The Afro-futurist World of “Black Panther”

Students are exploring the themes of the latest hit Marvel movie in the special topics course “Afrofuturism.”

In the movie, the fictional African nation Wakanda—hidden from outsiders—mines the rare and valuable element vibranium, which powers its cities, empowers its people and is used for technological advancements never before seen by the rest of the world. The character Erik Killmonger seeks to lift the veil on Wakanda and use vibranium technology to arm the oppressed, while T’Challa (the Black Panther) fights to keep it out of the wrong hands.

“If you imagine a world in which an African society is the most technologically advanced—from the vantage point of prevailing ideas about race and technology—that doesn’t even seem like a possibility,” says Patricia Lott, an assistant professor of African American and Africana studies who is teaching the course. “Given this longstanding history of racism and colonialism, do black people share these inventions with people who may use them against us? Why are the Wakandans reluctant to share their technologies with the outside world? What does that reluctance say about the relationship between blackness and technology, or about African technology?”

These are the questions Lott poses to her students in the course, which also draws upon written works and other films that explore Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that examines the intersection of African and African-American culture with technology.

Black Panther, the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, is strongly influenced by Afrofuturism, and Lott also introduces her students to these themes through works by Octavia Butler; the book Black No More, in which a black scientist creates a procedure that makes black people white; and Who Fears Death, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic future Sudan.

“Afrofuturism is concerned as much with the past and the present as it is the future, and how these visions of the future are inspired by attempts to move away from traumatic past events,” Lott says. “There are Afro-futurist artists who argue that black life and science fiction are one in the same; that when you’re watching science fiction and the protagonist is confronted by this hostile society from which he is radically estranged, that’s black life.”

“So, to get students to think about that critically—and to think of black culture as something at the center of the future world and not the margins—makes for some great and insightful conversation.” –By Ed Moorhouse