User account

Black Panther is an American, not an African story

A.K. Kaiza

An Annotated History of Wakanda

Published: 09.04.2018


There is the very well-known political story in southern Uganda, of the mid-18th-century prince Ssemakokiro Wasajja, who uncovered an assassination plot against the king, Jjunju Ssendegeya, and who killed the plotters to save his brother.

The beginning of the story has the makings of a reverse Cane and Abel motif where love wins over rivalry, for Prince Ssemakokiro set out to be the vigilant keeper of his brother Jjunju. But Jjunju, like a dark cautionary tale of what might have happened had Cane let Abel survive, repaid the debt by taking a liking to Ssemakokiro’s wife, already heavy with child. Ssemakokiro, knowing what it meant that a king was after a wife not his own, fled the kingdom. He assembled an army and took the throne. It was the second brother he was killing. The would-be assassin who attempted to dethrone Jjunju had himself been a prince, albeit non-uterine.

Reigning in the Buganda kingdom, north of Lake Victoria, Ssemakokiro, a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte, passed into posterity as a very famous, long-reigning reformer and innovator of what in the modern age pass for autonomous state authorities, departments or ministries—innovations that long defined the kingdom. His story begins well—the prince who reluctantly ascends the throne out of the valiant motive of defending his wife’s honor. Still, the business of securing the throne awaited. Jjunju’s surviving followers were routed. On the eastern shores of Lake Victoria, in modern-day western Kenya, several days’ journey by canoe from 18th-century Buganda, the story is still told of ancestors, seven generations ago, “running helter-skelter” with the fall of King Jjunju. They fled, never to return, to learn new languages, to become new peoples.

As it was, Ssemakokiro’s successor, King Kamanya, went one further when he confronted the gods themselves. He ordered that canoes from the lake be taken to the River Nile for planned expeditions. Futile protestations did not sway the wayward king. The canoes were dragged out of the lake and carried to the Nile, an act which is said to have led to the end of Kamanya’s reign, in 1830.

Ancient lore had it that taking canoes out of the lake was in effect bodily dragging the god of the water, Mukasa, onto dry land, for which punishment was death to the perpetrator. The king’s act could only have come from bad advice, whereupon his chancellors were put to death. But it would not save the king, for he too died shortly thereafter.

In what form would this dynasty have arrived to the present, circa 2018 ce, in Trump’s world, had it escaped the intervening two centuries? What would it have passed through to survive intact?

The first foreigners to the interior of East and Central Africa arrived shortly after the death of Kamanya—the Arab coastal slavers, and the European explorer-diarists. Hence the succession stories following the death of Kamanya link to our own age, for guns, cotton goods, printing presses, steam trains, and bibles begin about this period to replace royal drums, jaw bones, and naval canoes as appurtenances of African narrative.

Precolonial African histories often passed by in such terms, in the legends and lore which are the common genre of history-telling on the continent, and decidedly incompatible with the post-Enlightenment, Western academic tradition. The first rank of European travelers, hearing these tales, and having neither the interpretive tools nor time, dismissed them as prattles of a blank slate.

Yet for a tabula rasa, the pace of empire- building, and empire collapse, in Africa, happened at such a frenetic pace that in looking back it is a wonder Africans had time for other diversions. But African history is a fraught, fought-over narrative, with many sides imposing their own interpretations on things, as the American film Black Panther illustrates. There are the inheritors of colonial scholarship, who continue to dismiss it, alongside the Pan Africanists, who embellish it. A sober, eye-level view is hard. The rhetorical pitch quickly gets out of hand.

The lives of Africans today have been sharply marked by the age of its empires, a good enough point at which to begin the African story. Another is to trace the internal migration of its peoples, the migrations which spread the Bantu language from the Bight of Benin down to the Cape of Good Hope. The story of Black Panther is the success story of centralized power that made it through, a hope still to be realized.

