The Threat of Cannibalism and Wakanda’s Place in the World

This is the newest post in our third week of our roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here, here, here, here, and here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Rachel B. Herrmann
Cardiff University

At a crucial point in the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, geopolitical relationships are in flux. (Warning: spoilers) Erik Killmonger, the film’s main antagonist, has defeated King T’Challa (Black Panther). Left for dead, he is secretly taken to the Jabari stronghold in the mountains. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, his sister Shuri, Nakia, T’Challa’s ex and War Dog, and Everett Ross, a white CIA operative, have fled from Killmonger’s oppressive new reign and seek aid from M’Baku, leader of the Jabari. Once there, Ross attempts to speak to M’Baku to inquire about next steps. He is immediately silenced as the Jabari start barking at him. “You cannot talk,” says M’baku. “One more word and I’ll feed you to my children.” There is a tense silence, before M’baku breaks out laughing. “I am kidding; we are vegetarians.”[1]

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The threat of cannibalism works here on three levels in this Afrofuturist movie that blurs the line between the genres of science fiction and superhero films.[2]

First, it ensures Ross’s silence. Later in the scene, a revived T’Challa will ask M’Baku for the support of his army, which M’Baku refuses. This opening meeting, then, is a diplomatic negotiation between two men, one of whom once headed a four-alliance pact and the leader of the fifth tribe that refused to enter that alliance (and who later challenged T’Challa’s right to rule). Ross represents the white colonizer, whose intervention is inappropriate and irrelevant.

Second and relatedly, this scene works to reminder viewers that the character of T’Challa was imagined by white artists Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; as Sheena Howard argues, “white people created this character . . . gatekeeping our Black imagination and negotiating our sense of escapism from the real world.”[3] The moment suggests that behind the Black Panther cannon is a long history that has been mediated by white writers and artists for white consumers.

Third and most important here, the threat of cannibalism invokes the history of slavery and imperialism that undergird the history and rationale for Wakanda’s place as an isolationist country in the era during and after the transatlantic slave trade. Killmonger at one point asks to be buried “in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” At Black Perspectives, Jonathan Gray suggests that the character of Klaue (whose assistance Killmonger needs to acquire a vibranium weapon) was conceived to reference the iconography of a colonial explorer. Klaue’s pith helmet and overall appearance in the comics “represents both the nineteenth century scramble for Africa that partitioned the continent and the Cold War rush to control elements like uranium found in African nations such as the Congo and Gabon.”[4]

Though the four tribes came together in alliance several thousand years ago, it is the history of slavery and colonization that inform Black Panther. Accusations of cannibalism were used by eighteenth-century writers to justify the slave trade, and to critique it. Pro-slavery authors claimed that Africans cannibalized each other, and that by enslaving Africans they were saving them from a better fate.[5] Antislavery writers like Olaudah Equiano, who claimed to be of Igbo birth and from Nigeria, were adamant that Africans did not practice cannibalism.[6] On a voyage to England while he was still enslaved, Equiano’s ship was manned by a captain with an odd sense of humor. He remembered that the captain often threatened him and his white sailor friend, Dick, by saying he would eat them:

Sometimes he would say to me—the black people were not good to eat, and would ask me if we did not eat people in my country. I said, No: then he said he would kill Dick (as he always called him) first, and afterwards me. Though this hearing relieved my mind a little as to myself, I was alarmed for Dick and whenever he was called I used to be very much afraid he was to be killed.[7]

By responding to the captain and insisting that Africans did not eat each other, and by highlighting the captain’s own cannibalistic voraciousness, Equiano reversed the cannibal trope. Africans did not need to be “saved” through slavery because they did not face the threat of cannibalism, and further, white ship captains involved in the slave trade were likelier to display unnatural appetites. Thus when M’Baku jokes about cannibalism at this crucial moment in Black Panther, he revives colonial myths and then instantly debunks them to at once highlight the long history of white interference in the country, and assert his power at this meeting.[8]

But of course, M’Baku’s stance on diplomacy (or lack thereof) with a CIA operative, and his initial reluctance to intervene in an internal dispute between T’Challa and Killmonger, is just one articulation of policy in the world of Black Panther. In fact, several of the main characters advocate for different approaches throughout the film, each of them shaped by Wakanda’s history of avoiding the imperialism of slavery.

