No, I’m not talking about Wauconda, the Illinois town whose switchboard recently has lit up with prank calls seeking the home of comic book hero “Black Panther.”
I’m talking about Wakanda, the fictitious African home of the black superhero which takes on a special importance of its own.
As a lifelong black science fiction nerd, I am delighted to see my long-imagined idea of an Afro-future come to life in the new Marvel-Disney movie “Black Panther.”
Imagine the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
Imagine Wakanda’s mechanical marvels of hyperloop rapid transit, maglev (magnetic-elevated) trains snaking through airborne tubes amid hoverbikes and spaceships shaped like dragonflies.
Imagine that it is tucked away, hidden with the help of technology, and resourced by a heavily protected stockpile of vibranium, a metal that is strong enough to blow back with more energy than whatever hits it.
You don’t have to imagine much of that if you’ve seen even the previews for “Black Panther” — and most viewers appear to like it, judging by its record-breaking global box office release.
The almost entirely black-cast film broke through the $700 million mark in its second weekend of worldwide box office sales — and appears headed like a laser to the exclusive $1 billion club of Hollywood blockbusters.
So let’s just bury that notion that movies by and about black characters don’t sell.
Yet all is not rosy either. Fifty years ago a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson after dozens of riots erupted nationwide concluded that our nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
A 50-year follow up report, “Healing Our Divided Society,” acknowledges progress in closing economic, social and political gaps between racial groups — including economic growth and the election and re-election of an African-American president.
Yet, alas, we still have a ways to go in trying to bridge remaining socioeconomic caps in our society. At this point, as we ponder what the report will look like 50 years from now, it seems to be altogether fitting and proper that Africans throughout the diaspora are taking this moment to stretch our imaginations to our future Wakandas.
Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Johns Hopkins University historian Nathan Connolly likens the film’s setting to maroon settlements — colonies formed in the Americas by escaped slaves and indigenous peoples. To Connolly, Wakanda is a “glittering, cinematic maroon colony to which, for a few hours at least, we can all escape.”
Indeed, it is ironic that “Black Panther” began as “The Sensational Black Panther” in 1966 by Marvel masters Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. When the Black Panther Party emerged that same year with a similar emblem, Marvel changed their Black Panther. But now he has been brought back with such current black writers as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxanne Gay.
Connolly traces the scenes and spirit of Wakanda back to earlier maroon societies like Haiti, after it broke away from France — and touched off a war of sorts with alarmed slaveholders in the nearby United States. “Black utopias are nothing new,” Connolly writes.
In that broader historical context we should not be surprised that black Americans and others throughout the diaspora reach to Wakanda as a stand-in for the civilization that we have been unable to achieve in real-life, as much as many of us are still working on it.
This is not a dialogue limited to blacks only. The conservative National Review’s Jim Geraghty enjoyed the movie but offers a cautionary note about utopian thinking. “Wakanda can’t exist, not owning to any inherent flaw in Africans but because of the inherent flaws of human beings,” he writes.
“Every human society involves trade-offs. … In theory you can avoid wealth disparity through socialism, but collectivism destroys the incentives to create, innovate and work hard, and a corrupt few inevitably rise to the top, creating new wealth disparities. People have to choose what values they prioritize in their nation.”
Indeed we must. But every vision begins with some imagination. Wakanda, I suspect, gives us a vision of paradise that has ancient roots. But it also echoes in today’s social arguments. The two principal male stars offer a leadership choice similar to that offered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, among other leaders of the past.
At that level, Wakanda offers not a “promised land” as much as a place to get to work and rebuild the sense of community and productivity that can build a new history, better than the one that colonialism and slavery hijacked in our real world.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.