The high points of the age of African empires are well known to a passing interest in African history: the empires of Songhai, Kanem Bornu, Dahomey, Benin, Zulu, Mali, Kongo. Less clearly known are the linguistic markers, the body cultures, the dialects, and accents that would differentiate a Zulu-speaker from South Africa from a Malian, Bambara-speaker from Segou (as opposed to a Tuareg in Timbuktu). Prima facie, as it emerges in Black Panther, Africa is a vast country, in which the Kenyan-Tanzanian Maasai moran lives next door to the lip-plate-wearing Ethiopian Mursi, who is chummies with a Namibian Himba lady and from time to time goes out with the Zulu girlfriend in that imposing isicholo crown on Angela Basset. A veritable African Union culture day in Wakanda.

Yes, they are Wakandans, who speak Xhosa, which is like that film in which the Portuguese-speaking monarchs of the kingdom of Kazakhstan dress up in their royal Scottish Highland kilts to attend to the difficulties of their Russian subjects unhappy about the Norman invasion of England trampling over their tapioca plantations.

In what form might an African state of this kind have arrived in Trump’s age had it survived the depredations of the past two centuries?

As might have been one of the primary motives, the question leads not to a political answer of best practices but to revelatory knowledge of African history. Celebrating the body cultures and beliefs Africans spent a century in shame of is a Dadaist flipping of symbols, a raucous upending of power relations, Black Panther’s essential, revolutionary move.

To have survived into the present, Wakanda would have endured and overcome much. Going by the clues of J.F. Ade Ajayi and Michael Crowder’s majestic, foundational history book, History of West Africa, Wakanda would be located somewhere near but not too near the coast of West Africa, somewhere high, a plateau. Its distant roots would lie in Wagadu, also referred to as the Empire of Ghana, reaching as far north as the River Gambia. That would be some point in 800 ce, give or take a century or two. That empire would have collapsed in two or three centuries. A second would have emerged from its rump, larger, more powerful, surviving till the 14th century, to give way to another that would stay on till the late 1500s. Only then would Wakanda proper have begun.

The age of African empires—when they mattered, and laid the political foundations to define the continent—was all but over by the middle of the second millennium ce. There were a few that went on, albeit nominally (Ethiopia, Sokoto, and Benin), and as islands in a continental ocean of shifting, chopping political turbulence, when the dynamism had moved on to the brisk and agile kingdoms unencumbered by ancient imperial traditions.

How the peoples of the continent viewed these comings and goings is a matter of speculative interpretation. But two things are clear: many communities voted with their feet, as broad swathes chose migration rather than live under imperial tyranny, a political enough action; secondly, numerous peoples, nomads and the bulk of East Africa’s Nilotics, had escaped centralized states and many still live such lives, suspicious of centralized authority. They resisted pre-colonial tyranny, held out against colonialism, and were uninterested in the post-colonial state. The real Wakandans exist, but in the remote cattle plains of the southern fringes of the Sahel.

The assorted empires and the migrations left multi-layered identities across Africa, which layers say something of the power dynamics of the continent. In important respects they also say foreign rule was not new when the Europeans arrived. The continent had had a millennium of practice, of African occupation of African societies. It was rarely pleasant, which makes the benevolence of kings in Black Panther something of news to African communities. Imperial, monarchical rule was unyielding, punitive, remote, and often deaf to the ordinary men and women.

The myth of the wise African king grows as a riposte to the threat of European colonization; the real items, the Ssemakokiro-type, were more the rule. The impulse towards absolute power would have marked Wakanda’s history:

The empire-builders Uthman Dan Fodio, Rukidi Mpuuga (Bunyoro-Kitara empire), Mirambo (Nyamwezi, central Tanzania, 19th century), and Mansa Musa, created provinces, set out governorships, magistrates—the courtly authorities requiring of functionaries, hierarchies, law-making, law-keeping. There were armies to maintain, borders to secure, taxes to be levied. These required order.

The fall of empires would have left an uneven ground of powerful and weak governorates, vassal principalities and chieftaincies. One of these—as Mali did after the fall of Ghana-Wagadu—would have arisen to dominate the weaker ones. Foreign intrusion along the edges of the continent, the expansion of Islam to the north, the arrival of European settlers in Southern Africa, would have rumbled the parent empire under which Wakanda would likely have lived as a vassal state, paying vast quantities of vibranium in tribute. Again in West and Central Africa, Wakanda would have had to be one of the least powerful provinces of both Mali and Ghana-Wagadu before it. For had it been Songhai, it would have become too big, too powerful, and attracted attention and flamed out by the end of the 16th century.

