone technology came along, Africans adopted it even more widely than other global populations. By 2013 there were 650 million cell phones in Africa, more than in the United States or Europe. We all remember how North African youth wielded this technology to unseat a string of dictators.

Thus, in a BBC report on technological innovations in Africa for 2017 we find that "Ugandan engineer Brian Turyabagye has designed a biomedical "smart jacket" to quickly and accurately diagnose pneumonia" in children." In that population it is hard to distinguish it from malaria, but Turyabagye linked a stethoscope in a vest to "a mobile phone app that records the audio of the patient's chest. Analysis of that audio can detect lung crackles and can lead to preliminary diagnoses."

As for Wakanda's new-found vocation of philanthropy, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda are highly rated for charitable giving. Even Liberia, despite its legacy of civil war, is more generous in world rankings than Belgium.

The Black Panther's own Orientalism can get in the way of its futurism. It makes Wakanda a monarchy when Africa is almost entirely made up of republics. Ghana and Senegal have made strides in democracy (and Killmonger could not so easily have taken over a democracy). It garbles Pharaonic religion with Hinduism and displaces both to the south of the subcontinent, whereas the vast majority of Africans are Muslims and Christians, and they have innovated in those traditions. Sufi Murids in Senegal contributed to a powerful strain of Muslim pacifism. If anything the film does not make Africa futuristic enough.

Of course, Africa can sometimes offer a low-tech critique of an overly industrialized, scientistic way of life.

Ironically, if Boseman had actually been, say, a South African, he would have been much less likely to die of that form of cancer. A 2018 paper in the American Journal of Pathology says that:

Incidence rates of CRC are vastly different for African Americans (60 per 100,000 per year) and South African blacks (5 per 100,000 per year). Of the many differences that characterize the environment for these different individuals, diet can play an outsize role in the incidence rates for CRC. The diet for rural South African blacks is highly enriched in fiber and low in meat and fat, whereas the Western diet is low in fiber and high in meat and fat.

Americans would do well to adopt this low tech but life-saving way of life from Africans, cutting down on red meat and fat in favor of nutritious fruits and vegetables. Since red meat is also a high carbon food, reducing its consumption would also help the environment. Africa's carbon dioxide and methane emissions are tiny compared to those of supposedly technologically more sophisticated countries.

In one of his many achievements, Boseman (along with the MCU creative team) deployed the tropes of science fiction to create new images of Africa, but African scientific and technological advance is in the present. If it does not get the big international awards, I suspect, it is because it is oriented to practical problem-solving for populations that were set back by a history of European colonialism and exploitation.

These thoughts came to me as I rewatched The Black Panther for the nth time.

I am just one of millions of grieving fans trying to find a way to say goodbye to someone whose spirit I had expected to inspire and guide me for many years to come, and who was cut down in his prime. I am grateful for his life even as I mourn his death.

© 2023 Juan Cole