Wakanda Shakes the World

What does it mean for an African nation to lead the global future?

Afrofuturism is primarily thought of as an aesthetic. But it’s also a new way of looking at both history and the future. (Marvel Studios)
Afrofuturism is primarily thought of as an aesthetic. But it’s also a new way of looking at both history and the future. (Marvel Studios)

It’s been six weeks since the “Wakanda speech,” and the world is still reeling. The announcement by King T’Challa at the United Nations General Assembly that the Kingdom of Wakanda is not a developing nation of textiles, farms, and shepherds — estimated in the 2016 CIA World Factbook to have a GDP per person of approximately $760 — but a technological superpower has left global leaders and analysts stunned. The term “uber-developed” nation has been coined to describe the country’s widespread use of advanced magnetic levitation trains, flying vehicles, opaque holograms, and spinal cord-healing beads.

“Welcome to the Future,” an introductory film produced by Wakanda’s newly founded Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is now the most watched video ever on YouTube. T’Challa himself provides a voice-over describing the country’s semi-mythical history, tracing back to the impact of a vibranium meteorite, and the subsequent foundation of the country by five tribes, giving it the name “Wakanda” — “The Family.” As a camera swoops over brush, the trees themselves seem to glitch, and a futuristic skyline resembling a mixture of New York, Timbuktu, and Cairo appears. The video goes on to detail Wakanda’s claimed hyper-achievements: nanotechnology that allows for replicable organs, an average lifespan in the 100s, and a quality of life for the ordinary citizen that surpasses that enjoyed by the top 1 percent in the United States.

If Wakanda’s technology was limited to medicine, global anxiety might be less acute. But Wakanda’s stocks of vibranium, the supermaterial previously used in the construction of “weapons of cosmic destruction,” is arousing particular worry. General Okoye of the River Tribe, taking to the podium after T’Challa’s speech, made the Wakadan position clear. “We will not provide weapons, but instead we will offer our human resources to mediate conflicts. We will only offer vibranium-based technologies to those in need.” Questions were immediately raised about the general’s own famous appearance surfing on the roof of a car in South Korea in a red dress; she quickly replied “it was an impromptu example of the car’s safety features,” and relinquished the microphone.

“They use this material casually,” commented U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, “How can a tribal nation like this be trusted with such destructive potential?” While the United States reportedly has a back channel to the Wakandan leadership, Russia and China have already arranged high-level summits. Economists are perplexed as to how Wakanda’s shift from supposedly one of the poorest nations in the world to the richest will affect the global economy, especially given Wakanda’s own market-averse policies.

In the United States, an emergent migration crisis has prompted a strong response from both Wakandan and U.S. officials. The newly expanded Wakandan Embassy has been besieged by prospective immigrants, the vast majority African-American, while tens of thousands more have written letters requesting asylum. Applicants argue that they are subject to continual persecution in the United States, that their lives are at risk from official violence, and that Wakanda owes a moral duty to provide asylum after its centuries of willfully ignoring atrocities in Africa and among the diaspora. Many African Americans have taken to social media to express their newfound allegiance to Wakanda and adopted the cross-arm over chest salute to demonstrate their loyalty to the Wakandan crown. Fox News, meanwhile, has run 24-hour coverage of “The Wakandan Threat.”

Newly appointed Ambassador Nakia of Wakanda’s River Tribe stressed that the country has not opened its borders to outside visitors but urged a visit to their outreach centers. “If you want to experience Wakanda first-hand, the Oakland, California, center will be complete by the end of this month; and we have four other centers that will be completed soon in Salvador, Brazil; Wollongong, Australia; and Al-Fashir, Sudan.

“These centers will be hubs of creativity and innovation. Wakandan scientists and scholars will work with the local populations to assist with meeting the needs of the people of those regions,” Nakia said. “Our pioneering nutritional program in Oakland has already achieved startling results. We expect to expand our outreach centers to 20 more cities in the coming years.”

In Europe, the revelations about Wakanda have been met with disbelief. German Minister of Economics and Energy Erik Lehnsherr stated that during a trip to assess climate change impact in the continent, he was escorted by the “Border Tribe” members in their purple robes to various small villages and marketplaces. “They were mostly herders, and their way of life seemed simple. Where is this great city of Birnin Zana, the Golden City, of which they speak? Behind a rhino?” he quipped.

On returning from an initial visit to Wakanda organized by T’Challa — beginning with a 20-minute trip from Vienna to the African capital, of which T’Challa noted, “We took the scenic route” — Jamaican Observer reporter Joseph Clifton spoke of the country’s technology as “beyond science fiction.” “They let us use these beaded bracelets to communicate with our family. They can interact with any surface — including clothing, food, and plants. Everything. The Kimoyo bead even detected that my white blood cells were effectively killing a virus and asked if I wanted nanobots to assist.”

Kamala Khan, an Urdu translator attached to the U.N., was particularly impressed with Wakandan diversity and linguistic flexibility “Many of them already speak at least six languages. Also, the Wakandan people are very concerned about the state of the world — and, while they have immense resources in Wakanda, they remain wary of how private interests could use vibranium technology to further their agendas over the public good.”

T’Challa’s follow-up speeches at the U.N. have spurred African leaders to hold an emergency African Union meeting on the role the new Wakanda would assume in relation to its neighbors, and the rest of the continent. Some African leaders have expressed anger over the era of Wakandan secrecy, claiming the country turned its back on the plight of its neighbors. Others are applauding its isolationist policies.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the most outspoken African leaders, noting, “The shift of power relations will center on Africa instead of Western powers.” There have been rumors that African nations will break ties with former colonial powers and turn to Wakanda for aid instead, while the history of covert Wakandan assistance to South Africa’s ANC during the apartheid era has already aroused controversy.