When the viewer is first introduced to Wakanda, we learn about its four-tribe pact, its ability to hide in plain sight as a third world nation that was secretly thriving through its monopolization of vibranium, and its lack of engagement with international trade and unwillingness to accept or distribute aid.

Gradually other aspects of its historical foreign policy become clear. We learn that T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka, killed his brother N’Jobu because his brother (who was working in Oakland, California) tried to sell vibranium to help African Americans build weapons. N’Jobu believed in unity between African Americans and Wakandans, an allusion to Pan-Africanism.[9]

Erik Killmonger, N’Jobu’s son, pushes this Pan-Africanist vision further after his father’s death. For him, all people of African descent are Wakandans. Once in power he hopes to send vibranium to undercover War Dogs everywhere. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” he promises. Killmonger envisions a Wakandan empire built on its distribution of technologically superior weapons to black anti-colonial allies all over the world. In their big train fight scene, T’Challa even accuses Killmonger of trying to replicate the actions of past imperialists, wanting to “divide and conquer the world like they did.”

While Killmonger advocates for a policy of violent interventionism, he isn’t the only person to argue that Wakanda should be sharing its technology beyond its own borders. Nakia also thinks that Wakanda should intervene, but she does not suggest that it do so violently; instead, she suggests that Wakanda should provide aid, access to technology, and shelter to refugees. Paralleling Nakia is W’Kabi, T’Challa’s friend and head of security for the Border Tribe, who believes Wakandan technology should be used for violence. But unlike Nakia, he is anti-refugee.

There is thus a whole spectrum of beliefs about Wakanda’s place in the world.

Like Dune’s ability to subvert narratives of progress and knowledge, Black Panther also tests the viewer’s assumptions about when and how technology should be used, and its inherent moral value. The movie also draws on a longer history of radical black peace activism, which called for an end to U.S. imperialism and colonialism, and the creation of a world free from exploitation—sometimes drawing on militant activism to do so.[10]

Ultimately, foreign policy under T’Challa’s second reign assumes a humanitarian interventionist angle. T’Challa has set Wakanda on course to become a country that provides aid and technology, but not weapons. The film concludes that the “wise build bridges. Others build barriers.” Jonathan Gray helpfully cites Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony to suggest that Africans live in a state of entanglement where time proceeds less chronologically and rather as a set of interlocking pasts, presents, and futures.[11] Wakanda doesn’t have to proceed from a colony to decolonization to a postcolony not only because its history hasn’t followed this path, but also because entanglement is a concept undergirding the realm of the superhero, where contradictions are inherently necessary. These contradictions help explain why Wakanda’s place in the world is so uncertain, as, throughout the film, it embraces policies of isolationism, imperialism, anti-colonialism, Pan-Africanism, and humanitarian interventionism.[12]

———-

[1] Black Panther (2018). Directed by Ryan Coogler. Marvel Studios, Burbank, California. My thinking about this film has been heavily influenced by a stellar set of blog posts at Black Perspectives. See Vincent Haddad, “Can Superheroes be Woke?: Black Liberation and the Black Panther,” Black Perspectives, February 24, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/can-superheroes-be-woke-black-liberation-and-the-black-panther/; Matthew Teutsch, “Black Panther, Surveillance, and Racial Profiling,” Black Perspectives, March 10, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/black-panther-surveillance-and-racial-profiling/; Sheena Howard, “Black Panther and the Politics of Black Heroism,” Black Perspectives, March 10, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/black-panther-and-the-politics-of-black-heroism/; Jonathan W. Gray, “Black Panther and Cold War Colonialism in the Marvel Universe,” Black Perspectives, March 17, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/the-black-panther-and-cold-war-colonialism-in-the-marvel-universe/;  Michael D. Kennedy, “Black Panther, White Supremacy, and Double Consciousness,” Black Perspectives, March 17, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/the-black-panther-white-supremacy-and-double-consciousness/; Jordan X. Evans, “Black Panther, Black Power, and the Black Nationalist Tradition,” Black Perspectives, March 21, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/the-black-panther-black-power-and-the-black-nationalist-tradition/; Woodrow W. Winchester, III, “Black Panther, Engineering, and Afrofuturism,” Black Perspectives, March 24, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/black-panther-engineering-and-afrofuturism/; Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Radical Black Peace Activism in the Black Liberation Movement,” Black Perspectives, February 12, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/radical-black-peace-activism-in-the-black-liberation-movement/; Rachel Gillett, “Black Panther: A Call to Ethiopia,” Black Perspectives, May 5, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/black-panther-a-call-to-ethiopia/.