The proper beginning point for Wakanda, as for the bulk of African kingdoms that survived till the dawn of colonization, would have had to be the middle of the second millennium ce. Smaller, less prestigious, less dramatic, certainly less ambitious, than the grandparent empires.

It would have had to be situated somewhere close to Fouta Djallon, the highlands of Guinea, far enough from the marauding Muslim armies of the north, deep enough in the interior for the Portuguese to leave alone. It would have to be ensconced in the mountains, too cold and thin-aired for the far-ranging armies of the lowland, lake-river peoples and nomadic pastoralists, as indeed Wakanda is.

Then Wakanda would have to get about the business of governing and surviving. A dynasty of former governors appointed by the long-dead emperors, the kings of Wakanda would be foreigners to the general populace; never really in, their legitimacy partly resting on their exotic past, and the shakier for it.

They would have had to reach an accommodation with the two immoveable forces of African societies, the clans and the priests. Throughout the centuries of imperial, monarchical, colonial and post-colonial rule, Africans belonged to the clan and never really gave up their religious beliefs, even under the combined assault of Christianity and Islam.

The rulers of Wakanda would have recognized the clan, attempted at first to dismantle their power but found it wise to reach an accommodation. The dichotomy between the clan (clan as communal spirit emphasizing sanctity of life, affirming equality) and the supra-state (absolute power, punitive taxes, law, and hierarchy) created the dynamic by which political history in Africa was generated. The presence of the kings was never as deep as the social reality of the clans. The king was a foreigner, welcomed into the clans but never really of the clan. The rulers of Wakanda would have had to be extra wise, for the uneasy relationship between kings and subjects played into the hands of the European colonialist and missionary. The subjects saw an opportunity to overthrow the foreign (African) dynasties.

It would have been Wakanda’s most trying moment. Given that we never meet ordinary Wakandans, nor see some assembly of the people, it’s likely that Chadwick Bossman’s T’Challa (Black Panther) knew little of the ordinary people, and cared less. There is the fascinating face-off moment between Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, and Danai Gurira’s Okoye, when Killmonger has taken the throne, of loyalty to rex or throne. This moment, when Killmonger takes the throne, would likely have not come. As it did for Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, the press of the cold war forced implosion. It was always internal rebellion. The colonels (the volatile, coup-making rank, as opposed to retiring, establishment generals) below Okoye would overthrow T’Challa. Across the continent it is Daniel Kaluuya’s W’kabi, not Killmonger, who overthrows the monarch. In real life African revolutionary coups, W’Kabi is likely a Marxist internationalist. After a few years, and some coups down the line, T’Challa returns in a coffin from Europe. A generation late, his son is enthroned as a figurehead Black Panther.

An African country that was not colonized, would, in the 21st century, be a recovering, former Marxist dictatorship, a fast-growing economy from the sale of state factories, a net exporter of migrants, unable to escape tyranny, corruption, growing inequality, and ethnic-minority rule. Its state enterprises, like the airline, the new railway system, its factories, would likely be in the control of American, European, and Chinese investment.

Black Panther is an American, not an African story, a diasporic narrative whose targets are also the targets of the continent’s mobile, educated elite, the humiliating encounters at airports, American cities, the time spent at Western Universities. It is a trope of post-colonial theory, one that picks out carefully the targets that were once used to denigrate Africa, and then celebrates the same. The diaspora is weary of discussing the continent’s role in slavery, knows little about the cultural historical minutiae of Africa, and quickly goes to war with stay-at-home Africans whose lack of education in post-colonial theory they find frustrating.

Black Panther is a recrudescence of debate from a generation ago, a restating of a long-running claims by Pan Africanists of Africa as a nation, the denial of whose existence the fine structuralists, and Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah (a veritable Killmonger of academia), in his book In My Father’s House, thought they had had a final say on. The case Prof. Appiah spent a career making, of describing cultural specifics on the continent, or resisting a totalizing narrative of Africans as one people, has been done irreparable damage by this film.

