I am a Negro: Black as the night is black, Black like the depths of my Africa. – Langston Hughes, “Negro”
Although many Black people in the United States feel a kinship or even yearning for Africa this sentiment is difficult to express. Black people of the United States have often looked down on their African neighbors. Africans have likewise struggled to understand Black Americans. Through comic book appearances of the Black Panther we can see how these emotions have been captured in art, particularly through Christopher Priest’s portrayal of Black Americans in Wakanda.
Born in 1868, the historian and activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of how his generation of Black Americans viewed Africans in his autobiography:
“Among Negroes of my generation there was not only little direct acquaintance or consciously inherited knowledge of Africa, but much distaste and recoil because of what the white world taught them about the Dark Continent. There arose resentment that a group like ours, born and bred in the United States for centuries, should be regarded as Africans at all. They were, as most of them began gradually to assert, Americans.”
And indeed, part of Black America has continued to look down on Black Africa. In a 1967 study by Tamar Becker which interviewed black university students born from both America and Africa, the African students were described as “disappointed” by the Black American students’ “ignorance, apathy toward Africa, and attitudes perceived as rejection and hatred of Africans.” A similar study recounted by Jennifer V. Jackson and Mary E. Cothran in the Journal of Black Studies in 2003 quoted one student saying, “Africans are arrogant and think they have the right to tell other Blacks what to do. Given their history, they have no right to feelings of superiority.”
Said Howard W. French in 2021:
“For a very long time in the twentieth century, during the Jim Crow years in particular, African-Americans were encouraged to shun the idea of a connection to Africa, to think poorly of Africa—to celebrate traits in themselves, which supposedly distanced themselves from Africa, in other words, to think of themselves as more cultured, more Christian, more White, more civilized than Africans and therefore to look at ‘Africanness’ as a matter of shame or a kind of taint that needed to be avoided.”
Certainly, it is interesting to note that although Wakanda was introduced in Fantastic Four #52 (1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby as a nation whose scientific superiority left the White American Reed Richards awestruck, the comics long refrained from similar scenes with Black Americans in Wakanda. When the Falcon visited Wakanda with his girlfriend Leila Taylor in Captain America #170 (1974) by Steve Englehart & Mike Friedrich, Leila quickly begged an exit. “I’m gettin’ tired of watchin’ the dust settle!” Leila complained to the Falcon before leaving Wakanda. In Iron Man Annual #5 (1982) by Peter B. Gillis & Ralph Macchio, James Rhodes flew Tony Stark to Wakanda but griped on arrival, “Chief, is a personal trip to this hole-in-the-jungle really necessary? It’s 106 degrees out there!” And while the Black Panther’s love interest Monica Lynne arrived in Wakanda in Jungle Action #6 (1973), she found the Wakandans held her in little regard, particularly the nation’s xenophobic chief of security, W’Kabi. “Too many people warp the word heritage, Monica,” T’Challa explained in Jungle Action #8 (1974) by Don McGregor. “They use it to mean superiority– when it is only meant to give one… identity!” Monica would continue to be viewed as an outsider through Christopher Priest’s tenure as writer, with Monica’s presence (and jealousy) being part of what transformed Nakia from one of the Dora Milaje to the villainous Malice.
This grappling between Black Americans and Black Africans might be illuminated through W. E. B. Du Bois’ explanation of the ‘double consciousness’ from The Souls of Black Folk (1903):
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
One cannot proceed without mentioning the influence slavery has had on Black America. The majority of Black Americans who trace their ancestry to Africa must do so through the act of slavery, not immigration. Jennifer V. Jackson and Mary E. Cothran wrote in their 2003 study, “There are social and psychological implications of the historical past of slavery that are evident for those whose ancestors were slaves and for those whose lands were ravage and pillaged by the slave traders. This has resulted in African people putting other African descendants down with the view that ‘they have a slave mentality.’ especially African Americans.”