[2] Here I draw on Michael Kennedy’s concept of superhero sociology, which, while asserting that superheroes are different from science fiction because science fiction exists in a fantastic world and superheroes live in a more immediate world, admits that “the boundary between genres is not hard and fast.” Wakandans are superheroes who exist in a believable world, and some of them have fantastic abilities. Michael Kennedy, “Sociology, Science Fiction, and Superheroes,” Scatterplot: the Unruly Darlings of Public Sociology, January 29, 2018, https://scatter.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/sociology-science-fiction-and-superheroes/ (quote); Kennedy, “Black Panther, White Supremacy, and Double Consciousness.” For Afrofuturism see Winchester, “Black Panther, Engineering, and Afrofuturism.”

[3] Howard, “Black Panther and the Politics of Black Heroism.”

[4] Gray, “Black Panther and Cold War Colonialism in the Marvel Universe.”

[5] Carl Plasa, “‘Stained with Spots of Human blood’: Sugar, Abolition and Cannibalism,” Atlantic Studies 4, no. 2 (2007): 225–243, esp. 226, 230–231. See also Vincent Woodard, The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture, edited by Justin A. Joyce and Dwight A. McBride (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Rachel B. Herrmann “‘The Black People Were Not Good to Eat’: Cannibalism, Cooperation, and Hunger at Sea,” in To Feast on Us as Their Prey: Cannibalism and the Early Modern Atlantic, ed. Rachel B. Herrmann (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, forthcoming Spring 2019).

[6] For the argument that Equiano was really from South Carolina, see Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), xiv–xv, 33. For disagreements with Carretta’s conclusions, see Paul E. Lovejoy, “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African,” Slavery & Abolition 27, no. 3 (2006): 317–347. James Sweet concludes that pinning down Equiano’s place of birth is less important than figuring out why the South Carolinian interpretation predominated more than the African one during some moments in Equiano’s life. See James H. Sweet, “Mistaken Identities? Olaudah Equiano, Domingos Álvares, and the Methodological Challenges of Studying the African Diaspora,” American Historical Review 114, no. 2 (2009): 279–306, esp. 301.

[7] Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, 2 vols. (London: Printed for and sold by the author, 1789), 98–99.

[8] This is also not the only time that food matters in the Black Panther cannon. As Matthew Teutsch argues, early depictions of T’Challa in the graphic novel portrayed him as a chicken-eating stereotype, who “attacks and critiques the myth of equality in America.” Teutsch, “Black Panther, Surveillance, and Racial Profiling.”

[9] On Black Panther and Pan-Africanism, see, for instance, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and LaKeyma Pennyamon, “Pan-African Panther,” Review of African Political Economy, Feb. 26, 2018, http://roape.net/2018/02/26/pan-african-panther/; Rachel Gillett, “Black Panther: A Call to Ethiopia, Black Perspectives, May 5, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/black-panther-a-call-to-ethiopia/.

[10] Burden-Stelly, “Radical Black Peace Activism in the Black Liberation Movement.”

[11] Gray, “Black Panther and Cold War Colonialism in the Marvel Universe.”

[12] On contradictions see Kennedy, “Black Panther, White Supremacy, and Double Consciousness.”

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