The middle way on Africa, by African scholarship, has always been a difficult one, to lend equal weight to the unpleasant facts of the continent’s history whilst allowing for future possibilities. Detailing the anti-colonial struggle creates safe ground for stay-at-home Africans, the diaspora, and the black scholars. The scholarship of Appiah brought him uncomfortably close to V.S. Naipaul, the bête noire of Pan Africanism, who was called “a brown man” from the colonies, and who took the side of the colonizer in his excoriation of Africa. He went on with his sneering dismissal of Africans after it was no longer safe for white scholars and travelers to do so.

The initial onrush of 19th-century explorer-diarists did not manage well the shock of meeting a new people. The accounts of Joseph Conrad, Henry Morton Stanley, Sir Harry Johnston, Rev. John Roscoe, were written without the aid of the peer-review substantive editorship of today. They were taken at their word. The crude intellectual mechanics that would in time morph into anthropology and sociology was to do its damage. Less remembered is the recompense that Western academia and scholarship made in the first quarter of the 20th century, when a new crop of better educated, patient, and less swashbuckling European and American students of Africa began to report better, to acquire deep respect and appreciation of the cultures they lived amongst.

In this regard then, literature lived a parallel, revanchist life to scholarship. By the 1960s V.S. Naipaul was already an anachronism, the reincarnated spirit of Conrad who ignored the works of scholars like H.J. Driberg, W.E.B. Dubois, Edwin S. Munger, and John Hope Franklin.

It is just as hard to imagine a Chinua Achebe or Kwame Nkrumah today. Africa has moved beyond her old tormentors; she has no need of the defenders from half a century ago. Black Panther’s targets are themselves anachronisms from a world before the last era—double anachronisms.

The proscription of African cultures and industry in the years leading to the 1920s—in the rush to raise colonial cash-crop and mineral production, in the mass taxation, forced labor and direct targeting of African material production that competed with European imports—inflicted serious damage to African self-regard. It was hence the actions of the colonialists in this period that provoked the backlash against colonization. The humiliation, urbanization, and Christian conversion that presented some of the down-beaten faces the likes of which V.S. Naipaul confronted, emerge from this period. It was a fight that birthed the African Writers Series, Congolese rumba, cinematograph, and the sartorial movement so celebrated by Black Panther fans.

It was a war largely won already, now strangely relitigated. The end of apartheid signaled a cessation of fire in the cultural war. In the last twenty-five years, it was harder for a V.S. Naipaul to strut across the continent, sending back to publisher André Deutsch such pronouncements as “Africa has nothing,” they are “bush people,” harder even to imagine an H.M. Stanley or Sir Harry Johnson, walking from Matadi to Mombasa. The breadth of facts they got wrong, misread, and misinterpreted is more embarrassing than outrageous, even to a critic. The body cultures and nuances they denigrated became the celebrations of the continent then completely free of colonization. To then refute the tropes and figures of Naipaul, of Harry Johnson, H.M Stanley, Conrad (Andy Serkis’s Klaw, Martin Freeman’s agent Ross), is to play an old game.

This resurrection of post-colonial tropes is a testament to the giant leap backwards in the world. In another era, the mish-mash presentation of Africa in Black Panther would have been the focal point of criticism. But this is not the age for facts. These misrepresentations are themselves the very threads that hold the movie together:

The name of the country, “Wakanda,” is a misleading construction, displacing both country and linguistic construction. Bantu in phonetics, the “Wa,” like the “Ba,” is a prefix, either a possessive or a definite article, like the English “the,” denoting a people and not a country. Hence the country itself, in Eastern African construction, would have been either U-Kanda or Bu-Kanda. It is the people who would have been called Wakanda; Bakanda would have been the alternative. The “Wa” appears in languages closer to the East Africa coast; the “Ba” sweeps westwards into the Atlantic coast. It is therefore at odds with the fact that a people called the “Wa-Kanda” speak a language that sounds like Xhosa, 3,000 kilometers further south. “T’Challa” sounds like a West African (likely Malian) and not a South African name. If Xhosa is their language, then the name of their country would have started with Mp-, Nd-, or an X, or I.

My language

Selected content

A.K. Kaiza

A.K. Kaiza

A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist who has been active in the East African media, arts, and culture for the last two decades, living and working in Uganda and Kenya. He has written for many publications on African literature and art.
Other texts by A.K. Kaiza for DIAPHANES