And yet, within Du Bois’ own generation a change can be seen in how Black Americans wrote about Africans. It may be partly due to learning how some Africans – then mostly confined within the restrictions of colonialism – looked up to them. As a teenager in 1930s South Africa, Peter Abrahams read about the Black American culture in the United States and enthused in his autobiography Tell Freedom, “But Harlem! A Negro city! Imagine Countee Cullen walking down a street and meeting Langston Hughes! And then imagine Paul Robeson joining them! And Du Bois! and Stirling Brown… Go on! Chuck in Pushkin too! And then let them talk! Imagine…”
The Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-1936 seemed to also evoke the sentiments of Black America. As the one African nation which bore no ties to colonialism, Ethiopia’s independence earned it respect in the eyes of Black Americans. The religious phenomenon Ethiopianism “represented Africa’s dignity and place in the divine dispensation and provided a charter for free African churches and nations of the future.” Singer Josephine Baker spoke out approvingly of Benito Mussolini’s fascist army, declaring, “Haile Selassie is an enemy of the people. He maintains slavery, which Mussolini is determined to stamp out,” yet she was an outlier. Some Black Americans, notably pilot John Robinson, went to fight for Ethiopia. David Mayers described Robinson’s affinity for Ethiopia: “To him, Ethiopia embodied ancestral home and spiritual wellspring, a veritable Zion.” And yet,
“The ‘double consciousness’ posited by Du Bois, as applied to Robinson in Ethiopia, took an unexpected, practically an inverted, turn. Neither the first nor last black American to do so, Robinson qua American discovered faults with his African hosts. Slavery in Ethiopia, despite attempts to abolish it, perplexed him, as did the purported tendency of court officials and aristocrats to disavow racial kinship with various African peoples unalloyed by Semitic or other admixture. Disparaging attitudes periodically manifested by Ethiopians toward New World blacks for the taint of being descended from slaves and occupying low rungs in America’s social order also gave Robinson pause.”
As Mayers also notes, the conflict between Ethiopia and Italy was seemingly embodied by the 1935 boxing match between Joe Louis (a Black American) and Primo Carnera (an Italian).
“Held on 25 June in Yankee Stadium, the match ended in Louis’s sixth round knockout of Carnera. This triggered a joyful outpouring in African-American precincts but gloom elsewhere, particularly in Italian-American districts where voices rang of vengeance to be visited upon Ethiopia.”
Italy would win the war yet fail to hold Ethiopia. Indeed, colonialism itself was entering its last stage and W. E. B. Du Bois lived long enough to see the beginnings of independence on the African continent. Having lost his US passport due to his communist beliefs, Du Bois was welcomed to Ghana by President Kwame Nkrumah and granted Ghanaian citizenship in 1963, mere months before Du Bois’ death. In a letter to a friend, Du Bois, who once wrote of the “resentment” he felt of being considered ‘African’ now wrote, “I am happy to address you this morning as a citizen of the Republic of Ghana. All the logic of my life leads me to this place. My great-grandfather was carried away from the Gulf of Guinea. I have returned that my dust shall mingle with the dust of my forefathers.” Indeed, after his passing on August 27, 1963, Du Bois was given a state funeral in Ghana.
In the years that followed – as African independence and American civil rights continued in tandem – there seemed to be a reconciliation between Black America and Black Africa in the vein of which Du Bois experienced. Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers (the political group, not T’Challa’s namesake) changed his name in 1978 to Kwame Ture after Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah & Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea. Among many others, professor Molefi Kete Asante of the Journal of Black Studies was born Arthur Lee Smith but changed his name after visiting Ghana in 1972.
Then too, author Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots inspired by his efforts at tracing his family’s history back to the Gambia helped encourage more appreciation for Black Americans’ African lineages, as seen in programs as Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series Finding Your Roots.
In his 1982 comedy special Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, Richard Pryor explained how his visit to Kenya had influenced him to remove the n-word expletive from his material (all expletives following censored by the author):
“A voice said to me, ‘what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see all colors of people doing everything.’ And the voice said, ‘Do you see any n—–s?’ I said, ‘no’. You know why? Because there aren’t any. And it hit me like a shot, man, I started crying and s— and said, yeah man, three weeks, I haven’t even said it. I haven’t even thought it. And it made me say I’ve been wrong, I’ve been wrong, I’ve got to regroup my s—, I ain’t never gonna call another black man n—–.”
Black America’s claims of kinship to Black Africa could also be seen in the personal life of actor Denzel Washington, who had his wedding vows renewed in South Africa in 1995, a ceremony officiated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a major player against South Africa’s apartheid government. Ghana is today hosting ‘slave heritage tourism’: “We are encouraging our brothers and sisters from the U.S., from the Caribbean from Europe to come back to their Motherland Africa to get to know the culture … and whatever the ancestors went through.”
