Is the Black Panther an African stereotype?

If you’re like me, you watched every frame of the movie Captain America: Civil War to scrutinize the introduction of the Black Panther into the story. This comic book story about the leader of a fictional African nation called Wakanda has been revived several times by Marvel over the past 40 years (and frequently imagined by artists, like the illustration above by June Vigants). Although National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates will grab the headlines for its most recent incarnation, author Christopher Priest laid the foundation for its current storyline in the late 90s.

Anyway, during the film I gritted my teeth as I expected an onslaught of African stereotypes, but there were fewer than I thought. I bristled at the notion of a fictional African kingdom, as if we don’t know which countries exist in Africa. I mean, imagine if someone told you there was a fictional state wedged between New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the inhabitants shared the cultural traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch from 200 years ago. Would you find that believable?

There’s an argument that the kingdom of Wakanda allows for the best parts of Africa to be imagined into the story, a sort of enlightened magical pan-Africanism. We didn’t see much of Wakanda itself in Captain America, but in Christopher Priest’s comic books — which I enjoyed — leopards and elephants roamed the Wakandan jungle. I think those animals are pretty awesome, and fascinating, and powerful too, but I also know where they actually live in Africa, which is on state parkland and white-owned private game reserves. (And many of those private game reserves squirrel their money away in offshore accounts.) Is it possible to tell a story about Africa without reference to the unique fauna that still live there? I’m not sure. I remember picking up a copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was younger and there were definitely black panthers in those dark woods. How often do those panthers (gone now in North America, and confined to zoos) make it into superhero stories set in the U.S.? Not often, unless they come from Wakanda.

I watched Captain America in a theater in the suburbs. The story still won me over somehow, maybe because Marvel has my number. And despite all the racial tension we see depicted in the media every day (police abuse, racism), after the credits rolled I heard some white teenagers spontaneously announce that the Black Panther was their favorite character. That’s pretty good when you consider that they could have chosen Scarlett Johansson or Chris Hemsworth. Something is going right.

–DBO

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