Ultimately, the world is asking what the implications of this development are for the global future. What does it mean when an African nation sets the political and technological agenda for the world?

Funding for this piece was provided in part by the Institute for April Foolery.

Wakandan citizens prepare for the influx of new arrivals. (Marvel Studios)


The above is fiction, but the aspirations and possibilities Black Panther embodies are real. The film is currently the most accessible example of Afrofuturism we have today; its tie-in with the Marvel Universe links superhero action adventure with an aesthetic that showcases African culture, international power dynamics, and speculative technology. The film has grossed over a billion dollars worldwide and has dispelled the notion that film with a black protagonist and a black cast can’t find success at the box office. It also has had a great impact on the African American community, who have written extensive thought pieces about the impact of a black superhero on the cultural consciousness. Even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, black characters have never before had such swag.

Afrofuturism is primarily thought of as an aesthetic — a vision of flashy clothes, art, and music from the perspective of Africans. But it’s also a new way of looking at both history and the future, one that uses art to explore “what ifs” that reflect upon both the marginalization of African people and on the continent’s vast but often forgotten potential. In the imagined looking-glass world that contains Wakanda, a tech-forward African power that has neither been touched by the destructive forces of colonization, nor has a destabilizing link to Western imperial power, is able to flourish.

To reimagine colonization from the position of the historically colonized is a brave new world of science fiction, at least on the scale of a hit like Black Panther. Scholar Jessica Langer has demonstrated the historical link between science fiction writing and imperialism. The beginning of science fiction writing coincides with an industrial age funded by imperialist resources, and the traditional motif of the resulting stories is a narrative of external — often literally alien — forces taking resources from or colonizing the historical colonizers. Even at the time, authors such as H.G. Wells used this trope to question the morality of colonization itself, with the Martian invaders of The War of the Worlds defeated by the bacteria of Earth in the same way as Europeans were often stymied by African diseases such as malaria. But the genre all too easily descended to tales of justified extermination and heroic settlement.

Recent movies such as Pacific Rim and even The Avengers display similar anxieties at the prospect of invasion and colonization. The sea-monsters of Pacific Rim are a literal biological weapon, one designed to sweep the world clean for their masters in a way that evokes the devastation of native peoples by European diseases. The emotions of being colonized by an extraterrestrial power evokes a sense of fear, a deep sense of species-preservation — and absolutely no sympathy for potential alien overlords. Indeed, in The Avengers, the nuclear destruction of the potential invaders is an unquestioned good. The European and American protagonists of these films represent those who have benefited from imperialism and who do not have to reflect on the cost in blood and horror of their own wealth and stability.

But Afrofuturist scholars have long described how African people have already lived through the alien invasion and have survived as strangers in a strange land. For African people and those whose ancestors were forcibly removed from Africa, “the ships landed long ago,” as cultural theorist Greg Tate has written. “They already laid waste whole societies, abducted and genetically altered swathes of citizenry, imposed without surcease their values.”

Black Panther tells a speculative story for those who already have abduction stories. Instead of asking, What if the aliens come for us? Afrofuturism asks, what if they didn’t? What if the colonization of Africa never happened, or the enslavement of Africans was fiction? These questions, as Alondra Nelson has written, “challenge our historical understanding of contemporary structures and systems” and “allow us to recontextualize the political implications of the past, and view them for their present-day repercussions.”

Although the history of Wakanda is imaginary, the power dynamics found within the film are not unobtainable. Africa is rich in mineral resources that are valuable to our tech-heavy futures — resources that foreign powers currently covet and expropriate. Yet it is also rich in innovative thinking that gets overshadowed by the stereotypes of primitiveness, overpopulation, and despair.

Consider the continent’s telecommunications industry. Africa had long attempted to modernize its telecommunication infrastructures, but wireless technologies have proven far more practical for Africans. Mobile phone usage has increased exponentially in recent years; in some countries such as Senegal and Nigeria, over 80 percent of the population owns a mobile phone, while only a fraction of people have a landline. The pervasiveness of mobile phones has ignited mobile-based industries such as money transfer and sharing economies. Ushahidi, a Kenyan nonprofit tech firm, began when they used their open platform to allow people to share stories of human and citizen rights violations. SafeMotos, a Rwandan motorcycle ride-hailing platform, links passengers with drivers with safe driving records to provide peace of mind on the road. Africans are technologically and culturally progressive in a way that compliments their way of life; they do not need to feel socially, culturally, or politically inferior to the West.

However, the West either diminishes or hides the contribution of African-centered technological thinking. The film and book Hidden Figures described the travails of African American women working at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. A great number of early computer programmers and punch card key operators were African Americans. IBM often advertised in magazines such as Ebony and Jet to garner more workers. Turntables and many other electronic music devices were the invention of Brooklyn DJs, who pieced together record tables and boomboxes to make their sound unique. And African Americans have been writing speculative science fiction and contributing to future-based thought since W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1920 short story, “The Comet.” While there have been many admired pieces of art, music, and fashion that reflect an Afrofuturist aesthetic, there is also a great history of African people designing how all people engage in transforming our present.

When we have an Afrofuturist perspective, we can ask questions that were once unthinkable: What if the most progressive countries in the world were not former or current imperialist nations? How would the world be different if an African country were the model of ideal nationhood? What if we constructed the future with Africa in mind? This is where we can reclaim African power, and make it fact instead of fiction.

Jennifer Williams is an assistant professor of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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