It should be no surprise then, that this change would be reflected in the comics. In 1993’s Deathlok #22 by Dwayne McDuffie, the Black American hero Deathlok (Michael Collins) is hired by W’Kabi to tend to cybersecurity matters in Wakanda. Deathlok accepts on the condition that he be permitted to bring his wife and son with him, to which W’Kabi consents. “It’s a great chance for the family to spend some time together without hiding in Coney Island,” Deathlok argues to his wife. “And you can’t even front and tell me you don’t want to go to the motherland.”
It was in this environment that Christopher Priest became the first Black American to write the Black Panther’s monthly adventures. On two occasions in the series – only a few months apart in Black Panther #20 and #23 (both in 2000) – Priest wrote scenes in which Black Americans visited Wakanda for the first time.
In Black Panther #20, Queen Divine Justice arrives in Wakanda, landing in the urban streets of Erik Killmonger’s hometown, which Killmonger had renovated to look like an American city. Queen Divine Justice, although Wakandan by heritage, had lived her entire life in Chicago and was thus seeing Wakanda for the first time. But being cynical and world-weary beyond her teenage years, Queen’s initial reaction to Wakanda has her tongue planked firmly in her cheek: “Wow… so this is Africa. So primitive… so pastoral… it’s just like I imagined it.” She then hails a taxi.
Yet later, Everett K. Ross is surprised to see Queen Divine Justice quietly shedding tears of joy as they travel on Killmonger’s monorail: “Sure, it’s just… they’re black people… y’know? We’re riding a monorail into one of the world’s most technologically advanced cities — built and occupied by black people. I’ve read about it, of course — but — being here — seeing these beautiful faces — it… it changes everything…”
In Black Panther #23, Triathlon of the Avengers is accidentally brought to Wakanda by the mercenary Deadpool. Making the best of the situation, Triathlon goes jogging alongside a herd of antelope. He tries to explain his feelings to Deadpool: “Africa. I’m in Africa. I’ve waited all my life… dreamed of coming here… and I get here by accident. Don’t you see it–? Smell it–?” Deadpool, a white man, demurs. “I want to. I mean, I really wish I could. I’ve been to Africa dozens of times… usually with a machine gun in my hand… all I smell is gazelle poop.”
Triathlon later encounters T’Challa, who at the time had lost the mantle of the Black Panther while battling Killmonger. T’Challa had hidden himself inside Wakanda’s Techno Jungle and Triathlon did not recognize him: “So, we’re in Africa — among all this splendor and beauty — but you live down here?!” Triathlon wonders and likens T’Challa’s situation to being “stuck underneath [his] own utopia.”
Although at the time of writing these stories Priest admitted he had never been to Africa himself, he had based Queen Divine Justice and Triathlon’s experiences on what other Black Americans had expressed to him. “…Most every account I’ve heard or read tells me, going there would change my life forever. African Americans have *no* idea, none, how emotionally devastating standing on African soil is. And most white Americans really can’t understand this reaction,” Priest wrote on Usenet.
Priest’s continued explanation calls to mind Du Bois’ double-consciousness:
“From what I understand, it’s a spiritual awakening, to leave this place where it’s a daily struggle just to exist in an institutionally racist society and arrive in a world where that burden doesn’t exist. There’s this weight lifted off your shoulders, as I understand it. A weight we’ve grown so accustomed to that we’ve made peace with it; come to terms with it. But, suddenly, it’s gone. Suddenly, I’m a man, presumed to be a man, without having to perpetually pass some slalom course of social skill tests.
“In Nigeria, I get on an elevator, I’m just a guy. Here, I’m extremely uncomfortable because I feel a burden to make the white people around me accept me; to show them I can articulate the language, that I’m not going to rob them. That I’m just a guy on the elevator. Now, a lot of that is on me: for all I know, the people on the elevator already accept me, and I’m just being paranoid. But my paranoia has a basis in experience, a shared experience with most African Americans. So, in Africa, even a little thing like riding an elevator can reduce us to tears; can be a spiritual experience. The weight is gone. Third floor, please.”
Queen Divine Justice’s tears on the monorail bring to one’s mind Richard Pryor’s emotional experience in Kenya; Triathlon exalting at his unexpected dream vacation reminds one of Denzel Washington renewing his vows in South Africa.
Wakanda and the Black Panther continue to be a means to explore the relationships between Black America and Black Africa. Indeed, when Chadwick Boseman passed away the BCC asserted “In his role as Marvel’s Black Panther, Boseman helped to connect African-American audiences with their African heritage.” Christopher Priest’s depictions of Queen Divine Justice and Triathlon forming emotional bonds with Wakanda have helped deepen comic book depictions of Africa.